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2. Zaman Minangkabau Timur Istilah ini dipinjam dari istilah yang dikemukakan oleh Drs. M. D. Mansoer dkk, dalam bukunya, Sej

2. Zaman Minangkabau Timur Istilah ini dipinjam dari istilah yang dikemukakan oleh Drs. M. D. Mansoer dkk, dalam bukunya, Sejarah Minangkabau, dikatakannya Minangkabau mengalami dua periode, yaitu periode Minangkabau Timur yang berlangsung antara abad ketujuh sampai kira-kira tahun 1350 dan periode Minangkabau Pagaruyung antara tahun 1347-1809. Dikatakannya, bahwa kerajaan-kerajaan lama, pusat perdagangan lada, pusat perekonomian, politik dan budaya yang pertama timbul dan berkembang di Minangkabau adalah di lembah aliran Batang Hari dan Sungai Dareh. Daerah itu berkembang pada abad ke tujuh sampai pertengahan abad keempat belas. Secara geografis memang pantai timur pulau Sumatera lebih memungkinkan untuk dilayari oleh kapal-kapal dagang yang dapat berlayar sampai masuk jauh kepedalaman. Daerah pantai Sumatera Timur ini pulalah yangdahulu didatangi oleh nenek moyang orang Minangkabau yang berlayar sampai ke daerah Mahat di Kabupaten Lima Puluh Kota sebelah Utara. Pedagang-pedagang Islam yang mula-mula ke Minangkabau juga melalui daerah ini, sehingga perdagangan diwaktu periode Minangkabau ini menjadi sangat ramai sekali, bukan itu saja, Islam pertama pun masuk dari sini, baik yang dibawa oleh pedagang-pedagang dari Arab sendiri, maupun yang dibawa oleh pedagang-pedagang dari Persia, Hindustan, Cina, India dan lain-lain. Pada permulaan abad Masehi perpindahan bangsa-bangsa dari utara ke selatan telah berakhir. Mereka telah menetap di sepanjang pantai kepulauan Nusantara. Setelah mereka menempati kepulauan Nusantara dan hidup secara terpisah, akhirnya karena lingkungan alam kehidupan bahasa yang mereka pergunakan pun mengalami perubahan seperti yang kita kenal sekarang dengan suku-suku bangsa Minangkabau, Jawa, Bugis, Madura, Sunda, Bali dan lain-lain. Pada zaman purbakala, di Asia terdapat dua jalan perdagangan yang ramai antara Barat dan Timur, yaitu melalui darat dan laut, jalan yang melalui darat disebut jalan Sutera, mulai dari daratan Cina melalui Asia Tengah sampai ke Laut Tengah. Perhubungan darat ini sudah mulai semenjak abad kelima sebelum Masehi. Waktu dimulainya perpindahan bangsa Melayu Muda ke arah selatan. Perhubungan darat ini terutama menghubungkan antara Cina dengan Benua Eropah (Romawi) diwaktu itu dibawah raja Iskandar Zulkarnain dan selanjutnya dengan menyinggahi daerah sepanjang perjalanan seperti India, Persia dan lain-lain. Perhubungan laut ialah dari Cina dan Indonesia melalui selat Malaka terus ke Teluk Persia dan Laut Tengah. Perhubungan laut ini menjadi sangat ramai pada awal abad pertama Masehi, karena jalan darat mulai tidak aman lagi. Sejak waktu itulah daerah-daerah di Pantai Timur Sumatera dan Pantai Utara Jawa menjadi daerah perhubungan antara perdagangan Arab, India dan Cina. Keadaan ini memungkinkan pedagang-pedagang Indonesia, termasuk di dalamnya pedagang-pedagang Minangkabau ikut aktif berdagang. Dengan aktifnya pedagang-pedagang Minangkabau dalam perdagangan dengan India, maka terbuka pulalah perhubungan antara kebudayaannya. Dari sini dapat kita lihat masuknya pengaruh Hindu ke Minangkabau melalui daerah pantai timur pulau Sumatera. Dalam abad kedua setelah Indonesia mempunyai perhubungan dengan India dan selama enam abad berturut-turut pengaruh Hindu di Indonesia besar sekali. Jadi karena