The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

I’ve been meaning to read The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah for years, but every time I tried to get it at the library, all the copies were gone, and all the e-books checked out. How could that be, I thought? This book came out in 1999. Some call it trash while others refer to it as a classic, but you can’t deny that people want to read The Coldest Winter Ever.

Winter Santiaga, at sixteen, is the oldest child of a drug lord with a small empire in Brooklyn. She has three younger sisters and a “bad bitch” mom, a term used for women who handle their business and always look expensive and behave with class. When her father decides to move up in the world, he relocates the family to a Long Island mansion where Winter complains how bored she is without her friends and regular sex. But when her father and his entire ring is busted and sent to prison, the family’s new house, all the possessions inside, and the new vehicle in the driveway are confiscated by the FBI because they were purchased with drug money. Winter’s mom and three younger sisters are all split up, essentially homeless, penniless, yet still looking for a way to climb the social ladder. Winter escapes child protective services and fights for status, all while trying to survive.

The Coldest Winter Ever is described in a number of ways: street lit, urban fiction. It’s setting: the ghetto, the projects, the hood. It’s characters: ghetto girls and thugs. I’m personally not comfortable with any of these terms; they all conjure negative images that makes you pay less attention to the novel . . . but also serve to give you an accurate depiction of the setting, character, and contents. It can be both ways. A heads up, the writing is incredibly graphic in places. Winter Santiaga is focused on buying brand-name clothes, sitting in the hottest ride, attending the best parties, flashing jewels (not jewelry?), getting her hair and nails done, and satisfying her sexual needs. All at sixteen, mind you. Her girlfriends are lesser versions of herself, the guys all connected to the hip hop or drug industries. So, when it’s so easy to say that this type of book glorifies guns, drugs, sex, and materialism, why would I prompt you to read it?

Firstly, it’s a classic. You can Google the title and author to see loads of articles about the impact The Coldest Winter Ever had on the hip hop generation, black teen girls, and publishing works like Souljah’s. Some folks condemn the novel as dangerous, while others feel “seen.” I think Souljah’s book is deeper than you might first think, which is why I recommend it. For instance, because Winter has grown up — from birth — in “Black royalty” as a drug lord’s daughter, she thinks she understands what it means to survive in that world, when really her father has worked hard to shelter her from the worst of it. After Winter leaves Long Island to party in Brooklyn, her father berates her. She claims, “I went home. I went to Brooklyn. I went to the only place I know. Where my peoples is at. Where everybody knows me. Those are my streets, Daddy!” In a cutting moment, the author reveals how naive Winter is with her father’s response: “Do you think those streets love you? Those streets don’t love you. They don’t even know you. . . . The street don’t love nobody.” By proxy, Winter thinks she has what it takes at sixteen to live the same dangerous life as a ring of drug dealers, but Sister Souljah puts this main character in so many situations that prove how ignorant Winter is, thus condemning drugs and drug dealers.

“What do you read?” Winter is asked by her father’s closest ally, Midnight. Unable to answer, Midnight further prompts her to think about who she will become, what she will do. Winter is unable to see beyond attaching herself to a man like her father, who will continue providing the materialistic life she’s used to. How can a young man in a drug ring lecture a teen girl about thinking bigger than street life? Because Midnight has been talking and listening to Sister Souljah. Yes, this book has metafiction. The author’s character functions as herself in real life: a highly intelligent political and social activist who was so afraid of drugs as a child that she slept on her arms so no one could inject her with heroin while she slept. Sister Souljah the character is a foil to Winter: for every selfish move Winter makes, Souljah works in the community. Both have an “in” in the hip hop world, but Souljah uses it to communicate social improvements through education while Winter wants to hook up and cling on. Readers can compare these two young characters (Souljah is twenty-five in the novel) and draw conclusions about what happens when a person uses their community instead of working to heal it. The author does not point-blank tell readers what to think, which is an attribute.

But the challenge is in seeing what a “good life” looks like. Winter knows that drug dealers take risks to get so much money. She argues that drug dealers help the economy by purchasing luxury goods and employing “half the men in the ghetto. Nobody else gave them jobs. So why be a player hater?” Why be that person who “worked all week for change to get to work plus a beer to forget about how hard he worked”? What Winter fails to see by not thinking about a community is what can happen after work, those meaningful connections at rec centers, schools, community gardens, and hospitals. Souljah convinces Winter to go with her when she speaks to a ward of AIDs patients, and while we see the epidemic for what it was, and the people who suffered as a result, Winter does not. Sister Souljah does not write an easy book in which her main character “gets it,” but lets the reader travel in the plot with our hands over our eyes, peeking through our fingers. Because we’re “getting it” and see what a disaster Winter is headed for.

I would argue that Sister Souljah does not glorify the drug life or the people who live it. Each moment in which Winter engages with street life feels laced with danger, even as we reside in her head and she celebrates and rationalizes moments during which she doesn’t even realize she’s being degraded. A recommended read.

24 comments

  1. It’s funny how sometimes people get the message and other times, people take away something completely different. I think you could pick virtually any subject and find books that readers had polar opposites views of what the ultimate end game was.

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  2. When The Godfather came out, Australian Italians told me it was the first time they had seen a movie that portrayed them and of course they loved it. I can see how The Coldest Winter Ever might be seen by the Black community in the same light, but is it a ‘classic’ in the sense that it is good writing, or is it just a good story like the Godfather.
    Also, I know I wrote highly of The Catcher in the Rye, but really, how much can we learn from a 16 year old who just wants to live the high life.

