The Coldest Winter Ever
by Sister Souljah
Pocket Books
$23, 337 pp.

It seems only yesterday that a fast-talking little imp named Sister Souljah (aka Lisa Williamson) was raising the hackles of talk show audiences across the land. Fronting herself as a bringer of bad tidings from the inner city, Souljah baited whites with openly hostile rhetoric that stopped just short of Farrakhan’s notorious yammering. Alas, the novelty wore off quickly and she disappeared back into the wilds of hip hop.

Now after almost a decade, she’s back, this time eschewing music for the more ambitious medium of the novel. As one might expect from a first outing, the results are mixed if not interesting.

The narration belongs to Winter, the heads-up teenage daughter of Ricky Santiaga, a big-time drug dealer. When puberty comes calling with a 34D bust and bubble booty, she’s ready to convert short skirts into long dollars, courtesy of all the neighborhood dogs sniffing around her. Embracing a "play or be played" philosophy, Winter embarks on a crusade to find a brother who can measure up to her Pops in every department above and below the belt.

They come, they go, they come again, if and only if she’s down with them. Thus, the sex scenes come off less as passion plays than business meetings — tasty pussy for you, Chanel suit for me. Thankfully, the writing is as black and down as Winter’s dream man and, when things get hot, they flame.

But as much as Williamson wants to flaunt her street cred, she just can’t help showing off some of the moves she picked up at Rutgers where she studied before rapping. She has Winter attend a hip-hop festival, sponsored by none other than Sister Souljah, who "came out the side of the stage wearing some shit she mixed and matched from the Macy’s clearance rack. People clapped for her. How is this bitch supposed to help the community when she don’t even know how to rock her shit? I checked her arm, no Rolex, not even a Timex, nothing. No weight on her neck, nothing. Her hairdo was phat but that don’t mean nothing when you don’t know how to accessorize."

As it turns out, Souljah becomes a major character, taking a reluctant Winter into her "crisis center" when things don’t work out with the brothers. Souljah is all about the community, while Winter is all about the Cristal.

This sort of self-reflexive nonsense could get tired lickety-split were it not for the good will that the author continually elicits from the reader. I mean, what’s a sista to do? Forsake the books for Bally her entire life? Williamson is clearly conflicted between staying "real" to the ghetto experience and individual self-realization. And she’s not afraid to rub our noses in it.

Williamson’s triumph is to flesh out the fronting without glamorizing it, à la Black Entertainment Television, or prettying it up in middle-class pastels à la Terry McMillan. Instead of preaching empowerment over nihilism outright, she leaves the reader to connect the rather obvious dots.

In one telling episode, Winter finds herself at the mansion of a heavy-hitting player called GS. After a many-splendored night that would be the pride of any hip-hop video, Winter wakes up to find her swain gone and the house feeling less than glamorous. Moments later, a casting director demands that she leave as the mansion is rented for — you guessed it — a hip-hop video shoot!

Who will read this book? Are whites still Souljah’s target, as it were? Her autobiography-cum-manifesto, No Disrespect (1994), is now a staple of Black Studies, and perhaps this book too will make the list as essential 411 reading.

Here’s hoping for hope.

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