keadaan, pedagang-pedagang Minangkabau ikut terlibat dalam kancah lalu lintas perdagangan yang ramai di Asia. Keadaan itu pulalah yang menyebabkan Minangkabau di daerah aslinya sendiri yang jauh terletak di pedalaman. Karena selat Malaka sangat ramai dilalui oleh kapal-kapal dagang dari Cina dan India maka salah satu bandar diselat itu bertumbuh dengan pesatnya sehingga akhirnya umbuh menjadi kerajaan Melayu. Kerajaan Melayu ini menurut para ahli berpusat di daerah Jambi yang sekarang dan diperkirakan berdirinya pada awal abad ketujuh Masehi. Nama Melayu pertama kalinya muncul dalam cerita Cina. Dalam buku Tseh Fu-ji Kwei diterangkan bahwa pada tahun 664 dan 665 kerajaan Melayu mengirimkan utusan kenegeri Cina untuk mempersembahkan hasilnya pada raja Cina. Pada waktu itu daerah Minangkabau merupakan daerah penghasil merica yang utama di dunia. Rupanya Minangkabau Timur tidak lama memegang peranan dalam perdagangan di Selat Malaka, kareana sesudah muncul kerajaan Melayu dan kemudian sesudah kerajaan Melayu jatuh di bawah kekuasaan Sriwijaya, Minangkabau Timur menjadi bahagian dari kerajan Sriwijaya. Dengan berdirinya kerajaan Melayu dan kerajaan Sriwijaya kelihatan peranan Minangkabau Timur tidak ada lagi, karena berita-berita dari Cina hanya ada menyebut tentang Melayu dan Sriwijaya saja. Dalam satu buku yang disusun oleh It-Tsing dapat kita ketahui bahwa dalam tahun 690 Masehi, Sriwijaya meluaskan daerah kekuasaannya dan kerajaan Melayu dapat ditaklukannya sebelum tahun 692 Masehi. Kerajaan Sriwijaya merupakan salah satu kerajaan pantai, negara perniagaan dan perdagangan internasional dari Asia Timur ke Asia Barat. Selama lebih kurang enam abad kerajaan Sriwijaya merupakan kerajaan utama di daerah nusantara waktu itu. Namun sementara itu di Jawa mulai timbul kerajaan-kerajaan baru yang lama-kelamaan menjadi saingan utama dari kerajaan Sriwijawa dalam merebut hegemoni perdagangan di wilayah nusantara yang menyebabkan lemahnya Sriwijaya. Dalam hal ini lawan kerajaan Sriwijaya yang utama adalah kerajaan Kediri di Jawa Timur dan Kerajaan Colamandala di India selatan. Dari kelemahan Sriwijaya itu, rupanya kerajaan Melayu dapat melepaskan diri dari Sriwijaya dan dapat memperkuat diri kembali dengan memindahkan ibu kota kerajaan ke daerah hulu Sungai Batang Hari. Kerajaannya dinamakan dengan Darmasraya. Hal ini dapat diketahui dari prasasti Padang Candi tahun 1286 yang terdapat di Sungai Langsat Si Guntur dekat Sungai Dareh dalam Propinsi Sumatera Barat sekarang. Pada tahun 1275, Raja Kertanegara dari kerajaan Singosari (kerajaan yang menggantikan kekuasaan Kediri di Jawa Timur) mengirimkan suatu ekspedisi militer ke Sumatera dalam rangka melemahkan kekuasaan Sriwijaya dan memperluas pengaruhnya di Nusantara. Ekspedisi ini dikenal dalam sejarah Indonesia dengan nama ekspedisi Pamalayu. Sebagai hasil dari ekspedisi itu, maka Kertanegara pada tahun 1286 mengirimkan acara Amogapasa ke Sumatera sebagai hadiah untuk raja dan rakyat kerajaan Melayu. Dengan kejadian ini dapat diartikan, bahwa semenjak peristiwa itu kerajaan Melayu sudah mengikuti kerajaan Singosari dan menjadi daerah tumpuan untuk menghadapi kemungkinan serangan dari negeri Cina akibat peristiwa penghinaan terhadap utusan Cina sebelumnya. 