Uli Beutter Cohen
We meet Yahdon Israel on a Saturday morning in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Right away, we bust out some Martinelli’s, his favorite, and dive into his closet. Yahdon, 26, describes himself as “the importer of the literary and the exporter of the swag,” and we couldn’t agree more. He received his MFA from The New School and hasn’t stopped since. He writes for The New Inquiry and Brooklyn magazine, his book club is lit, and his Fuckboy Files make serious waves. Enter the world of #literaryswag.
In high school, we dressed for girls. If a girl didn’t think you was fly, you wasn’t fly. That was the bottom line of it. I also grew up watching my mother and my sisters. They had six pieces in their closet, and I watched them make new outfits out of the same six pieces over and over. It created possibilities in places where you didn’t even think they existed.
If I wear something, it’s because I’ve seen a woman wear it and I just have to find a way to integrate it into what I do. Part of being a woman is constantly thinking about ways to reinvent yourself. As a dude, I could wear the same thing every day and it would be my uniform. For women it’s different. It makes you humble, and more inventive.
I started #literaryswag to promote literature and fashion. I want to make books appealing to people who typically don’t like to read, and to see what people are reading and wearing. Sometimes the book and outfit matches, but matching it is not the point. It complements each other. So I’d do this Coogi sweater with Angela Flournoy’s Turner House. That is just one of those times where it syncs up, but it’s not a force, it’s a wave. That’s what #literaryswag is.
I want to get into the full embodiment of what it means to be in someone’s world.
On book covers:
What I really want to see on book covers, and what I don’t see a lot, are the writers. It “shouldn’t matter” what people look like, but it helps with representation, and with letting people see who they are investing their money in. If people knew right away that White Girls was written by a Black man, it would change everything. Somehow there’s this idea that the writers are not a part of the narrative, but it does matter.
A lot of book covers, they don’t speak to me, but because I’m an invested literary citizen, I do the extra work of figuring out who these writers are. Imagine if Thriller’s album cover never existed. Purple Rain’s album cover is as much Purple Rain as the music. These types of visuals help us identify who we have in front of us. I want to get into the full embodiment of what it means to be in someone’s world.
On being political:
I am absolutely a political person. Everyone is. Your body is politicized from the time you’re born. The fact that you have a birth certificate shows that. There’s nothing that should be taboo about admitting, addressing, and confronting that fact. People of color, minorities, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, anyone who is “the other” — we collectively have to be aware because there’s language that is created for our bodies that we didn’t create for ourselves.
As a Black dude, I am aware. There’s criticism that comes against my writing that isn’t always based on technique or style. It’s based on politics and concealed through things like, “Oh, it’s not that I don’t like your politics. Your sentence structure is off.” This is why you do the research, so you can say, “Well, Hemingway writes like this, Faulkner writes like this, and you don’t have a problem with it.” There’s nothing to gain from a world that doesn’t want to see me. That’s why you do the work and learn to be unafraid.
On turning points:
The Women by Hilton Als was a turning point for me. It made me start to have an actual conversation with my mother. So was White Girls, especially the essay “Philosopher or Dog.” It’s about how Malcolm X invented his mother on the page and completely negates the fact that his mother is a person, not a symbol.
In the past, I almost exclusively read books by men, about Black, male angst — like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Seize the Time by Bobby Seale. Zadie Smith wrote an essay about Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I avoided it because I was afraid I would see things I didn’t want to see about women, especially Black women. That comes with growing up, right? Seeing things you don’t want to see.
Now I find I get a much more deeply considered experience from the perspective of a woman, especially Black women writers. They catch a lot of people’s blind sides in their writing. Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens does that. She describes herself as a womanist, because she sees that term as inclusive of all women. There’s a great quote in that book: “One story doesn’t really satisfy her, she wants to get all the stories, because that’s the truth. The stories all together.”
She wants to get all the stories, because that’s the truth. The stories all together.
On “literary concerts”:
Personally, I’m going to write about what I know, which is limited — it’s a human experience, in Bed-Stuy, on this block. You’ll also have to get the book from around the corner, you have to get the book from up the block, and you gotta get the book from the Bronx. You have to read these other books because that is the work, to read all of them.
The books I think about together are the essay collections The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, this gorgeous book by Wendy S. Walters, let’s see, Claudia Rankine of course, then you get a little bit of Baldwin in there and then you start to have a concert.
If reading gives you access to a community, then it’s a cool thing.
I don’t feel like reading itself is cool. What it provides, that’s cool. The reason a lot of kids don’t read is that they don’t have people to talk to about what they’re reading. At the basis of all human activity, you’re looking for community. If reading gives you access to a community, then it’s a cool thing.
The short answer is, it’s a good thing. The slightly unabridged answer is, I know there’s the fear that someone who represents celebrity has the potential to undermine things that people take very seriously, but I think, for people who would have never even looked at a book, this is a great vestibule for them. If Kim Kardashian is the reason why you start to read books and why you start to pay attention to things like Eye Level, Literaryswag and The National Book Foundation, then I don’t see the problem.
My book advocacy is taking me to teenagers. What we don’t see enough of in the literary world is young people. I want to change the culture around reading. For kids, it’s not about representation at the highest level, it’s about representation at their level. I want to create opportunities for teenagers to write and to be read. The breakthrough is going to happen when teenagers are lining up for their generation’s James Baldwin the same way they do when Yeezys come out. That’s what I’m focused on now. Getting kids in the room.
What we don’t see in the literary world is young people. I want to change the culture around reading.
Who made the art that’s on your walls? It’s by the artist Parris Jaru.
What moves you in three words or less? People.
Why Martinelli’s? What’s more inclusive than apple juice? Everyone can partake in it and have the champagne feel.
Book Store or Library? Book store. All day.
If you could only read one book for the rest of your life: The Women by Hilton Als.
Where do you shop? The Strand. I call it “the trap,” because I go there for one thing and leave with six. That place is a gem.
The breakthrough is going to happen when teenagers are lining up for their generation’s James Baldwin the same way they do when Yeezys come out.