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The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs

Josephine Metcalf

Publication Year: 2012

The publication of Sanyika Shakur's Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member in 1993 generated a huge amount of excitement in literary circles--New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani deemed it a "shocking and galvanic book"--and set off a new publishing trend of gang memoirs in the 1990s. The memoirs showcased tales of violent confrontation and territorial belonging but also offered many of the first journalistic and autobiographical accounts of the much-mythologized gang subculture.

In The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs, Josephine Metcalf focuses on three of these memoirs--Shakur's Monster; Luis J. Rodriguez's Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.; and Stanley "Tookie" Williams's Blue Rage, Black Redemption--as key representatives of the gang autobiography. Metcalf examines the conflict among violence, thrilling sensationalism, and the authorial desire to instruct and warn competing within these works. The narrative arcs of the memoirs themselves rest on the process of conversion from brutal, young gang bangers to nonviolent, enlightened citizens.

Metcalf analyzes the emergence, production, marketing, and reception of gang memoirs. Through interviews with Rodriguez, Shakur, and Barbara Cottman Becnel (Williams's editor), Metcalf reveals both the writing and publishing processes. This book analyzes key narrative conventions, specifically how diction, dialogue, and narrative arcs shape the works. The book also explores how the memoirs are consumed. This interdisciplinary study--fusing literary criticism, sociology, ethnography, reader-response study, and editorial theory--brings scholarly attention to a popular, much-discussed, but understudied modern expression.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Thank you to Brian Ward and Ian Scott for invaluable feedback and scholarly direction and above all to Eithne Quinn for tirelessly and patiently reading and rereading while inspiring me with her way of thinking; her incredible ideas and imagination underpin this book. Deep appreciation also to Jonathan Munby...

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Books Making a Killing: An Introduction

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pp. 3-18

The publication of Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur in the summer of 1993 generated a huge amount of excitement in literary circles.1 Michiko Kakutani, who has a fierce reputation as a book reviewer for the New York Times, deemed it a “startling and galvanic book,” highlighting Shakur’s...

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Chapter One: From Rage to Rap and Prison to Print: Social, Cultural, and Commercial Contexts of Emergence

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pp. 19-42

One of the objectives of this book is to position gang memoirs within prevailing gangsta culture. To do so requires an exploratory chapter into how LA gang experiences and cultural practices came to be narrativized and sold in popular form. This chapter will highlight the complex processes at work in the...

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Chapter Two: Homeboys Between Hard Covers: Scholarly Approaches to the Study of Gang Memoirs

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pp. 43-66

This book will examine the emergence of these memoirs as a popular cultural phenomenon and a commercial production trend while also considering their complex textual politics in terms of both theme and form.1 Furthermore, I intend to explore how gang memoirs are constructed in the media and interpreted by...

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Chapter Three: Killer Books: The Representations and Politics of Violence in Gang Memoirs

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pp. 67-96

Violent behavior is an integral characteristic of contemporary street gangs, as has been regularly illustrated across different forms of gangsta popular culture. Graphic and shocking acts of violence are routine in, and expected of, both gangsta rap and ghetto action films. Cultural scholars have explored at length...

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Chapter Four: Brothers Who Could Kill with Words: Language, Literacy, and the Quest for Education in Gang Memoirs

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pp. 97-122

Gangsta rap and ghetto films both savor graphic and aggressive imagery. Film scholar Jonathan Munby describes the ghetto action movie cycle as “uncompromisingly violent,” contending that these films “struggled to provide a positive message about the fate of America’s black urban communities.” 1 Violence is certainly...

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Chapter Five: Murderer, Monster, Novelist, or Nobel Nominee?: Press Reception and Media Constructions of Gang Memoirs

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pp. 123-148

Having addressed the contexts of the memoirs, reasons for their emergence, and their textual features, this research now seeks to understand how these popular narratives have been interpreted by commentators. How and why did the media impose discourses on the memoirs? As reception studies scholar Janet...

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Chapter Six: Quick Reads for Reluctant Readers: Consuming Gang Memoirs

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pp. 149-178

Though “exclusive” reading practices of journalists and reviewers are vital when considering the production of meaning of these memoirs, of equal significance are “everyday” readers. As chapter 1 detailed, the readership of these texts is very broad. The readers I will primarily focus on in this chapter are low-income, LA...

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Conclusions: Still Running

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pp. 179-188

The relationship between violence and pedagogy is the central theme under scrutiny in this study of gang memoirs. The books incorporate aggressive imagery and are commercially profitable partly because of the gangsta propensity for violence. But these memoirs have demonstrated that gangsta violence is not...


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pp. 189-222


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pp. 223-236

Index and Image Plates

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pp. 237-245

E-ISBN-13: 9781617032820
E-ISBN-10: 1617032816
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617032813

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2012