3. Maharajo Dirajo Dalam hal ini timbul suatu kontradiksi keterangan-keterangan, yaitu nama Maharajo Dirajo sudah disebutkan sebelumnya sebagai salah seorang panglima Iskandar Zulkarnain yang tugaskan menguasai Pulau Emas. Kalau memang demikian keadaannya, lalu bagaimana dengan Maharajo Dirajo yang sedang kita bicarakan ini yang waktunya sudah sangat jauh berbeda. Dalam hal ini kita tidak dapat memberikan jawaban yang pasti. Maharajo Dirajo yang sudah kita bicarakan hanya merupakan perkiraan saja dan belum tentu benar. Tetapi berdasarkan logika berfikir kira-kira diwaktu itulah hidupnya Maharajo Dirajo jika dihubungkan dengan nama Iskandar Zulkarnain. Sedangkan Maharajo Dirajo yang sedang dibicarakan sekarang ini adalah seperti yang dikatakan Tambo Alam Minangkabau yang mana yang benar perlu penelitian lebih lanjut. Dalam kesempatan ini kita hanya ingin memperlihatkan betapa rawannya penafsiran dari data yang diberikan Tambo Alam Minangkabau. Maharajo Dirajo yang sekarang dibicarakan adalah Maharajo Dirajo seperti yang dikatakan Tambo. Dalam hal ini kita ingin mengangkat data dari Tambo menjadi Fakta sejarah Minangkabau. Dalam Tambo disebutkan bahwa Iskandar Zulkarnain mempunyai tiga anak, yaitu Maharajo Alif, Maharajo Dipang, dan Maharajo Dirajo. Maharajo Alif menjadi raja di Benua Ruhun (Romawi), tetapi Josselin de Jong mengatakan, menjadi raja di Turki. Maharajo Dipang menjadi raja di negeri Cina, sedangkan Maharajo Dirajo menjadi raja di Pulau Emas (Sumatera). Kalau kita melihat kalimat-kalimat Tambo sendiri, maka dikatakan sebagai berikut: “…Tatkala maso dahulu, batigo rajo naiek nobat, nan sorang Maharajo Alif, nan pai ka banua Ruhun, nan sorang Maharajo Dipang nan pai ka Nagari Cino, nan sorang Maharajo Dirajo manapek ka pulau ameh nan ko…” (pada masa dahulu kala, ada tiga orang yang naik tahta kerajaan, seorang bernama Maharaja Alif yang pergi ke negeri Ruhun, yang seorang Maharajo Dipang yang pergi ke negeri Cina, dan seorang lagi bernama Maharajo Dirajo yang menepat ke pulau Sumatera). Dari keterangan Tambo itu tidak ada dikatakan angka tahunnya hanya dengan istilah “Masa dahulu kala” itulah yang memberikan petunjuk kepada kita bahwa kejadian itu sudah berlangsung sangat lama sekali, sedangkan waktu yang mencakup zaman dahulu kala itu sangat banyak sekali dan tidak ada kepastiannya. Kita hanya akan bertanya-tanya atau menduga-duga dengan tidak akan mendapat jawaban yang pasti. Di kerajaan Romawi atau Cina memang ada sejarah raja-raja yang besar, tetapi raja mana yang dimaksudkan oleh Tambo tidak kita ketahui. Dalam hal ini rupanya Tambo Alam Minangkabau tidak mementingkan angka tahun selain dari mementingkan kebesaran kemasyuran nama-nama rajanya. Percantuman raja Romawi dalam Tambo menurut hemat kita hanya usaha dari pembuat Tambo untuk menyetarakan kemasyhuran raja Minangkabau dengan nama raja di luar negeri yang memang sudah sangat terkenal di seantero penjuru dunia. Dengan mensejajarkan kedudukan raja-raja Minangkabau dengan raja yang sangat terkenal itu maka pandangan rakyat Minangkabau terhadap rajanya sendiri akan semakin tinggi pula. Disini kita bertemu dengan satu kebiasaan dunia Timur untuk mendongengkan tuah kebesaran rajanya kepada anak cucunya. Gelar Maharajo Dirajo sendiri terlepas ada tidaknya raja tersebut, menunjukan kebesaran kekuasaan rajanya, karena istilah itu berarti penguasa sekalian raja-raja yang tunduk di bawah kekuasaannya. Josselin de Jong mengatakan Lord of the Word atau Raja Dunia. Dalam sejarah Indonesia gelar Maharaja Diraja tidak hanya menjadi milik orang Minangkabau saja, melainkan juga ada raja lain yang bergelar demikian seperti Karta Negara dari Singasari dengan gelar Maharaja Diraja