THE STREET by Ann Petry (Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club) June 2014

Please join Justine Larbalestier and myself today, and any day, in discussing women’s bestselling fiction from the 20th century, our ongoing 2014 project.

From the Houghton Mifflin 1991 edition:

THE STREET tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.

As always, this post is strung together from our email exchanges.


JL: I’m finding The Street extraordinary. After really struggling to get into it—that opening—if I were the editor I totally would have cut it. But it’s so depressing and that’s slowed me getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for Lutie and her son, Bub but I really don’t think they’re going to.getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for her and her kid . . .

KE: I also found The Street extraordinary, with powerful writing and stark, effective characterization but OMG SO DEPRESSING. And yet that it is hard to read is the whole point. Oh, and I disagree with you about the opening. It drew me in as it set the stage.

JL: Usually I avoid depressing books. The Street is the most matter of fact writing about sexual harassment and sexual predation I’ve read from that period. I was really stunned by it. I see people tweeting similar things every day. But Petry was writing this in the 1940s. I wanted to hug her. Her book is such a refreshing change from the whiter-than-white books we’ve been reading to see race not just discussed but there on every single page.

It’s also the most explicitly angry of the novels we’ve read. Such rage. Such justified rage. What I love though is that the reader understands even the vilest characters, like the nightclub dude, Boots Smith, and the Supe and the madame, Mrs Hedges. The most terrifying, vile presence for me was the omnipresent white guy, Junto, who was so creepy so awful so powerful. I felt unclean every time he was mentioned. Yet, he was rarely in any scenes, rarely said anything yet he controlled everything. He was like the living embodiment of white supremacy.

KE: One of my preconceptions that has been blown apart by reading these novels has been that no one talked about sex in any way shape or form, and I wonder why I had that preconception: Perhaps because of tv and film’s more stringent code? I’m not sure. All the books have dealt with sexual misconduct, sexual taboos, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, and I agree with you that Petry really displays how ugly sexual predation is for the women who are preyed upon and doubly so for Lutie because she is a black woman. It’s relentless. Again, I’m amazed this was published in 1946. But that says much more about my preconceptions than anything else.

JL: Maybe I’ve read more from the period but I was not as surprised as you. However, I found it unbelieveably refreshing to see so many things: misogny, racism, sexism, up front and central on the page. No hinting, no pussy footing around, The Street made me realise what had been driving me crazy about the previous books we’ve read for this bookclub. Those white women are so blind to their own oppression and to the way they oppress others.

KE: Yes — it’s so stark and right there on the page. What is most striking to me is how it shows up the other three books we’ve so far read as . . . I don’t know . . . as glib. I love Valley of the Dolls, but somehow all the difficult issues get coated in a sheen of breathless entertainment. Petry never goes for that; she doesn’t see people’s misery and tragedy as entertainment. She makes the reader look at the devastation racism and sexism wreak in people’s lives. There’s nothing actually “entertaining” about it.

JL: Yes, The Street wasn’t entertaining. It made me realise how rarely I read books like this. I veer away from unrelenting, painful reads.

KE: Yes, me too. Then I felt ashamed for veering. In all honesty when I read about unrelenting and painful things I read non-fiction. Somehow in fiction — perhaps because the writer is really drawing you in emotionally using (perhaps) different techniques from non fiction — it gets so very raw, and Petry really really makes this raw. She does not let the reader look away or gloss over anything.

JL: You’re so right about non-fiction. This kind of bleakness, of genuine dystopia, is, for me, more what I read in non-fiction and mostly avoid in fiction. It’s not about happy/not happy ending. Pretty much none of the books we’ve read have had happy endings. But none of them have been so grim and unrelenting as this book. As you say, they’ve all been shiny and safe, by which I mean not too confronting.

Implicit in everything we’re saying is that our lives are not this bleak. Reading The Street sometimes I felt like a voyeur, like I shouldn’t be reading this book. It was not intended for me. Whereas all the other books we’ve been reading are squarely aimed at white middle-class women like myself.

I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for an African-American woman to be reading it when it came out in the late 40s. I’ve been poking around online trying to find out more about the reception at the time and not turning up much. But it must have been tremendous for it to have sold more than a million copies and for The Street to still be in print today.

I’m not going to lie, this book made me weep on several occasions, and the ending is absolutely devastating. It’s been days now since I finished and I still can’t bring myself to pick up another novel.

