Embodied Narratives: The Intersection of Fashion and Literature




YAHDON ISRAEL is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at The New School and the creator of the #literaryswag movement. A way to think about literary and sartorial style together, #literaryswag is a social media hashtag, a community, and now, an in-person book club hosted at the storied New York City bookstore the Strand. Israel’s infectious approach to lived-in intellect and literary acumen catches everyday people reading and styling on the subway, writers on the dance floor at AWP, amazing shoes and bookish gold teeth.

In one of its most wonderful manifestations, #literaryswag finds Israel challenging leading writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Heidi Julavits to quickly name their three favorite writers and three favorite clothing labels, getting more truth, insight, and laughter in 15 seconds than a standard Q&A gets in 30 minutes. The next Literary Swag book club meetings will bring people together to discuss Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Hilton Als’s The Women, and Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. He recently sat down with Sarah Blackwood to talk clothes, beloved writers, and how we come to our tastes through race and class.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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SARAH BLACKWOOD: Yahdon! In 50 words or less, tell me what #literaryswag is.

YAHDON ISRAEL: #Literaryswag is an online movement at the intersection of fashion and literature, designed to make literature more accessible to people who may not like to read. Hopefully by showing the literary and fashion tastes of writers, celebrities, fashion designers, musicians, and even everyday people, literature and style will become synonymous with each other.

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When did you start thinking about literature and fashion as related?

I’d started thinking about them as related when I was made aware of the distance between them. I remember hearing from countless mothers that, as it pertained to fashion, we went to school to learn not to impress our friends so it was implicit that fashion and any form of rigorous intellectualism weren’t compatible. Or at least weren’t supposed to be. This was then reinforced by the social hierarchy of the classroom: the well-dressed, stylish kids were seldom well-read, and vice versa. The well-read kids were usually “neat,” it’s not like they were unkempt or anything. It’s just that one usually took priority over another, and whichever side you found yourself on, that’s the side you stayed. But the well-read kids were seldom popular.

Then, there’s this whole other mind/body dichotomy that also gets reinforced: if you’re intellectual, you’re completely unconcerned or unaware with your physical appearance, and if you’re stylish, you’re superficial and shallow. So #literaryswag is also the refutation of that division.

Does it come out of your own style? Your own experience as a reader? I have known you for a while, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you dressed in anything less than “a look,” even on a college campus where many students wear their pajamas to class. Now, be real: have you ever left the house wearing something embarrassingly uninspired?

At any given point, my day can take me from Bed-Stuy, to Greenwich Village, to an author’s panel, to a literary party, to class, and to the A train back home. And I have to wear something — one outfit, versatile enough — that communicates my ability to exist in these places simultaneously. So, clothes matter. I can’t say that I ever left in anything embarrassingly uninspired but I can definitely say there are days when I haven’t tried as much as others, which really doesn’t say much because on an average day it takes me about 45 minutes to an hour to get dressed. And on the days when I’m not “inspired,” it takes probably 30 minutes.

I’m still accustomed to being judged solely by how I look. So I’m acutely aware of my body, because I know of how it’s perceived by different people in different contexts and environments.

That is really fascinating. Would you then say that, for you, fashion is a form of (embodied) narrative? 

Fashion is most definitely an embodied narrative. So much to the point that I can tell you where I was — mentally, physically, culturally, et cetera — depending on what I wore. I’m very aware of what I want my body and, by extension, my clothes to do in the spaces I interact with. My Margiela sneakers say a very particular thing to you, but then my National Book Award Tote may suggest something completely different. Taken together, you’re forced to reckon with what you’re looking at because no one thing I’m wearing says to you who I am.

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Tell me a bit more about the logistics of getting this movement off the ground — what platforms have you used to reach your audiences? 

Well, everything is really run through Instagram. I’m seldom on Twitter. I can’t — and will not — with that 140-character format. I just refuse. Instagram is the perfect negotiation between text and image. You can really type these mini narratives under the picture, which allows you to expand the possibilities of how we read images, literally. And that’s really what Literary Swag is about: looking a bit closer at what we see everyday.

Literary Swag has also evolved since it began. When I first started this, I wanted to encourage other people to post pictures of people reading. I was like: “You know what, if I want people to do stuff, I’m going to have put up some bread.” That’s when I came up with the Literary Swag Competition. I took $1,000 of my own money and basically said: “Whoever posts the most pictures of reading over the summer wins.” This year, the hashtag grew by over 8,000 uses in two months.

In addition to the money, the winner also gets a book of their choice. That also goes for the other finalists who place in the top five. The money is cool but the swag wouldn’t be literary without a book.

But now you’ve started including yourself and other writers as well.