seperti yang tertulis pada arca Amogapasa tahun 1286 sebagai atasan dari Darmasraya yang bernama raja Tribuana. Tambo mengatakan bahwa Maharajo Dirajo adalah raja Minangkabau pertama. Tetapi ada pendapat lain yang mengatakan bahwa Srimaharaja Diraja yang disebut dalam tambo sebagai raja Minangkabau yang pertama itu tidak lain dari Adityawarman sendiri yang menyebut dirinya dengan Maraja Diraja. Tentang Adityawarman mempergunakan gelar Maharaja Diraja memang semua ahli sudah sependapat, karena Adityawarman sendiri telah menulis demikian dalam prasasti Pagaruyung. Dari gelar Maharaja Diraja yang dipakai Adityawarman menunjukan kepada kita bahwa sewaktu Adityawarman berkuasa di Minangkabau tidak ada lagi kekuasaan lain yang ada di atasnya, atau dengan perkataan lain dapat dikatakan pada waktu itu Minangkabau sudah berdiri sendiri, tidak berada di bawah kekuasaan Majapahit atau sudah melepaskan diri dari Majapahit. Kerajaan Majapahit adalah ahli waris dari Singasari. Sedangkan Singasari pernah menundukkan melayu Darmasraya, tentu berada di bawah kekuasaan Singasari - Majapahit itu, maka untuk melepaskan diri dari Singasari - Majapahit itu Adiyawarman memindahkan pusat kekuasaannya kepedalaman Minangkabau dan menyatakan tidak ada lagi yang berkuasa di atasnya dengan memakai gelar Maharaja Diraja. Ada sesuatu pertanyaan kecil yang perlu dijawab, yaitu apakah tidak ada lagi kemungkinan bahwa gelar Maharajo Dirajo itu merupakan gelar keturunan bagi raja-raja Minangkabau, sehingga diwaktu Adityawarman menjadi raja di Minangkabau dia merasa perlu mempergunakan gelar tersebut agar dihormati oleh rakyat Minangkabau. Kalau memang demikian, maka kita akan dapat menghubungkannya dengan Maharajo Dirajo yang kita bicarakan kehidupannya sebelum abad Masehi. Tetapi hal ini kembali hanya berupa dugaan saja yang masih memerlukan pembuktian lebih lanjut. Kalau kita mengikuti pendapat yang mengatakan bahwa Maharaja Diraja itu sama dengan Adityawarman, maka satu kepastian dapat dikatakan bahwa kerajaan Minangkabau baru bermula pad tahun 1347, yaitu pada waktu Adityawarman menjadi raja di Minangkabau yang berpusat di Pagaruyuang. Logikanya tentu sebelum Adityawarman, belum ada raja di Minangkabau, kalau ada baru merupakan daerah-daerahyang dikuasai oleh seorang kepala suku saja. Kalau pendapat itu tidak dapat diterima kebenarannya, maka tokoh Maharajo Dirajo yang disebut di dalam Tambo itu masih tetap merupakan seorang tokoh legendaris dalam sejarah Minangkabau dan hal ini akan tetap mengundang bermacam-macam pertanyaan yang pro dan kontra. Kemungkinan gelar Maharajo sudah dipergunakan sebelum kedatangan Adityawarman memang ada. Tetapi apakah gelar itu merupakan gelar keturunan dari raja-raja Minangkabau masih belum lagi dapat diketahui dengan pasti. Yang jelas pada waktu sekarang ini, banyak gelar para penghulu di Sumatera Barat yang memakai gelar Maharajo sebagai gelar kepenghulunya disamping nama lainnya, seperti Dt. Maharajo, Dt. Marajo, Dt. Maharajo Basa, Dt. Maharajo Dirajo. Kelihatan gelar tersebut dipergunakan oleh masyarakat Minangkabau sebagai gelar pusaka yang turun-menurun. Sebaliknya raja-raja Pagaruyung sendiri tidak mempergunakan gelar tersebut sebagai pusaka kerajaannya. Jadi, dapat disimpulkan bahwa gelar Maharajo Dirajo tersebut merupakan gelar pusaka Minangkabau dan sudah ada sebelum Adityawarman menjadi raja di Pagaruyung. Barangkali memang gelar itu diturunkan dari Maharajo dirajo seperti disebutkan dalam Tambo itu.

