Sep 28, 2016
30 Under 30: Yahdon Israel, Founder of #Literaryswag
Excuse me for being crass, but Yahon Israel is stylish as fuck. Google him, and you’ll find pictures of him in Louboutin sneakers, a brightly colored dashiki which he’s somehow found loafers to match, or a fucking amazing leather jacket. So, when the New School alum was sitting on the subway one day and spotted someone wearing a dope outfit and reading a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, he snapped a picture and put it on Instagram. Game recognizes game.
He probably didn’t imagine, though, that the hashtag he put on that photo, “#literaryswag,” would come to define his life. Israel’s mission—to make reading cool by showing how hot books can be—has expanded greatly. He now donates money from his student loans to the super users of the #literaryswag, which now has more than 12,000 posts. He has interviewed writers like Junot Diaz and Ta-Nehisi Coates for his Instagram, about their favorite authors and designers. And he’s been profiled in places like Man Repeller and the Huffington Post.
Where do you live and how old are you?
I live and grew up in Bed-Stuy, and I’m 26.
What made you first interested in your profession, and how old were you when that happened?
I was 9 when my fourth grade teacher Mr. Sidiqqi (I pray I’m spelling this man’s name correctly) gave us a creative writing assignment for homework where we had to write about whatever we wanted and read it in front of the classroom. I wasn’t a very popular kid at the time, but I was one of the best writers in the class, so I saw the assignment as an opportunity to finally get some shine.
I can’t tell you what the story was exactly about—cause I don’t remember. But I’ll never forget the class’s reaction when I read it. I had never heard a room so quiet before. And it wasn’t that awkward silence you get when you’re bombing. It was the kind of silence that let me know if I could figure out what it was that made my classmates listen and laugh like the way they were, I would blow up. Even the kids who weren’t really feeling me like that gave me props. That was the first time I felt like people saw who I actually was. It was also the first time I gave myself permission to be that person.
Do you feel Brooklyn is still a viable place for a young person to build a career?
I can’t really call it. I’ve lived here since I was 6 and while the idea of Brooklyn as a cultural hub has drawn a lot of people, the reality is this place is expensive in a way that’s it’s never been before. It is what it is, but this is happening at a time when people my age and younger are getting better at being practical. Like, yeah, it’s Brooklyn, but is it really worth it? The truth for many people is that it isn’t, which has a lot to do with why even people who’ve lived here their wholes lives are like, “I’m off this.”
Then you have all these property sharks who are harassing homeowners about giving them cash for their houses, knowing that what they’re giving isn’t really what these houses are worth. Especially now. Rent keeps rising, but people’s checks aren’t. It’s disenchanting. I’m Bed-Stuy till I die but the way these prices are set up, I really might end up dying somewhere else.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
God willing, having enough coins in my pockets to stay in Brooklyn. A book that’s gone platinum by the standards of the music industry (1,000,000 copies sold). I would like to have started my Literary Consulting and Advocacy agency for both established and emerging writers to get their swag up. Meaning helping them get to their audiences more effectively; educating them on how to navigate the business side of the writing industry; and making sure they’re fly. 36, I’d ideally hope to have children with a woman that I love, cherish and respect. Grandkids would really do it for my moms. I see Oprah hitting me on my hotline about the books SHE should be reading. And of course, I see a lot of books—and even more Margiela.
Have you ever felt like leaving your career path?
Yessir. But it had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t thinking about my career in a healthy way. The initial idea was playing the game on the terms of the industry and then magically reaching some point where I’d flip it and do what I wanted but that almost never happens. What I want for myself as a writer is to document and explore what’s important to me no matter where that may end up taking me. So the frustration of wanting to leave my career path as a writer had to do with an immaturity of not wanting to accept that freedom costs.
If I really want to be myself, I have to be willing to give up all the things I think I want—money, fame, Margiela. That’s going to continue to be the internal beef because my values contradict themselves, often. I want freedom, but I also want the amenities of luxury. Finding a way to reconcile is going to be a struggle but that’s the point of living.
What’s felt like you’re biggest professional accomplishment?
Being in a room full of people who didn’t believe in what I was doing and deciding to do it anyway. I remember telling people about how I’m going to work to make literature the next rock and roll, and people looking at me as if I’d checked myself out of the hospital with my gown on backwards. So when I got the story in Articles of Style, which turned into Buzzfeed, then Man Repeller, then Huffington Post, then Blavity, and now this 30 Under 30, I just think about what would’ve happened if I was like, “they’re right.”
What’s some advice you’d give to people trying to get a foothold in your industry?
I honestly would say check your intentions. It’s something I never forget Dave Chappelle talking about when he explained to James Lipton why he left his show. He wasn’t sure why he was doing what he was doing anymore. He knew WHAT he was doing. He was making people laugh, but he became estranged from the existential necessity of it. The reason. He never told a joke with the idea that he would one day get, in theory, $50 million. He did it because he really loves comedy.
That’s the type of brutal honesty you’d have to have when deciding what you’re going to do. You have to ask yourself why. I’ve been doing that a lot recently and that’s how I know I’m going to be around. I believe I’m asking the hard questions now so I can produce answers, if I’m blessed enough to do so, later—which is really what writing is about. Figuring out the answers to your questions.
I’d also advocate for people to support the writers they love. Not just with words. Monies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen hundreds of people come to a reading, talk a writer’s head off and not ever buy a book. I’m not saying purchasing a book is a prerequisite to talk to someone but it does show a level of investment. And in this industry, where 3,000 books make you a bestseller, every copy counts.
People take notice to who supports them, and a lot of the generosity I’ve received from writers, editors, and publishers in this industry in the short time I’ve been here has come, I believe, from the fact that they see how invested I am in seeing everyone win.
Who are your role models in your industry?
Hilton Als because he gave the best advice I’d ever heard as a writer: “If you want to really be able to write about the things you care about freely, keep a day job.” Margo Jefferson because she brings a restorative dignity to everyone and everything she writes about. Lisa Lucas because she’s doing a lot to make books accessible, which is what we really need. More books is fine. But we need more new readers and Lisa is dedicated to that. John Freeman because he physically goes and finds writers. He’s like a D1 scout.
Paul Beatty because he’s so unapologetically himself. The night he won the NBCC Award for fiction he wore dessert chukka boots, jeans and a thermal, shrugging his shoulders the entire time. It’s reaffirming to see that you can change the platform without the platform changing you. Jane Ciabratti because she’s really about this literary life. And Zora Neale Hurston because she sacrified her material well-being to tell the stories of black people.
Who would be your pick for a 30 Under 30?
I would have to say the twins, Chris and Clayton Griggs. They have an embroidery space in the back of Opening Ceremony where they customize people’s clothes. They’ve been doing it for some time but if you ever get to talk to them you’ll see there’s a real sense of purpose behind it, which I’m all here for.
Should we all move to LA?
To learn about 29 more sub-thirty standouts, visit this year’s 30 Under 30.
Image by Jane Bruce
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