A DIALOGUE…with writer and scholar, Yahdon Israel

Enjoying a night on the Internet could not have been more fun without discovering the work of Yahdon Israel. Fresh-faced and outspoken from experiences in a gentrified, New York neighborhood, Yahdon’s work articulates the challenges that underprivileged youth are dealing today. As a graduate from Pace University and current student at the New School in his hometown, Yahdon’s essays and articles exhibit the importance of academia in the lives of aspiring minds. Specifically, as he is transitioning from being an essayist to a novelist, interviewing Yahdon Israel on writing, literacy, and social media has been one of the best decisions another writer in the 21st century can make.

Can you tell me about your book?

The book is titled, “Concealed Weapons,” and it is a part of a collection of nonfiction essays. It’s basically about a meditation on the consequences of carrying weapons: about how the things we are given to defend ourselves can become things we use to attack ourselves and others. It’s literally based on a dream I had after a party in Flatbush. The party was dangerous, and a friend suggested we buy a weapon. I’m sitting in the car, meditating on the gun – the fact that I even have a gun, and the cops pull us over. We were heading to a store where I used to work, making $50.00 a day for 11 hrs. 

Do you consider this a new transition from writing articles?

Not necessarily, but the writing style is different. The process is like an interior dialogue inside of my head. The language challenges how literature is written on page, as it has an audible quality. Has a distinct voice, sorta like hip-hop. I feel like I can hand you this book without my name and people would know who it is, like a Jay-Z lyric. I’m giving you the language of how our people, our experiences literally happen, which changes the flow. It’s like the voice of rap, and how rappers use language. As an example, the word “gassing” is used in the book, not as a colloquialism or even a metaphor, but it‘s a slang word used in our neighborhood. A novel has a more distinct voice, imagery, and exercises dialogue as it is.

Was this book inspired by the types of books that you read, or perhaps, your own writing?

Not by just books, but inspired by music, film. My writing is honestly inspired by everything not read on a page, or in a book; but everything that I’ve seen in life. James Baldwin is a literary influence, but I don’t connect with the same people he did because my writing is being written for a generation of people who don‘t read. I’m not trying to connect with the people who read, but the people who don’t read. Literature is a slower process, and changes your reading experience. The people who will read this book, know what they’re getting because they‘ve lived it. Because it’s concealing all of these ideas about beauty, our skin color, our family, I only know it this way. It’s like getting home a certain way, then you go a different way, you’re gonna feel lost until you find something that hits you. It’s literature out of the projects—-for the person you don’t think reads, like the crackhead in your neighborhood. I’m inspired by the drug addict, the drug dealer.

Opposed to a novel then, what inspires you to write on a daily basis, as a routine?

The thought that my book is going to be different. That the language I’m writing in will move the people who actually speak that way. For example, Toni Morrison says she writes a lot of books, like “The Bluest Eye,” because those stories haven’t been told. But I think a lot of stories have been told, they just haven’t been told in the way that I’m going to tell it. Like a cupcake you may like, but someone might make the cupcake a different way. Even though it’s still a cupcake, you’re like, oooh, a cupcake, and you like that one.

Do you have a daily routine that inspires you to write?

I don’t write everyday [laughs]. The way I approach writing is whenever I feel I have to. To have this power that is very dangerous, and to use it whenever you want to under-serves its purpose. I used to be on this kick that you had to write everyday to be a writer, so I would get in front of the computer and type something up, but none of it was good and none of it got better because I wasn’t writing for the right reasons. I wasn’t writing, I was just typing words to convince myself that I had been a writer. Essentially everything that I’m doing is writing; this conversation, watching movies, and just observing things is all writing because that’s building up information. Henry James has this quote, “It takes a great amount of history to produce a little literature.” When you think about that, if you’re writing everyday, where is the information coming from? I do believe some people who have those ideas where they can just sit and write, but that’s just not my approach.

What advice do you have for other young writers?

Be honest about where you are, and intentional. Grammar is timing, and the way you use your commas, your periods, matters. Writing is like music, except music has its instruments, its notes. In writing, you don’t have that, but you have your page breaks, which is your music. You should be able to hear what you read.

What influence has the Internet & blogging had on young writers?

It enables [them] to have so many different types of information. It’s like information overload, where it’s so much that you almost can’t interpret what it means. When you’re strolling down your timeline, there’s an assemblance of how Twitter & Facebook work. For people and the way our minds run, the internet is essentially a literary apparatus. More people are writers than they know. 

Is the internet’s impact on young writers different from the impact it can have on veteran writers?

Veteran writers are not at the mercy of the internet. James Baldwin didn’t have instagram, so he couldn’t write about it [laughs]. They can navigate without it because they are used to a time and space where they didn‘t have it. Think about when the telephone was invented: they’re used to calling each other, opposed to texting. The internet does create better readers, though [pauses] when you think about texting: you’re basically forced to read. But time and distance doesn’t overcome anything that’s truly inside of you.

Is your advice, considering social media and its impact on social justice, any different if given to a person of color, a woman, or would you differentiate advice at all between race, class, and gender?

I honestly don’t think so. Because the documentation of your experience is still your experience. Even if you’re a black woman, you have to listen to the totality of that. You know you’re a black woman, and your writing should say that. As the writer, I have to think about what these things really mean to me before I write. And if you don’t write from that way, you are being dishonest. You have to write what you feel, and also write in a language that makes you feel. You have to be honest about who you’re taking the story to, but start trusting yourself first. Don’t trust the reader to give you options.

As a black male writer, do you plan on a piece, essay or short-story, for Black History Month?

No, I didn’t plan on it, but I do have this essay about black beauty. This girl taught me black was beautiful by not allowing the world to define her in a way that would limit her. The only agency that she took is to own what the world thinks as a way to disclaim what I think of myself, which is: I know I’m not ugly, but I know the world thinks I’m ugly, so let me use what the world thinks of me to show the world how ugly it really is. The essay is basically how the price of beauty is ugly, and if you have never known what it’s like to feel ugly, you can’t know what it’s like to feel beautiful. It was this girl that vindicated me from the idea that dark skin girls couldn’t be beautiful. The essay is about our ideas of beauty, and how we pay for these ideas.

Lastly, what does Black History Month mean to you, specifically as a writer?

What is it supposed to mean? [laughs] I write about it all the time. That history, I’m living. If anything, the history needs people. The people don’t need the month. The month is everyday you live, trying to do what you can.

To learn more about Yahdon Israel, his upcoming book and other works, follow him on Twitter ( @YahdonIsrael ) and Instagram ( @yahdon ).


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