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Ms. Turner and her twin sister founded the Love Kitchen in 1986 in a church basement in Knoxville, Tenn., and it continues to provide clothing and meals.

THE WRITERS ASHLEY AND JAQUAVIS COLEMAN know the value of a good curtain-raiser. The couple have co-authored dozens of novels, and they like to start them with a bang: a headlong action sequence, a blast of violence or sex that rocks readers back on their heels. But the Colemans concede they would be hard-pressed to dream up anything more gripping than their own real-life opening scene.

In the summer of 2001, JaQuavis Coleman was a 16-year-old foster child in Flint, Mich., the former auto-manufacturing mecca that had devolved, in the wake of General Motors’ plant closures, into one of the country’s most dangerous cities, with a decimated economy and a violent crime rate more than three times the national average. When JaQuavis was 8, social services had removed him from his mother’s home. He spent years bouncing between foster families. At 16, JaQuavis was also a businessman: a crack dealer with a network of street-corner peddlers in his employ.

One day that summer, JaQuavis met a fellow dealer in a parking lot on Flint’s west side. He was there to make a bulk sale of a quarter-brick, or “nine-piece” — a nine-ounce parcel of cocaine, with a street value of about $11,000. In the middle of the transaction, JaQuavis heard the telltale chirp of a walkie-talkie. His customer, he now realized, was an undercover policeman. JaQuavis jumped into his car and spun out onto the road, with two unmarked police cars in pursuit. He didn’t want to get into a high-speed chase, so he whipped his car into a church parking lot and made a run for it, darting into an alleyway behind a row of small houses, where he tossed the quarter-brick into some bushes. When JaQuavis reached the small residential street on the other side of the houses, he was greeted by the police, who handcuffed him and went to search behind the houses where, they told him, they were certain he had ditched the drugs. JaQuavis had been dealing since he was 12, had amassed more than $100,000 and had never been arrested. Now, he thought: It’s over.

But when the police looked in the bushes, they couldn’t find any cocaine. They interrogated JaQuavis, who denied having ever possessed or sold drugs. They combed the backyard alley some more. After an hour of fruitless efforts, the police were forced to unlock the handcuffs and release their suspect.

JaQuavis was baffled by the turn of events until the next day, when he received a phone call. The previous afternoon, a 15-year-old girl had been sitting in her home on the west side of Flint when she heard sirens. She looked out of the window of her bedroom, and watched a young man throw a package in the bushes behind her house. She recognized him. He was a high school classmate — a handsome, charismatic boy whom she had admired from afar. The girl crept outside and grabbed the bundle, which she hid in her basement. “I have something that belongs to you,” Ashley Snell told JaQuavis Coleman when she reached him by phone. “You wanna come over here and pick it up?”

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Three of the nearly 50 works of urban fiction published by the Colemans over the last decade, often featuring drug deals, violence, sex and a brash kind of feminism.Credit Marko Metzinger

In the Colemans’ first novel, “Dirty Money” (2005), they told a version of this story. The outline was the same: the drug deal gone bad, the dope chucked in the bushes, the fateful phone call. To the extent that the authors took poetic license, it was to tone down the meet-cute improbability of the true-life events. In “Dirty Money,” the girl, Anari, and the crack dealer, Maurice, circle each other warily for a year or so before coupling up. But the facts of Ashley and JaQuavis’s romance outstripped pulp fiction. They fell in love more or less at first sight, moved into their own apartment while still in high school and were married in 2008. “We were together from the day we met,” Ashley says. “I don’t think we’ve spent more than a week apart in total over the past 14 years.”

That partnership turned out to be creative and entrepreneurial as well as romantic. Over the past decade, the Colemans have published nearly 50 books, sometimes as solo writers, sometimes under pseudonyms, but usually as collaborators with a byline that has become a trusted brand: “Ashley & JaQuavis.” They are marquee stars of urban fiction, or street lit, a genre whose inner-city settings and lurid mix of crime, sex and sensationalism have earned it comparisons to gangsta rap. The emergence of street lit is one of the big stories in recent American publishing, a juggernaut that has generated huge sales by catering to a readership — young, black and, for the most part, female — that historically has been ill-served by the book business. But the genre is also widely maligned. Street lit is subject to a kind of triple snobbery: scorned by literati who look down on genre fiction generally, ignored by a white publishing establishment that remains largely indifferent to black books and disparaged by African-American intellectuals for poor writing, coarse values and trafficking in racial stereotypes.

