The qoute is from an article in PhiladelphiaWeekly.com, with Solomon Jones, 44, and Karen E. Quinones Miller, 54, who have much in common. Both were newspaper journalists in this town—Miller at the Inquirer, Jones at the (and, previously, here at PW ). Both attended Temple and later taught there. Both are now Essence-bestselling authors, with new novels out this month. And both are lucky to be alive.
Miller grew up in, where she earned her respect on streets that gave it grudgingly. Jones grew up in , where the struggle for survival was seemingly never-ending. The two learned strikingly similar lessons—among them, that adversity can always be overcome, if one has the will to fight.
That common realization would come in handy.
For Jones, it was a lesson that would redeem him after his struggle with drugs and homelessness in the 1990s. For Miller, it would help her battle through a brain tumor in 2005. For both, their respective determination to rise above their circumstances led to prolific writing careers here in, followed by acclaim from readers across the country.
Miller’s provocatively titled An Angry-Ass Black Woman (subtitle: “A Novel Based on True Life—Her Life”), published by imprint Karen Hunter Books, has been making waves since Oct. 2; The Dead Man’s Wife, the latest in Jones’ Detective Mike Coletti series, arrived in bookstores just last week. Days before their joint book-signing and reading at the Free Library on Nov. 1, Miller and Jones sat down to talk to each other about their lives, their books and the amazing journeys that shaped two of Philadelphia’s most distinctive storytelling voices.
Solomon Jones: I still remember when we met over 10 years ago. You were protesting the closing of a black bookstore in the Gallery at Market East, and you reached out to me to join the effort. I guess you could say you were an angry-ass black woman even then. Which leads me to my first question: You’ve been connected to stories and causes in Philadelphia for so long. Why do you set all your books in Harlem?
Karen Quinones Miller: Because Harlem is always in my heart. That’s how I identify myself. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 25 years now, but when I’m out of town and people ask where I’m from, I always say “I’m from Harlem, but I live in Philadelphia now.” I love Philadelphia, but I’ve never quite understood it. I don’t quite get it. In Harlem, everybody is real, and that’s not to say Philadelphia isn’t, but in Harlem, everybody is real, and they’re very raw, and I don’t find that in Philly. Not to the extent that Harlemites are. A lot of times in Philadelphia, when I’m arguing with someone, I have to figure out what they’re really saying.
SJ: What do you mean?
KQM: In Harlem, a lot of the fights are over respect, not about material things. So in Harlem, if someone ripped off your chain, and you had a chance to get back at them, it’s not to get the chain back. It’s because they disrespected you. In Philadelphia, they want that chain back.
SJ: …What’s changed about Harlem since you left?
KQM: When I grew up, Harlem was something like 95 percent black and Puerto Rican. It’s much more culturally diverse now. And while diversity is a good thing, that diversity—through gentrification—has destroyed the Harlem that I knew. I believe a strong community is one where children live with their parents and, when they grow up, move out, but move to a place within that same community. Like South Philadelphia, Harlem was a place where generations of families lived. But people can’t do that in Harlem now because when people move out of their parents homes, they can’t afford to move into that same community because along with gentrification came such high real-estate prices that native Harlemites can’t afford to purchase, so the younger generation is being forced out. To me, it’s the demise of Harlem as I knew it. The culture is quickly changing, and soon the old culture will have completely disappeared. But I want people to know about the Harlem in which I grew up, so I write about it. It’s my way of preserving the memories—both good and bad.
SJ: Tell me about your first book.
KQM: My first book was Satin Doll. I couldn’t find a publisher or even an agent because they felt that Satin Doll was a little bit grittier than those “sister girl” books that everyone was writing at the time, with three or four women looking for men and going through relationship problems. Satin Doll wasn’t like that. It was about four women who grew up in the streets trying to find not just love, but themselves. And back then, in 1999, most of the “sister girl” books were about middle-class women. Satin Doll was about women who grew up poor in Harlem and didn’t necessarily have the cleanest type of backgrounds. The main character, for instance, had dropped out in eighth grade, ran the streets, ran into major trouble and went on to get a degree in journalism at Temple, like me.
SJ: So you self-published. But how were you able to do it? Self-publishing was a lot more expensive than it is now.
KQM: I took out a loan from the credit union, used my daughter’s college-fund money and borrowed money from my brother, Joe Quinones, the only one in my family who ever seemed to have money. I purchased 3,000 books and had no idea how to sell them. I had never sold anything in my life, and when I look back now, that lack of experience was a good thing. Marketing class would have told me how to sell 3,000 books in a year, which was my goal. But because I didn’t know how to go selling 3,000 books in a year, I got my hustle on, and when I turned around, I had sold 3,000 books in six weeks. I put fliers up all over the city. I gave out postcards on street corners and used all the techniques in the street to sell and promote my book. I learned a lot of bad habits in Harlem, but some of them came in handy. If you can hustle drugs, you can hustle books. If you know how to hustle, then you know how to get your hustle on, whether it’s gold chains or socks or books on the street.
We’ve talked about how both of our debut novels paralleled our lives, but what about your subsequent novels? You’ve written about drug addiction. You’ve written murder mysteries. You’ve written detective stories. Tell me, how do you come up with your story ideas?
SJ: What about you? You’ve written six novels since Satin Doll, and they’ve been about a few different subjects. How do you think your writing has changed over the years?
KQM: I think my writing has matured. Satin Doll will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, largely because it was my first book that not only mirrored my life; it also really changed my life. But as I have gotten older, I see life a little differently. I see my life with different eyes and see other people’s lives through more mature eyes. Every book I’ve written has been around a character who mirrors me. I’m not just someone who grew up in Harlem, not just someone who’s a single mom, not just someone who grew up poor, and not just someone who struggled to change my life. I’m all of that and much more. And so all of my characters have different aspects of my personality. There’s the selfish me, the mature me, the generous me and plenty of other me’s. I write about each of them at different times. In the beginning of my writing career, I think I was stuck at writing about what was affecting me at the time.
It took a long time before I could get to the point where I could write a book like An Angry-Ass Black Woman. In this book, I’m telling the true story of my life, and I’m not hiding behind a character. Because when you’re hiding behind a character and people ask, “How much of this is you?” you can say whatever you want. It took a brain tumor and the threat of death for me to be able to write the true story of my life. An Angry-Ass Black Woman is about me growing up in Harlem during the ’60s and ‘70s—all of the hard times and the good. A father going in and out of psychiatric hospitals. A mother trying to make it the best way she could for her. Growing up amongst predators and fighting not to become a victim, you know? I tell it with a little bit of bitterness, but also with a lot of humor. Because though we had hard times, we also had fun and got into a helluva lot of trouble. It’s almost like a female version of Manchild in the Promised Land….
The story has been edited for Harlem World Magazine. Read the entire the story here.
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