The book must have been pretty good if I’ve returned to blog about it. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to reading it, but when you have a paper to write, what are your choices? Initially, my mind wasn’t able to expand wide enough to consider what Black Artemis could possibly do with one character’s infatuation with Tupac for an entire novel. Second, while I’m not one of those people who believes that ghetto/urban/hip-hop/street fiction is below me—or not real literature, I will admit that I don’t read it. I’ve read Goines and Sister Souljah. Enjoyed their works. Then there are the other authors/titles which I won’t mention because they don’t necessarily represent my “literary taste.” Anyway, I know I haven’t done one of my formated book reviews (meaning you aren’t going to get a long detailed analysis here) in sometime and I figured Picture Me Rollin’ is worthy enough . . . so here we go.

Writing Picture Me Rollin’‘ has changed me in profound ways. It was such a challenge to write on so many levels. I found myself raising questions on issues on which I had yet to formulate my own opinion. It was in the process of writing this book that I grappled with my own views and feelings about some things. There was a point where I had lost compassion for people engaged in street life, because I felt that in hip-hop circles our social and political understanding of what crime is and why people participate in it gradually turned into excuses for self-destructive behavior. Then it went as far as saying that selling drugs or pimping women was some kind of political act of resistance! I became so outraged by this that I eventually adopted a “we vs. them” stance, sounding just like other pundits who slam hip hop unilaterally when their “understanding” of it is one of selective ignorance. Through the process of writing Picture Me Rollin’, I rediscovered my compassion especially when I had to write male characters like Jesus, Xavier and even Officer Puente. In fact, I learned that I can maintain compassion for others who make choices I would not even as I stay true to my own values and beliefs. Picture Me Rollini is about–among other things–transcending one’s contradictions. — “Readers Guide: A Conversation with Black Artemis”

Black Artemis/Sofia Quintero’s Bio: Sofia Quintero is the author several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican/Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed Ivy League homegirl earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university’s School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue a career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ ,and Burn. Sofi­a is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the chic lit anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions, a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for multicultural audiences. Sofi­a is presently working on her first young adult novel Efrain’s Secret which will be published by Knopf in 2009.

Book: Picture Me Rollin’
Publisher: New American Library
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 302

Opening Lines (Chapter One): Tupac growled through the speakers, and the accompanying bass shook the portable stereo and threatened to hurl the jagged pile of books that sat on top of it. Esperanza finished darkening her eyebrows into a sinister arch, then dropped her pencil to join Tupac in his defiant acceptance of judgment. Or send me to hell ’cause I ain’t beggin’ for my life/Ain’t nothing worse than this cursed-ass hopeless life/’Cause I’m troublesome. From her memories of countless videos, Esperanza channeled Pac, lowering her voice into a masculine rumble and jabbing her fingers in the air in West Side formation. Just as she prepared to spew the next verse, the disk halted.

Purpose for Reading: Um . . . while this isn’t a book that I would have selected for myself, it was a Black Postmodernism course requirement. This book was very different from the other texts we’ve read this semester and I’m debating on what exactly makes the novel postmodern. I mean, I can identify a few things, but I’m willing to argue that this book doesn’t belong in that category—not on this blog though.

Cover art: I don’t have any issues with this cover, although I didn’t imagine the main character to look like the chick featured—but again, I have no issues with the cover. It works for me. I wish I could evaluate a few other versions (hardcover, international, etc.), but I’m not complaining. The cover relates to the text, unlike previous books reviewed here.

Book Overview: Esperanza (Espe) Cepeda just completed a year-long sentence for her involvement in a check-cashing store robbery. While the police were only able to charge her with gun possession, her claim to glory is the fact that she didn’t turn in the rest of her all-male “crew.” Upon returning home to the Bronx, all Espe wants is her monetary dues and a chance to move on with her life. With three transformed women in her corner, including her older sister Dulce, former cellmate Debra/Isoke, and GED language arts teacher Maite Rodriguez, there is hope for change. These three female characters offer Espe the knowledge that she needs through their own life experience and feminist literature by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and even a fictional text written by Maite herself.

Espe’s parole requires her to do the obvious things. One, stay away from her ex-boyfriend Jesus and his crew of street urchin (Xavier, Fedi, and Chuck). Two, get a job. Three, avoid ex-convicts. With the guidance of Dulce she pursues her GED and even finds a job at McDonald’s. But of course, she deals with conflict at every turn. It seems impossible for Espe to avoid the call of Jesus—his sex appeal and offerings of illegal tender. Then she has to figure out the best approach to dealing with Jesus’ new lover, Priscella. And what 25 year old can happily work at McDonald’s and deal with all the mess that comes with that? Somehow Espe must triumph by learning to love herself and moving beyond the elements of self-destruction. Oh, and there’s a bunch of Tupac lyrics in there too. 🙂