But if a certain kind of cultural prestige is shut off to the Colemans, they have reaped other rewards. They’ve built a large and loyal fan base, which gobbles up the new Ashley & JaQuavis titles that arrive every few months. Many of those books are sold at street-corner stands and other off-the-grid venues in African-American neighborhoods, a literary gray market that doesn’t register a blip on best-seller tallies. Yet the Colemans’ most popular series now regularly crack the trade fiction best-seller lists of The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. For years, the pair had no literary agent; they sold hundreds of thousands of books without banking a penny in royalties. Still, they have earned millions of dollars, almost exclusively from cash-for-manuscript deals negotiated directly with independent publishing houses. In short, though little known outside of the world of urban fiction, the Colemans are one of America’s most successful literary couples, a distinction they’ve achieved, they insist, because of their work’s gritty authenticity and their devotion to a primal literary virtue: the power of the ripping yarn.

“When you read our books, you’re gonna realize: ‘Ashley & JaQuavis are storytellers,’ ” says Ashley. “Our tales will get your heart pounding.”

THE COLEMANS’ HOME BASE — the cottage from which they operate their cottage industry — is a spacious four-bedroom house in a genteel suburb about 35 miles north of downtown Detroit. The house is plush, but when I visited this past winter, it was sparsely appointed. The couple had just recently moved in, and had only had time to fully furnish the bedroom of their 4-year-old son, Quaye.

In conversation, Ashley and JaQuavis exude both modesty and bravado: gratitude for their good fortune and bootstrappers’ pride in having made their own luck. They talk a lot about their time in the trenches, the years they spent as a drug dealer and “ride-or-die girl” tandem. In Flint they learned to “grind hard.” Writing, they say, is merely a more elevated kind of grind.

“Instead of hitting the block like we used to, we hit the laptops,” says Ashley. “I know what every word is worth. So while I’m writing, I’m like: ‘Okay, there’s a hundred dollars. There’s a thousand dollars. There’s five thousand dollars.’ ”

They maintain a rigorous regimen. They each try to write 5,000 words per day, five days a week. The writers stagger their shifts: JaQuavis goes to bed at 7 p.m. and wakes up early, around 3 or 4 in the morning, to work while his wife and child sleep. Ashley writes during the day, often in libraries or at Starbucks.

They divide the labor in other ways. Chapters are divvied up more or less equally, with tasks assigned according to individual strengths. (JaQuavis typically handles character development. Ashley loves writing murder scenes.) The results are stitched together, with no editorial interference from one author in the other’s text. The real work, they contend, is the brainstorming. The Colemans spend weeks mapping out their plot-driven books — long conversations that turn into elaborate diagrams on dry-erase boards. “JaQuavis and I are so close, it makes the process real easy,” says Ashley. “Sometimes when I’m thinking of something, a plot point, he’ll say it out loud, and I’m like: ‘Wait — did I say that?’ ”

Their collaboration developed by accident, and on the fly. Both were bookish teenagers. Ashley read lots of Judy Blume and John Grisham; JaQuavis liked Shakespeare, Richard Wright and “Atlas Shrugged.” (Their first official date was at a Borders bookstore, where Ashley bought “The Coldest Winter Ever,” the Sister Souljah novel often credited with kick-starting the contemporary street-lit movement.) In 2003, Ashley, then 17, was forced to terminate an ectopic pregnancy. She was bedridden for three weeks, and to provide distraction and boost her spirits, JaQuavis challenged his girlfriend to a writing contest. “She just wasn’t talking. She was laying in bed. I said, ‘You know what? I bet you I could write a better book than you.’ My wife is real competitive. So I said, ‘Yo, all right, $500 bet.’ And I saw her eyes spark, like, ‘What?! You can’t write no better book than me!’ So I wrote about three chapters. She wrote about three chapters. Two days later, we switched.”

The result, hammered out in a few days, would become “Dirty Money.” Two years later, when Ashley and JaQuavis were students at Ferris State University in Western Michigan, they sold the manuscript to Urban Books, a street-lit imprint founded by the best-selling author Carl Weber. At the time, JaQuavis was still making his living selling drugs. When Ashley got the phone call informing her that their book had been bought, she assumed they’d hit it big, and flushed more than $10,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet. Their advance was a mere $4,000.

