Where were you the very first time you read a contemporary urban novel? School? Home? The library? When I was growing up, Black girls like me lived in libraries. My friends were mostly other Black Caribbean girls who were navigating the dual identity of being Black and immigrant in the U.S. Most of us also came from homes where we were routinely slut-shamed into either remaining abstinent throughout our teen years, or desperately concealing the fact that we’d had sex. Our parents had not come to this country for us to end up as teen moms. The horror! The more religious the parent, the stricter they were. Many of us, self included, were barred from dating until a high school diploma was handed to us. This is why “romance” novels were such a vital part of my adolescent development. I put romance in quotes because most of these books were little more than literary pornography, but in a household where the only way I could experience sex, even pornography, was from the pages of a book, they were more than good enough.

I had started with Harlequin romance novels (The “Blaze” line were my favorites!) and quickly sated my curiosities about how heterosexual couples copulate, but constantly reading stories which, no matter how “diverse” the characteristics of the heroines were, were almost always centered around White couples, got old really quickly. Most of what I got from these novels is that romance, specifically lasting, romantic love, was something for attractive White people. The message was then internalized that I either needed to be White or date White to find anything even close to resembling what was in these books. Probably just as harmful was the narrative pushed by Harlequin that mutual attraction, especially if the woman is a virgin, followed by all-consuming lust, was the road to love, that lust and love were extensions of one another, and that if two people are in love, the sex will always be perfect, right from the start. Wanting sex without love was abnormal, bad sex was a sign of weak love, and there’s no way that great sex won’t lead to love.

Even as a very sheltered teenage girl with zero dating experience, I knew that this narrative was the exception, not the rule. Up until that point, I had been wholly ignorant of authors writing contemporary novels centering Black leads (sad, I know). Novels set around Black characters, who spoke like real people, had real problems, and were created by Black people? Novels where Black people had sex? It was like a small miracle. The only times I had ever read of Black characters were in my beloved Toni Morrison and Alice Walker novels. Their stories were real, and relevant, but also pretty intense, and not set in the present. Reading contemporary urban novels gave me the escape of Harlequin, with characters who I could actually relate to.

In “The Coldest Winter Ever”, we meet Afro-Latina Winter Santiaga of Brooklyn, New York, daughter of prominent drug dealer Ricky Santiaga. Winter has three younger sisters, Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, and their father spoils all his daughters with the finer things in life. But when Winter’s father is arrested on her 16th birthday, and her siblings are taken away by child welfare, charming Winter has to hustle to stay off the streets and stay alive. Winter steals as well as schemes and uses her sex appeal to keep money in her pocket, a roof over her head, some facsimile of security. She’s essentially the girl being derided for being a “gold digger” by rappers in songs where they dismiss their own exploitation and the fact that her father couldn’t or wouldn’t be there.

Filled with sex, drugs, and hip-hop “The Coldest Winter Ever” is definitely the deep end of contemporary urban novels, and certainly  not romantic at all, but the book showcases realistic, albeit stereotypical, situations. More importantly for me, it showcased people having and enjoying sex without loving or even liking one another. It showcased a young woman using sex as a means of protection, an insurance policy, a resource. It showcased men using sex as a weapon, to hurt, abuse, and exploit in ways other than rape. The latter was especially important, since I had read about rape so many times in the literature of aforementioned Morrison and Walker. “The Coldest Winter Ever” encapsulated the saying that “Life is not a fairy tale.” Besides being able to read some incredibly vivid sex scenes, reading this book reinforced something which I’d already guessed but needed verified at my young age: that being sexually desired is not the same as being loved, that desire doesn’t always lead to love, and that being smart in your sexual relationships will do more for you in the long run than assuming that good sex means you’ve met your soulmate.

It wouldn’t be fair of me to leave out the fact that Sista Souljah is a certifiable “pick me,” a heauxtep, a female misogynist who clearly despises Winter and created her character as a cautionary tale for pretty young Black girls everywhere. She does a fantastic job of blaming the title character for not only her own actions, but the actions of the men in her life as well. There’s a lot of implied and explicitly stated “You should have known better/chosen better/ done better” at play here. Despite the fact that Winter is only 16 years old when she’s on her own, and the men in her life are adults, she’s seen and treated as a conniving woman devoid of morals, whose reliance on her vagina makes her deserving of abuse. While it is possible to like Winter, and even feel sorry for her, especially now that I am well into adulthood, it is very hard to like Sista Souljah as a writer, and the enormous amount of slut-shaming, homophobia, and conditional sisterhood that she managed to infuse into just one book.

Despite how Winter is dogged out by the author herself, we still manage to see her as strong, determined, and fearless; a survivor. Winter is stronger and more courageous than any male character, she is whip-smart, street smart, and Sista Souljah (who appears as a character in the novel as well), presents herself as being a moral superior to a struggling teen simply because she dresses modestly and has less sex. Looking back, I wonder if Winter wasn’t merely created as a means of judging women who had made Sista Souljah feel insecure over the years. I don’t say this lightly at all. But inserting one’s self into a fictional novel as the antithesis or answer to the main protagonist is no small thing, either. Sista Souljah’s character seemed far too eager to lay out Winter’s wrongs whilst exonerating the men who’d used and abused her, not to mention participated in statutory rape. Girl, bye!

Although written in the first person, from Winter’s perspective, Sista Souljah’s language does a great job of dehumanizing Winter and, ironically, reducing her to a sexual object, exactly what the character of Sista Souljah accuses her of doing to herself. I’d never seen such a toxic relationship between character and writer before this one. But I did learn a lot from Winter, as well as women like Sista Souljah. I learned what sisterhood does and does not look like. More importantly, the novel was entertaining enough for me to explore writers like Zane, Eric Jerome Dickey, and Terri McMillan, whose stories were more than cautionary tales, who didn’t rely on the drug-dealer stereotype and who (usually) didn’t push the narrative that being sexual liberated made a woman a horrible person who was someone responsible for the emotional well-being of every man around her. More importantly, the showcased relationships that weren’t always happily ever afters. Human struggles in real relationships with real people. And I would have never ventured to this world without “The Coldest Winter Ever”, so for that and the action packed-sequences therein, I give this one 3 stars.

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Emelyne Museaux is a freelance writer and intersectional Black feminist. She’s pro-Black, pro-LGBTQIA, pro-sex worker, pro-fat, pro-femme and any and all intersectionals of these. When she’s not typing her oh-so-relevant thoughts about Black pop culture both foreign and domestic, writing about herself in the third person, and trying to survive cishet White supremacist capitalist imperialism, Emelyne can be found reading, cooking, eating, and her favourite hobby, sleeping. Stay woke!
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