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    • You comparison of The Godfather is smart, and I forgot that Italians felt “seen” by that movie, which is pretty intense. I think part of the reason The Coldest Winter Ever is a classic is due in part to it being one of the first novels that portrayed street life in the black community and gave it nuance. Black teen girls ate it up when it came out; it was that book you’d loan to your girlfriend on the bus on the way to high school. The author, Sister Souljah, actually hates her work being called “street lit,” though, because she believes it’s white people who determined what to call a genre that’s written predominantly by black people, discrediting all books that fall within the genre as something not “literary.” Yet again another reason I dislike the distinction of “literary” — it has elitist, Eurocentric connotations.

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  3. I’ve never heard of this but it sounds fascinating and I’m intrigued by the insertion of the author as a wiser character. It reminds me of the kids I went to high school with whose goals were to grow up and join gangs because they saw that as a luxury lifestyle.

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    • I first encountered Sister Souljah when I played interviews with her from the 1980s. She was a young black woman going against older white men, including journalists and politicians. She made them eat dirt with her words, and it was wonderful. In the back of the copy of The Coldest Winter Ever that I had, the author talks about her own past being so terrified of drugs that she slept on her arms so no one could inject her with heroin while she slept, and that she was such a book nerd. Her involvement in different organizations uplifting the black community make me unsurprised that she added herself to the novel to be a voice of advice and guidance, of self-respect and looking some place different for a sense of self-worth other than money.

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      • That’s so awesome! I looked her up a bit and see that she went up against Clinton.

        I recall in the 90s urban legends of people being injected with heroin while at a movie theatre but I can’t imagine why that would ever be a thing.

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    • Yeah! I thought the Godfather connection was interesting. I get the feeling a number of women felt seen by Terry McMillan’s books, too, as she presented a different look at black women, totally opposite from the life Winter Santiaga lives in The Coldest Winter Ever. The more books that make people feel seen, the better. That’s part of why I paired up The Street by Ann Petry and Sister Souljah’s book when Roshni and I were reading.

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  4. I’ve never heard of this book before (maybe b/c its American?) but it sounds like an important read. Just based on your review, I can tell this book isn’t glorifying this life, rather just laying it bare, you know? Yes there are perks, but at what cost?

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    • I’m not sure, to be honest. I thought it was more like a warning about what idolizing money and status could do to a person, but because the main character had money and status, a lot of black teen girls idolized her. I wish I knew what the author thought about that. She’s very clear in her interviews that she does not use drugs, is very smart/nerdy, and absolutely up-to-date on politics.

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  5. Ooh, this book wasn’t on my radar but it’s really calling out to me now! I like the idea of the metafiction element a lot, and it sounds like Souljah does a great job presenting a perspective without labelling it as right or wrong, or trying to force the reader to see it a certain way- just showing how a character like Winter comes to be, and the results. I’m also very drawn to this seeming like an adult novel, despite the 16 year-old protagonist!

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  6. Fantastic review, Melanie. I am so impressed with your ability to explore a text for what it is and its place in history while still immersing yourself in it and enjoying it. Did you ever find the metafiction aspect eye-roll inducing (I know there’s a better word for this, but my baby-brain has significantly reduced my vocabulary) – It sounds like Souljah depicted herself as a savior-type character. There is a fine line here between powerful and self-aggrandizing…

    This is one of those books I recognize that I should read but I never will. It’s too dark and violent for me. But I loved reading this review.

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    • This book is absolutely too dark and violent for you, and I don’t say that in a patronizing way, I say that knowing you as my friend.

      There were parts when I wanted to roll my eyes a bit at Sister Souljah coming off as a messiah, but then I remembered that the work she’s doing in the book — the leadership for young people and all the civil rights work around black communities — she does that in real life. Watch any interview with her; she’ll blow your mind. Some of the big interviews she did back in the late 80s, early 90s, she was like 24 going up against some of the most powerful white men in the country. She knows everything. It’s like she was in touch with news in a way we are now because it’s ubiquitous, but this was back in the three-TV-channels days.

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  7. Amazing review Melanie!! I still feel like darkest part of the book was the fact that Winter never really “got it”, even at the end. And I think this was my first ever experience with metafiction as well. I am so glad you introduced me. You’ve broadened my horizons time and time again! I am curious to read more about the impact of Coldest Winter Ever on society in general- I’ll have to spend some time searching around.

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    • The Coldest Winter Ever wasn’t my first metafictional novel, but it’s the first in a while. Two books that use metafiction that I really love are Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (a classic!) and The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia.

      I keep reading about the follow-up novel, and it sounds like Winter gets out of prison and hasn’t changed at all. I thought that made sense because at the end the author talks about how Winter felt at home in prison; everyone she knew was there. It was like some kind of neighborhood away from the neighborhood, and what would encourage her to develop or grow in the ways Sister Souljah’s character suggested? Nothing.

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  8. This sounds like a fascinating book albeit one that is definitely not for me. I’d heard the title somewhere or other, but knew nothing about the book. I did really enjoy reading your review though – I agree that with books like this there’s always a lot of argument about whether or not they are glamourising a particular lifestyle or situation, e.g. the debate about The Great Gatsby and its portrayal of wealthy people Jazz Age. It must be quite a tricky thing to balance as a writer, I think.

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    • Ahhhh, I hadn’t thought about The Great Gatsby as being another novel that possibly glamorizes, possibly warns, about a certain lifestyle. I think Bill’s note about The Godfather is a smart one. I’d also add the Trainspotting series by Irvine Welsh. No matter how bad things get for the four main characters, there’s always something that draws popular culture back to them.

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