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The roots of street lit, found in the midcentury detective novels of Chester Himes and the ‘60s and ‘70s “ghetto fiction” of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines.Credit Marko Metzinger

Those advances would soon increase, eventually reaching five and six figures. The Colemans built their career, JaQuavis says, in a manner that made sense to him as a veteran dope peddler: by flooding the street with product. From the start, they were prolific, churning out books at a rate of four or five a year. Their novels made their way into stores; the now-defunct chain Waldenbooks, which had stores in urban areas typically bypassed by booksellers, was a major engine of the street-lit market. But Ashley and JaQuavis took advantage of distribution channels established by pioneering urban fiction authors such as Teri Woods and Vickie Stringer, and a network of street-corner tables, magazine stands, corner shops and bodegas. Like rappers who establish their bona fides with gray-market mixtapes, street-lit authors use this system to circumnavigate industry gatekeepers, bringing their work straight to the genre’s core readership. But urban fiction has other aficionados, in less likely places. “Our books are so popular in the prison system,” JaQuavis says. “We’re banned in certain penitentiaries. Inmates fight over the books — there are incidents, you know? I have loved ones in jail, and they’re like: ‘Yo, your books can’t come in here. It’s against the rules.’ ”

The appeal of the Colemans’ work is not hard to fathom. The books are formulaic and taut; they deliver the expected goods efficiently and exuberantly. The titles telegraph the contents: “Diary of a Street Diva,” “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” “Murderville.” The novels serve up a stream of explicit sex and violence in a slangy, tangy, profane voice. In Ashley & JaQuavis’s books people don’t get killed: they get “popped,” “laid out,” get their “cap twisted back.” The smut is constant, with emphasis on the earthy, sticky, olfactory particulars. Romance novel clichés — shuddering orgasms, heroic carnal feats, superlative sexual skill sets — are rendered in the Colemans’ punchy patois.

Subtlety, in other words, isn’t Ashley & JaQuavis’s forte. But their books do have a grainy specificity. In “The Cartel” (2008), the first novel in the Colemans’ best-selling saga of a Miami drug syndicate, they catch the sights and smells of a crack workshop in a housing project: the nostril-stinging scent of cocaine and baking soda bubbling on stovetops; the teams of women, stripped naked except for hospital masks so they can’t pilfer the merchandise, “cutting up the cooked coke on the round wood table.” The subject matter is dark, but the Colemans’ tone is not quite noir. Even in the grimmest scenes, the mood is high-spirited, with the writers palpably relishing the lewd and gory details: the bodies writhing in boudoirs and crumpling under volleys of bullets, the geysers of blood and other bodily fluids.

The luridness of street lit has made it a flashpoint, inciting controversy reminiscent of the hip-hop culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. But the street-lit debate touches deeper historical roots, reviving decades-old arguments in black literary circles about the mandate to uplift the race and present wholesome images of African-Americans. In 1928, W. E. B. Du Bois slammed the “licentiousness” of “Home to Harlem,” Claude McKay’s rollicking novel of Harlem nightlife. McKay’s book, Du Bois wrote, “for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” Similar sentiments have greeted 21st-century street lit. In a 2006 New York Times Op-Ed essay, the journalist and author Nick Chiles decried “the sexualization and degradation of black fiction.” African-American bookstores, Chiles complained, are “overrun with novels that . . . appeal exclusively to our most prurient natures — as if these nasty books were pairing off back in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring that make Ralph Ellison books cringe into a dusty corner.”

Copulating paperbacks aside, it’s clear that the street-lit debate is about more than literature, touching on questions of paternalism versus populism, and on middle-class anxieties about the black underclass. “It’s part and parcel of black elites’ efforts to define not only a literary tradition, but a racial politics,” said Kinohi Nishikawa, an assistant professor of English and African-American Studies at Princeton University. “There has always been a sense that because African-Americans’ opportunities to represent themselves are so limited in the first place, any hint of criminality or salaciousness would necessarily be a knock on the entire racial politics. One of the pressing debates about African-American literature today is: If we can’t include writers like Ashley & JaQuavis, to what extent is the foundation of our thinking about black literature faulty? Is it just a literature for elites? Or can it be inclusive, bringing urban fiction under the purview of our umbrella term ‘African-American literature’?”