Positives: Certainly Espe’s infatuation with Tupac is at the core of the novel, but it doesn’t make the novel, in my opinion. So maybe this is where I missed the point, right? The Tupac elements are not overdone. There’s an opportunity to explore the rapper’s contradictions, but there is also a chance to understand ideas of how, as Black Artemis notes, “one can be revolutionary but gangsta.” As is the custom for me in grad school (yeah, yeah, pardon the grammatical errors and all that), I read this book in about a day. As a reader, my driving force was whether Espe would escape Jesus. Would she be weak enough to allow him to verbally/physically abuse her again (whether minimal or not)? Would she earn her GED? Would she leave her former New York life behind for something better? I also loved the female characters in this novel. Even Jesus’s new lover (read flunky) Priscella reaches her breaking point and is able to transform. I also enjoyed how everything was revealed . . . eventually. No information was offered up front, but just when you needed it or forgot about it even, the flashbacks began. I loved the ending. This book was well plotted and just overall well developed. Bravo.

Negatives: Just when I thought the author forgot about Tupac, he would crop up again. A few times I wondered how the same novel could be achieved without Tupac, but I do believe that he was necessary to the text and definitely not overdone or glorified to any extent. I don’t have any negatives really. Every page was important to the story’s development, so there was no need to ever skip sentences, paragraphs, or pages.

Notable Excerpt: Unfortunately, the most memorable part of the novel (the climax) came at the end. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, so I’ve selected a portion from the beginning. In this scene Esperanza meets her parole officer Conrado Puente for the first time.

“Even if I couldn’t find a job—“

“I don’t want to hear if. You can always find a job. I don’t care what it is. I don’t even care if you get paid. You find something to do with your time during the week besides hanging out with Jesus Lara or anyone in his crew.”

“Like I was saying, I’m not trying to hang out with Jesus and them regardless.”

“Then why did you go to that party at his apartment last weekend?”

Esperanza swallowed hard. For someone who resented the increase in his workload, he had gotten in her grille pretty deep, real fast. “No disrespect, Officer Puente, but can I ask you something?” He remained quiet, and she took that as permission to proceed. “Where’d you grow up?”

“In the Bronx, just like you.” His voice assumed a number of excuses. Puente thought Esperanza expected him to say that he grew up in a nice neighborhood so she could complain how easy for him to say that she, too, could be a law-abiding civil servant like himself. “In Soundview,” he continued, thumping his chest. “I grew up on Watson Avenue between Boynton and Elder.”

“Mad rough over there,” Esperanza conceded.

“Damn right, it is. And you know what?” Officer Puente tapped his desk with a pudgy index finger. “When I was growing up, it was a whole lot worse. During the eighties right in the middle of the crack epidemic. You wouldn’t believe the shit I walked through every day on those two blocks to and from Monroe High School.” He added that tidbits to tell Esperanza, I went to a public high school, too, and now I got a good job with the city, so don’t give me any shit about the school system failing you, either.

“Then you know exactly what I’m going through,” said Esperanza. “You know from experience that the worst thing you can do besides run with the wrong crow is act like you’re too good to run with them, ’cause that’s when they really fu—I mean, mess with you. You don’t want to hang with them, but if you’re not cool with them, they start feeling like they need to take you down a notch or two. So you say, ‘What’s up?’ when you see ’em on the street. You parley with them on the stoop every once in a while. Offer them a cigarette or maybe even ask to cop one just so they won’t think you’re turning up your nose at them and decide to vic you.”

She wanted to add that it was harder when you were girl. You had to thank muthafuckas who made nasty comments about your body when you walked by, like that was the deference you owed for walking on their streets. You had to regard dudes you played Spin the Bottle with when you were twelve like you actually fucked them last week, ‘less they dirty your name for not giving them play. And sometimes it got so bad, you had to get with the baddest one of all, thinking he might keep the others at bay. That it’d be easier to deal with a single muthafucka behind closed doors than to manage a bunch of them on the street. That his initial sense of ownership might eventually grow into some kind of genuine love for you and yorus for him, which might actually compel him to protect you against that shit, if not take you away from it altogether. Esperanza wanted to say all this to Officer Puente, but something told her that she would lose him if he could not—or more likely would not—sympathize with her circumstances.

Officer Puente gazed at Esperanza for a moment, then said, “I know it’s hard to avoid your old crew because you live in the same neighborhood. So in addition to getting your diploma and finding a job, you seriously need to consider saving some money and moving the hell out of there. I can’t hold it against you if you run into someone from time to time and have to make nice. But beyond that don’t let me find out that you’re fraternizing with Jesus Lara. Or with Xavier Bennett or Charles Whitley, for that matter, either.”

Other Publishings by Black Artemis/Sophia Quintero (click the covers):

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. This book was well worth the read and I definitely recommend it.

Happy reading ya’ll.