Editor-in-Chief of Brooklyn Mag, where’d you get that Literaryswag?
Have you ever been on the subway and someone catches your eye with his or her impeccable style? As you stand in awe of the bright colors, bold patterns, and unique accessories, you notice something else—what’s that—a book? A book of poetry? Now - that’s swag. To be more precise, that’s Literaryswag, a movement standing at the intersection of fashion and literature.
Conceived by Yahdon Israel ’12, English, Literaryswag wants to make reading hot, and remind the world that one can be equally passionate about things as seemingly disparate as literature and fashion. In 2015, it began as a hashtag on Instagram when Israel posted a photo of a young man, in a dope outfit, reading To Kill a Mockingbird on the subway. It has since evolved into the Literaryswag Book Club, a thriving community where lovers of books and fashion can unabashedly flaunt their style and talk about books. Today, Israel is the editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine. He’s an essayist whose work has been published in Poets & Writers, espnW, and Guernica magazine, among others. As a writer and style icon, he’s been featured in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Man Repeller and the list goes on. Find out how it all began.
Why clothes and books?
The ideas that books are cool and that clothes are a representation of one’s personality are nothing new for Israel. He was raised in a home filled with books and where clothing had a personal touch. His mother hand-made all of his clothes until he was 10 years old. “She would bring home fabric with colorful patterns and just create,” he said. “It was like having a personal tailor.” What most people would call fashion, Israel learned to define in broader terms. “I don’t like to call it fashion; I call it presenting yourself to the world. This is how my mother taught me to view fashion.” Another integral part of “presenting yourself to the world” is intelligence, and his mom instilled the value of reading. “In our household, books were cool,” he said. Reading not only made you smarter, it imparted new ideas to contemplate, to discuss and to argue. To this day, Israel lives in harmony with his books. A carryover from his upbringing, he has a particular dislike for boxy and obtrusive bookshelves and prefers his books in towering piles on the floor, ready to be explored.
Putting in the work
In 2008, Israel enrolled at Pace and declared an English major. Why English? “Because language is powerful,” he said, “if you can command language, you can command anything.” Upon graduation in 2012, Israel, like most, was eager to put his degree to work. So, what is the first job an English major gets after graduation? In Israel’s case, data manager. Yes, you read that correctly. It was January 2013, less than six months after Hurricane Sandy devastated countless lives and communities when he joined the disaster recovery company SCO as a data manager. “I remember thinking, this degree has nothing to do with me punching in data,” he said, “but often times life doesn’t give you what you want, it gives you what you need.” His job was to gather, organize and disseminate data on losses that would determine the allocation of relief funds, work that directly affected the amount of aid hurricane survivors received. “When it comes to helping people, numbers alone can be meaningless,” he said. “With my English degree, I was able to add a narrative to the data and give the numbers meaning.” His contributions led to SCO’s Hurricane Sandy recovery program being extended multiple times.
Getting off the ground
His work with SCO had earned him a living, but in 2015 he took a leap of faith and left to focus on writing. He traded the steady job for a full-time MFA Creative Writing program at The New School. To get by, it was back to folding laundry at FlyCleaners, which freed up time to hone his craft and get his work out into the world using Literaryswag as a means to promote his writing and that of fellow up and coming writers. He launched the monthly Literaryswag Book Club and interviewed acclaimed writers like Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz, and MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates. He built his credibility over the years, writing for Avidly, The New Inquiry, Brooklyn Magazine, LitHub, and Poets and Writers, cementing his place in the New York literary scene. Once he earned his MFA, he began teaching prose at The City College of New York. He realized the more time he devoted to writing and to reading the work of other writers, the more success came his way.
Little did he know, his life’s work up to that point had caught the attention of some key players in Brooklyn’s literary scene, which led to a job offer he never saw coming.
In the fall of 2016, Israel got an email from the CEO and co-founder of Northside Media, the publisher of Brooklyn Magazine. Israel had written for the magazine in the past, and a books editor familiar with his work had put his name forward for an open position. “The CEO said they were looking for an editor,” he said. “My first thought was they were looking for a book editor, so I said ‘sure, let’s see what this is about.’” To his surprise, Northside Media was seeking to fill the position of editorial director of all of their properties. “The company was looking to enter a new era of relevance,” he said. Israel’s was the fresh, vibrant voice they sought. His writing, of course, spoke for itself, and his talent for social media marketing hadn’t gone unnoticed. When offered the role of editorial director, he asked to be named editor-in-chief of Brooklyn Magazine, the publisher’s leading publication. He got it. “Titles are important,” he said, “and I wanted the most prominent brand to be reflected in my title.” He now sits at the helm of Brooklyn Magazine and oversees all of the publisher’s other assets.
Roots in community
Between his work at Northside Media and teaching young writers at The City College of New York, Israel can still be found every month hosting the Literaryswag Book Club. “The greatest contribution I make to the book club is keeping it going every month. People won’t show up if they think I won’t be there.” He has happily committed himself to creating and nurturing a group where ideas and books are as valued as they were in his mother’s household. You may have seen some of his book club members around the city; the folks in the subway who catch your eye with their stunning style, entranced in the pages of a beautifully tattered softcover. Israel’s message to loyal book club members? “Too many people in this world think intelligence is intimidating, so they dull it down,” he said. “Why present yourself as dim-witted? The mantra of what I’m doing is, no matter what, shine as brightly as you possibly can."