Defenders of street lit note that the genre has a pedigree: a tradition of black pulp fiction that stretches from Chester Himes, the midcentury author of hardboiled Harlem detective stories, to the 1960s and ’70s “ghetto fiction” of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, to the current wave of urban fiction authors. Others argue for street lit as a social good, noting that it attracts a large audience that might otherwise never read at all. Scholars like Nishikawa link street lit to recent studies showing increased reading among African-Americans. A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that a greater percentage of black Americans are book readers than whites or Latinos.

For their part, the Colemans place their work in the broader black literary tradition. “You have Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, James Baldwin — all of these traditional black writers, who wrote about the struggles of racism, injustice, inequality,” says Ashley. “We’re writing about the struggle as it happens now. It’s just a different struggle. I’m telling my story. I’m telling the struggle of a black girl from Flint, Michigan, who grew up on welfare.”

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The Colemans in their new four-bedroom house in the northern suburbs of Detroit.Credit Courtesy of Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman

Perhaps there is a high-minded case to be made for street lit. But the virtues of Ashley & JaQuavis’s work are more basic. Their novels do lack literary polish. The writing is not graceful; there are passages of clunky exposition and sex scenes that induce guffaws and eye rolls. But the pleasure quotient is high. The books flaunt a garish brand of feminism, with women characters cast not just as vixens, but also as gangsters — cold-blooded killers, “murder mamas.” The stories are exceptionally well-plotted. “The Cartel” opens by introducing its hero, the crime boss Carter Diamond; on page 9, a gunshot spatters Diamond’s brain across the interior of a police cruiser. The book then flashes back seven years and begins to hurtle forward again — a bullet train, whizzing readers through shifting alliances, romantic entanglements and betrayals, kidnappings, shootouts with Haitian and Dominican gangsters, and a cliffhanger closing scene that leaves the novel’s heroine tied to a chair in a basement, gruesomely tortured to the edge of death. Ashley & JaQuavis’s books are not Ralph Ellison, certainly, but they build up quite a head of steam. They move.

The Colemans are moving themselves these days. They recently signed a deal with St. Martin’s Press, which will bring out the next installment in the “Cartel” series as well as new solo series by both writers. The St. Martin’s deal is both lucrative and legitimizing — a validation of Ashley and JaQuavis’s work by one of publishing’s most venerable houses. The Colemans’ ambitions have grown, as well. A recent trilogy, “Murderville,” tackles human trafficking and the blood-diamond industry in West Africa, with storylines that sweep from Sierra Leone to Mexico to Los Angeles. Increasingly, Ashley & JaQuavis are leaning on research — traveling to far-flung settings and hitting the books in the libraries — and spending less time mining their own rough-and-tumble past.

But Flint remains a source of inspiration. One evening not long ago, JaQuavis led me on a tour of his hometown: a popular roadside bar; the parking lot where he met the undercover cop for the ill-fated drug deal; Ashley’s old house, the site of his almost-arrest. He took me to a ramshackle vehicle repair shop on Flint’s west side, where he worked as a kid, washing cars. He showed me a bathroom at the rear of the garage, where, at age 12, he sneaked away to inspect the first “boulder” of crack that he ever sold. A spray-painted sign on the garage wall, which JaQuavis remembered from his time at the car wash, offered words of warning:

WHAT EVERY YOUNG MAN SHOULD KNOW
ABOUT USING A GUN:
MURDER . . . 30 Years
ARMED ROBBERY . . . 15 Years
ASSAULT . . . 15 Years
RAPE . . . 20 Years
POSSESSION . . . 5 Years
JACKING . . . 20 YEARS

“We still love Flint, Michigan,” JaQuavis says. “It’s so seedy, so treacherous. But there’s some heart in this city. This is where it all started, selling books out the box. In the days when we would get those little $40,000 advances, they’d send us a couple boxes of books for free. We would hit the streets to sell our books, right out of the car trunk. It was a hustle. It still is.”

One old neighborhood asset that the Colemans have not shaken off is swagger. “My wife is the best female writer in the game,” JaQuavis told me. “I believe I’m the best male writer in the game. I’m sleeping next to the best writer in the world. And she’s doing the same.”

 

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