KE: Yes, to all this. I should also say that the fact I never read this novel or heard of it until this year says everything about how literature written by African-Americans has been placed into a separate category rather than being part of American Literature where it belongs because it IS fully part of the American experience that everyone should know.

As I was reading–and it is a difficult, emotionally harrowing read–I would sometimes reflect on conversations within SFF about “grimdark” and realism, and I can’t help but compare the glib violence of supposed grimdark realism with The Street, which is as real as it gets.

The way Petry peels away Lutie’s efforts to build a decent life for herself, the slow steady way the story erodes her hope, is devastating. I keep coming back to that scene where a man is lying dead on the sidewalk (and the detail Petry goes into just describing his shoes and what his shoes say about his life!) and the police bring a girl forward to identify him (the “burly Negro” episode where the journalist describes a starvingly thin man as a “burly Negro” in his story).

Lutie didn’t look at the man’s face. Instead she looked at the girl and she saw something–some emotion that she couldn’t name–flicker in the girl’s face. It was as thought for a fraction of a second something–hate or sorrow or surprise–had moved inside her and been reflected on her face. As quickly as it came, it was gone and it was replaced by a look of resignation, or complete acceptance. It was an expression that said the girl hoped for no more than this from life because other things that had happened to her had paved the way so that she had lost the ability to protest against anything–even death suddenly like this in the spring.

This is what good writing does: it encapsulate truth in a paragraph. This entire novel is the paving of that way for Lutie.

JL: Yes. That’s a perfect moment of oh so many in this book. Petry is a great writer. And a stark reminder to those of who are not African American that what happened to Trayvon Martin, had happened many, many times before: a slight black boy turned into a burly monster by the lies of the police and the media and the result is that a white man gets away with murder.

Having recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant essay on reparations it’s really not hard to see all of that playing out in Petry’s brilliant book.

KE: For me it was Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North across the 20th century, that really brought it home, and I agree that Petry unflinchingly describes the systemic injustice.

JL: Yes, and Wilkerson’s book was a huge influence on Coates. I couldn’t help thinking also about Slavery By Another Name. Basically about everything I’ve ever read about systemic racism in the USA after the abolition of slavery.

KE: Yes, Slavery By Another Name is another important example, and I would recommend everyone read these books.

KE: Petry spends time in many different heads, not just Lutie. We see Bub, the Super, Min, and so on, and even with an awful man like the Supe I feel she genuinely does him justice so you can see the humanity in him even as you hate him. His thought processes make sense, and they feel real. She reaches out so that the reader can see more fully “the street” that Lutie has to walk down.

JL: Yes, as I said above, she lets us into all of them so we can’t just dismiss them as evil. Because everything that happens to Lutie is not merely about meeting the wrong people, making wrong decisions, it’s about systemic racism, misogyny and sexism and the way the not only destroy her but also everyone around her.

KE: Can we discuss Lutie herself? So heartbreaking, this story. All she wants is to make a decent, independent life. She is a decent, smart, hard-working person. She does everything right but it is denied to her; it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing she could have done to make it work. Her sense of self and her desire to live with dignity are continually assaulted, and yet she works so hard to maintain them.

This is also a classic explication of intersectionality. She gets all the prejudice against being black, all the prejudice against being a woman, and then it is rolled together because she is a black woman and I really felt there was no harbor for her, no place where she could find protection or immunity, as it were.

JL: Lutie also gets the whole shit storm of being a gorgeous black woman, which makes her problems in some ways even worse because she does not have Min’s refuge of invisibility. It marks her as someone Junto wants to turn into a high-earning prostitute who will make him a lot of money but only after he’s had her himself.

After the other bestselling novels we’ve read The Street is like having a bucket of ice cold water thrown in your face. I’d like to make everyone read it. Especially those who believe that racism ended in the USA after 1865.

KE: Or after The Civil Rights Movement. Indeed.

Thank you for joining us, and PLEASE continue the discussion in the comments below.

July’s book: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

Page Proofs Arrive for Court of Fives

Here’s an extremely basic version of how my part in the publishing process works in traditional commercial publishing (not other kinds, like self-publishing, which I don’t have enough expertise to discuss):

I write a book. Maybe I write an entire first draft and then sell it to a publisher or maybe I sell it on proposal and write it after I have a contract. I revise the work some number of times and turn it into my editor.

The editor gives me revision notes, and I revise.