Yes. The next installment, which is arguably the most popular aspect of #literaryswag, is #myliteraryswag. I use this hashtag for videos I make asking writers for their three favorite writers and clothing lines. The idea came while I was at a reading for Jason Reynold’s The Boy in the Black Suit. At red carpet events, celebrities are always being asked “Who are you wearing?” and so I thought it’d be cool if I asked writers not only who they wore but also their favorite writers. To date I’ve been able to get Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Junot Diaz, Phil Klay, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Roxane Gay, Rita Dove, Joshua Ferris, Geoff Dyer, Marlon James, Anne Carson — this list just keeps going, and I don’t intend for it to ever stop.

Yahdon Coates

What these videos also provide, for an unsuspecting public, is the ability to see that writers are people with personalities. To hear that Junot Diaz likes Octavia Butler and Hugo Boss, or that Claudia Rankine is as versed in Rita Dove as she in Dries Van Noten, it forces you to reconsider what a writer is supposed to be. At the very least, it makes you say, “This is pretty cool.”

You’ve written before about fashion, race, and class both from the perspective of a poor black kid trying to have the “right” shoes, and a white teacher kind of performatively having the “wrong” shoes. Where does #literaryswag fit in to these cultural fantasies about what fashion is and isn’t, what it does and doesn’t do for people?

#Literaryswag isn’t about the right and wrong shoes, so much as it is about celebrating whatever style choices a person has. In both essays, what’s harrowing about those experiences was the whole idea that there was a “right” and “wrong” shoe, coupled with the fact that my station in life at the time did not allow for me to afford expensive things. Honestly, my station in life doesn’t allow for me to afford expensive things now, but I do buy them anyway and it’s because I’m terribly concerned — obsessed even — with the “right” choice. I’d like to get to a point where I don’t necessarily need a pair of Margielas to be “fly,” but I’m not there yet.

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So this movement is a way for me to encourage people that they don’t have to buy Margiela, or Prada, or whatever. If there had been someone like me who had real Timberlands and then didn’t make me feel bad because mine were fake, this probably wouldn’t be a thing. But because I felt counterfeit, my pursuit of high-end clothing is my way of legitimizing myself. But it’s also my way of lending legitmacy to people who don’t have the same pursuits. So, whether your shoes are $700 or $25, whether your clothes are from Bergdorf or Target, as long as you’re reading, you’re #literaryswag.

But I’m going to push back a little bit here. I’m not entirely convinced that it doesn’t matter where your clothes are from. Both Fashion (capital F) and Literary Culture (capital L and C) often involve significant material privilege (you can afford the “right” bag; you went to the “right” schools, know the right people). I guess I’d like to hear a little more how (or, even, whether!) #literaryswag navigates the structures of power that often exclude certain people.

Well, yes Fashion and Literature are both capitalized because they function as institutions. They ARE institutions. What makes an institution an institution is their capacity to materialize their sentiments. They’re about the material — what you can touch, what you can “prove,” which school you went to, where you shop, et cetera. #Literaryswag functions, to me, as a culture rather than an institution. That’s what I think makes this different than other existing power structures. I’m not about telling people what they shouldn’t read and shouldn’t wear. To do any of that is counter-intuitive to why this exists.

And we’re so beholden to institutions that we forget, or take for granted rather, that culture can, and often does, operate independent from the institutions that serve as a catalyst for it. I was watching the Ice T documentary The Art of Rap, and one of the hip-hop legends (I want to say it was Doug E. Fresh) who talked about how all the budget cuts during the late 1970s through the 80s — which led to the removal of instruments from schools — made people have to learn how to use what was left of what they had to make music. Thus, the beatboxing, the rapping, your mother’s vinyl player became instruments because there was nothing else.

I highly doubt the government thought that slashing public programs would make hip-hop, but I also doubt that the people who created hip-hop knew what they were creating. They were just responding with what felt necessary, felt urgent at the time. That’s what culture is to me: something that feels urgent and necessary. You’re not engaging because you think, “Oh this is going to make me rich one day”; you engage because you can’t imagine any other way to exist.

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That’s why the interviews with writers are called #myliteraryswag: they’re an emphasis on what the tastes of the writers are. And even when I speak to them and ask about their favorite designers, everyone’s first answer is: “Well I don’t know much about the designers.” So I repeatedly have to disabuse them of the idea that their favorite designer didn’t have to be Gucci or Prada. I love it when Meghan Daum says Target or Joshua Ferris says Kmart. It’s affirming that they are celebrated for what they like.

The difference between Joshua Ferris and the average kid saying that is the moment that Joshua Ferris recognizes Kmart, he also recognizes a community. He recognizes bodies that went unnoticed. His cultural capital “moment” becomes that average kid’s as well.