After several revision passes, the manuscript goes to a copy editor who goes over it to make sure there is proper grammar, consistency of usage and nomenclature, and no awkward language, and to check for a character’s eyes changing color from brown to blue and other such random mistakes.

The manuscript gets typeset into the visual form it will have as a book. At this point I get sent first pass page proofs to proof for typos and any final minor line edits. Page proofs for my forthcoming YA fantasy novel arrived this week.

Here is a photo of the title page of COURT OF FIVES, with lovely typography and design.

A photo of the title page of Court of Fives, Book One of The Fives, Kate Elliott. From the page proofs.

I have a full month to proof the text. So far the text has been very clean.

Here’s the first page:


On more step closer to publication, which is (alas) still a ways off: Summer 2015, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

I will have more information about the story and publication details in a later post. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to see my “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” fantasy turning into a book.

Writing Through

I posted this as a sequence of Tweets and wanted to log it here as well.


Finally printed out my 4 single spaced pages of note from 2 hour phone call with my editor. I added these notes to the 20 page edit notes she subsequently emailed me (but which she had already written before she made the phone call).

This is the glamorous writing life, people. An editor who makes you dig and dig and dig is a treasure.

I wrote the bulk of BLACK WOLVES (my new epic fantasy) after my father died last fall because I had to do something. The 1st draft is a mess. In fact, I spent much of the time writing it wondering if I should just dump the whole idea, or dump writing in general. But I couldn’t stop. Stopping would have been like dying. Or like facing grief.

I forced myself through to a 200,000 word first draft because I had to, whether I kept the story or not. Because I knew I couldn’t trust the negativity in my head. I had to get it out regardless of the end result.

When I finally sent it to my editor I didn’t know if she would say, “Um, can we start over?” OR “Okay, let’s dig in.”

She said, “DIG IN.”

Sometimes being told you have work to do is the best gift someone can give you. Because it means the work is worth doing.

Jaran: When “what if” deals with gender and culture

Recent discussions in the SFF community reminded me of this post. It is adapted from the introduction I wrote to the 2002 10th anniversary edition of JARAN, published by DAW Books. It was previously posted on Live Journal in July 2011, before this WordPress blog existed. I’ve made a few minor changes.


Science fiction is often defined as a “literature of ideas,” and many famous SF stories can be identified by the idea, or nifty concept, or “what if” speculation that lies at their heart. Is my sf novel JARAN just a rousing adventure story with a romantic element, or is there some kind of science fictional speculation involved?

Glad you asked. Because I’ve discovered that people usually don’t ask. Too often they seem to just assume there isn’t because nothing in the book (if they’ve even read the book) fits the received and accepted definition of a sfnal “idea.”

What if, in a low-tech, chieftain-level pastoral society in which labor remains divided along a (fairly traditional by Western standards) gender line, women had real authority?

Not lip service authority. Not a lot of talk about women being the repository of honor in the home, or the teachers of the next generation, or the keeper of the house in a way that specifically limits them to the house, or the biologically equipped nurturing machines whose scriptural mandate is to be mother and helpmeet, but real authority: “The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1976)

As authority, that is, held over all members of society and not just over children and social inferiors. And not just some women, those who by birth or accident or exceptionalism have managed to wrest authority for themselves out of a patriarchal society by being “as good as a man,” but all women.

What would such a society look like? How might it function to grant equal dignity to women and men and yet at the same time fit realistically into a broader world and with an understanding of human nature and the needs of survival in a low-tech world with a high mortality rate?

Over the course of envisioning and revising the book, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Am I reinforcing notions of biological determinism by splitting labor along traditional gender lines as the average USA reader knows and expects them to be observed even today but particularly in our view of the past? Yet if I can only write women as “free and powerful” by freeing them from their “traditional” roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience? How can I mediate between these two extremes?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, although I can say that over time I’ve learned how fluid division of labor by gender is from society to society (as well as how fluid conceptualization of gender itself may be and how easy it is to fall into a binary definition of gender).

In terms of division of labor, for instance, in the jaran I made men the ones who embroider, but of course embroidery is not a universal female occupation; most USAians just tend to think it is.

In any case, in JARAN and the other volumes in the sequence I explore what respect and authority mean and how they might interact through and between genders and, by doing so, shape how the culture of the jaran tribes developed in the past and continues to develop when a disruptive new force begins to alter the social fabric of the tribes.

Yet I didn’t want to create a “matriarchy” in which women rule and men submit–an inverted patriarchy. I wanted to explore the idea of a culture in which all adult roles are truly respected. So I started with an assumption: For women to maintain authority, institutions within the culture have to support that authority.