I just recently interviewed David Remnick and all he was able to come up with was Levi’s. Now something happens when the editor-in-chief of one of the most important cultural and literary institutions — The New Yorker — says his favorite brand is Levi’s. A kid may not outright “care” about who David Remnick is, but if that kid likes Levi’s, they may never look at a pair of Levi’s, or David Remnick, the same way again. Their community of who they feel is like them gets a little bigger. And maybe, just maybe, that kid decides to Google David Remnick and discovers The New Yorker all because Remnick said he liked Levi’s. That possibility of building community and coalition in unexpected places is why this is important. And to a larger extent, it’s why we have art — that average kid in Bed-Stuy hopes that they may create something that resonates for the average kid in rural Iowa or wherever, and vice versa.

The academic year just began, and while many professors won’t admit it, most of us think pretty hard about what we wear to teach in, what kind of bag(s) we bring into the classroom, et cetera. What would (will!) you wear in front of a classroom of writers?

Everything, because it’ll challenge them to change the way they’re used to seeing, which is crucial to the way we think and write. As writers, we’re looking for inconsistencies, trying to figure out what it is we’re seeing. But writing loses it luster when we begin to take our own ways of seeing for granted. Continuously switching it up forces them to pay attention, be vigilant.

I’ve honestly always thought that black men get treated with a lot more respect in the classroom because that’s usually the last person you’d expect to teach you — especially if they’re fashionable, or attractive. A lot of people have never been explicitly taught by a black man, so the rarity of that experience makes it valuable. It’s like “Oh shit! I better pay attention because I may never get this experience again.”

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Sidebar: elementary and middle school had the highest concentration of black male teachers for me. In high school, I didn’t have any. In my tenure at Pace, not one black. I’m actually about to finish my MFA, I haven’t had one there either.

So, now that we’ve got you dressed for the classroom, tell us what you’d teach and a little bit about why those texts.

I’d teach Hilton Als’s critical memoir, The Women. I’d never seen a man (gay, straight, bi) investigate the interior lives of women in a way that sought to humanize them while also using that investigation as a basis for grappling with their own masculinity and sexuality. Because of that book, I’ve been looking into the lives of the women around me more as well. I’m beginning to see the blind spots when it comes to writing and thinking about women. So, that book for me would definitely be a great way to bring that urgency to the classroom and let the class know that what we do here has serious stakes and implications, and if you’re not thinking about who they affect (The Women), then you have to reevaluate how you think and why.

On Instagram, you refer to the Strand Book Store in New York as “The Trap.” Can you talk a little bit about your nickname for this storied literary place?

For anyone who doesn’t know, a “trap” is anywhere that drugs are sold and bought. But besides the very obvious reasons that a life of drug use doesn’t provide much escape, the trap is also any place that provides an experience that always brings you back. You don’t only go to a trap because you want to escape — which is the dominant narrative of how we see people who deal with addiction — you go because it’s sometimes the only way you’re able to confront anything. It’s like that scene in James Baldwin’s story Sonny’s Blues where someone says, about the narrator’s addict brother, “He don’t want to die. He wants to live. Don’t nobody want to die, ever.” That was the first story that humanized the experience of addiction for me. This is not an endorsement of drug use (I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that, but sometimes people have an exceptional ability to completely miss the point); it just showed me that not everyone engages with the same things for the same reason.

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On the subject of books, people who don’t read think of people who do read as escapists. A lot of people think burying your face in a book is how people avoid living. But, anyone who reads — and this is where the analogy of the “wanting to live” makes itself obvious — knows that reading allows them to confront the world. Reading makes the world a bit more bearable because you see that there are other people who have the same questions as you. So, that’s a larger idea why I call the Strand “The Trap.”

On a more intimate level, I went to go buy a few collections of essays from there —Baldwin, Mailer, Zadie, John Freeman. While I was being rung up, the cashier chuckled to himself. I asked him, “What happened?” and he said, “Oh nothing. You just have really good taste in books.” Now in all my time of buying books, I had never gotten a compliment for what I read — least of all from a cashier at a bookstore. So when he complimented my taste in books he let me know that he too was a reader, and he made me aware of myself in the space. He made me feel that my presence mattered there. And not just because I was spending money, but because of what I was deciding to read. That undid me.

The people that work at the Strand know the books they sell you. It’s not just, “Oh that book is on the second floor”; it’s “Oh, let me take to it! I see you’re into Hilton Als, have you ever read Maggie Nelson?” It’s an experience. And it’s the same experience you get when you shop at a clothing boutique. Things are stylized, tailored damn near, to the person. Who wouldn’t want to be entrapped by that experience? It’s vindicating. That’s the irony of the name The Trap: you don’t go to Strand to get lost; you go, or I go, to be found; to be discovered; to be seen and ultimately to be vindicated.

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Sarah Blackwood is Associate Professor of English at Pace University.


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