I made the tribes matrilineal, and in addition borrowed from certain Native American traditions in which the right to hold certain offices and to inherit property follow down the female line.

I also made the jaran matrilocal: Under most circumstances, a new husband goes to live with his wife’s tribe. The locus of power within any given tribe centers on extended families of sisters. A woman’s relationship to her brother is considered to be the most stable female-male relationship, based on a shared mother and upbringing, and within extended families, cousins related through sisters or a sister and brother are considered like siblings (however, this is not true for cousins related through brothers).

In addition, women have possession of the tents and wagons, and they manage and distribute food and labor available to the tribe. As with the Haudenosaunee, jaran etsanas (headwomen) have the power to install or depose male tribal war leaders.

These familial, economic, and political relationships give women a network of support as well as a respect and autonomy that reinforces their authority.

Another aspect I played with was the cultural norms of sexual behavior. The hoary old cliché of male sexual aggression contrasted with female sexual passivity is still with us in American society in a multitude of forms. I chose to make jaran women the sexual initiators: They choose lovers at will when unmarried, and are free to continue to (discreetly) take lovers once they are married. However I gave men the choice in marriage. Although in practice almost all men (at the instigation of or with the assistance of their mothers and sisters) would negotiate with the other family first, it would be possible for a man to marry a woman whom he wanted but who did not want him. This contrasting pattern assured that neither sex had complete power over the other. Even in a strongly patriarchal society that is highly restrictive toward women, women will seek avenues of balance and redress when they can, including underhanded ones. History is full of such examples. I wanted to place mine right out on the table.

I catapult my protagonist into this culture without preparing her for it. Since she comes from a future Earth where the dregs of our patriarchal past still hold some sway over her way of thinking, she often has the opportunity to misinterpret what freedom and authority mean among the jaran.

When I look back at the book now, over two decades later, I can see ways in which my own thinking has changed, things I might have written differently but which reflect the era and attitudes with which I grew up and the ways in which my thinking has changed since then.

Ultimately, looking back, I wish that discussing my speculative ideas behind the jaran society weren’t still timely. To quote sff writer N. K. Jemisin in her excellent post on “The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy,” “Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.”

That’s the idea I was trying to explore, back then. We’re still struggling with it now.

Women Destroy SF, Julie Dillon Illustrates, & Publication Updates

The June 2014 issue of Lightspeed Magazine is WOMEN DESTROY SCIENCE FICTION. Read about its genesis here, and you can buy a complete e-version RIGHT NOW or read it for free online across the month of June as all the stories are released day by day.

Of particular interest is that my daughter is one of the contributors, in her first professional sale, for the flash fiction “The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23” (points if you get where the title comes from), and honestly I am SO EXCITED I CANNOT EVEN TELL YOU.

So naturally I heartily recommend the issue to your attention.


Meanwhile, over at A Dribble of Ink, I share some of the fabulous Julie Dillon illustrations that are in The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal, and talk a little bit about the genesis of the project. Mostly because it is Hugo voting season I want to signal boost what a fantastic artist Julie is; she is one of the finalists for the Hugo Award Pro Artist category this year.


Finally, publication news.

Here is the information page for my upcoming collection with Tachyon Publications.

My YA fantasy, COURT OF FIVES, is in production and due for publication in Summer 2015 via Little, Brown Young Readers. There’s a rudimentary goodreads page but no other internet presence so far.

My new epic fantasy, BLACK WOLVES, has a complete draft. After a 2 hour phone call with my perspicacious editor and a 20 page edit letter, I now embark upon a vast raft of revisions so can offer no firm publication date yet but I can confirm it will not be published in 2014. I will update a confirmed date when we have one but I expect that will not be until I have a solid second draft, and I can’t be sure how long revisions will take. This is all good news, though: I want to write and you want to read the very best book I am capable of writing.


Reminder: I am thrilled to be one of the Guests of Honor at Fantasycon 2014 in York, England, 5 – 7 September THIS YEAR and I would love to see you there (it is a small convention and so a venue in which you can expect to actually get to talk to people; I expect lots of great programming and discussion).

I also plan to attend Loncon 3 (Worldcon) in London 14 – 18 August 2014, which looks huge and exciting.

If you attend either or both events, please find me and say hello. I attend conventions to see friends I only see at conventions (and talk endlessly about writing) and to meet new people and chat with readers.