4:21 pm Jun. 28, 20121
“There was a gap…there was something missing.”
“I love The New Yorker, I love Harper’s, and these are very great established literary magazines, and we’re so often on the periphery.”
The “we” he’s referring to are African American, Latino, and other writers of color.
Spook is his answer.
When people of color are subjects in mainstream media, too often it's within the confines of stories about hip-hop, professional sports, or triumphs over adversity.
“There are always one or two African American or Latino writers,” Parham told me when I met him on Sunday in Brooklyn. “But it’s never a complete book of us. And I wanted to create our own conversation. To say these are our stories and they are just as important and we can still be in dialogue with you guys and be just as good as you guys.“
Parham is 26 years old. He has an overgrown high-top fade that he often keeps hidden under a baseball cap because he can’t find a decent barber shop near his apartment in Williamsburg. He works at an Internet company, has been freelancing as a journalist for the past three years and is writing a novel about a guy who wants to “shade up” his skin; basically, make it “blacker.” In an editor’s note in Spook, Parham summarized the genesis of the magazine in four words: “I had an idea.” The first issue is available now (and celebrates its release tonight at 7 p.m. at Gallery Bar).
“I had some false starts in trying in getting some fiction published in journals. And at the same time I was looking for other journals for inspiration but I wasn’t finding anything in book stores that had heavily African American writers or Latino writers or Asian writers,” Parham told me.
Patrice Evans, who is perhaps better known by nom de plume “The Assimilated Negro,” has been friends with Parham for a while. He thinks he understands why it's hard for projects like Parham's to achieve critical mass.
“To me, it’s always a numbers issue," said Evans. "If you’re ten, twelve, fifteen percent of the population, you can really never have the numbers. Maybe you never will get paid unless you do some Russell Simmons or Jay-Z story but as a writer they say that’s not what you get in it for.” Evans' own book, Negropedia, is a kind of satiric guide to black America; he didn’t set out to write about race, he said, but as a black man he thought: “well, there is no perspective on this so I might as well say what I have to say.”
In that, neither Evans nor Parham is operating without historical precedent, even if in Evans' case it took a little digging to find it.
“I might have said that I always thought of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, [Wallace Thurman], and the old Harlem renaissance intellectuals as outdated, old fogies who never used the 'N-Word,'" he said. "When I discovered they called themselves the 'Niggerati' and had a fun/culture 'zine on the side, likely along the same lines as Spook—different time but similar sensibility and agenda—it made me realize Spook was the greatest invention since Blue Ivy Carter and The Chris Brown Relationship Handbook.”
The “Niggeratti” created the counterculture literary magazine Fire!!, to create an outlet for a their generation of black writers. And like most serious literary efforts, it was short-lived and contentious. Some thought black literature had to be aspirational, and had to show an idealized black culture; others, like Thurman and Hughes, were adamant about showing it just as they perceived it was in real life. Fire!! never printed a second issue.
Parham, however, takes a more cross-cultural approach in putting together Spook. For right now, it includes African American and Latino writers but he hopes to include as many minority perspectives as he can.
In Evans’ contribution to Spook’s premiere issue, “Tyler Perry presents…A Spike Lee joint,” he artfully addresses the issue of marketing black culture through an imagined conversation between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. At one point, Lee wonders what he needs to do to get a movie financed.
“Do I need a string of black teenage boys in hoodies to be shot so I have the cultural capital to make a film that says something?”
“Holy, Jackie Robinson! I think we should work together!” Tyler responds—the merger of high and low-brow black culture crystallized through a Tyler-Lee commercial vehicle.
Evans, along with writers Victor LaValle (The Big Machine) and Justin Torres are the more celebrated contributors in Parham’s magazine. Torres’ released his first novel, We the Animals, last year and has published short stories in both The New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. Both Torres and LaValle were drawn to Parham’s enthusiasm, and well, he was pretty ballsy.
“I like how Jason had the ambition or audacity to say ‘Hey I don’t know you at all but I want your help,'” Lavalle told me. "That’s what I wanted to support.”
LaValle didn’t have time to write a story for Spook so Parham asked if he could edit Torres’ story about an Italian girl who changes high schools and starts dating a Puerto Rican. LaValle has published a collection of short stories and two novels so he has been navigating the literary community as a biracial guy from Queens for years. He’s felt the pressure to play up a certain ethnic narrative and understands the dilemmas facing minority writers.
“Sometimes, in my experience, I’ve been disappointed,” he said, “We’re a tribal species so we often speak to our tribes. It’s not often that people try to read things beyond representations of themselves. And that’s not just white people. People don’t like to step outside of their comfort zone.” It's a struggle LaValle understands. When he published Big Machine, The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Despite the advance acclaim, 'Big Machine' faces major hurdles in finding a broad audience. [Chris Jackson, executive editor of Spiegel & Grau] says that it has always been difficult to market black literary fiction. ‘Black writers don’t have a support network that helps them publish their short stories, and the encouragement they get is often for familiar material.’”
“I’m always happy for new writers, specifically writers of color, to reach readers," LaValle said. "It’s hard sometimes for people to get that opportunity. The hurdle that [Jason] faces is whether the only people who read it are the people who are in it.”
It's just the problem Spook and its contributors want to solve.
Its important for Rembert Browne, another contributor to Spook and staff writer for Grantland.
“I see myself as a writer that is black rather than a black writer," he told me. “I’m not trying to play down the fact that I’m black, but when it comes to my audience I never want to write something for a black audience only. I can be talking about the blackest thing ever but that doesn’t mean it’s meant for a certain set of ears.”
Illustrations from 'Spook' include, from top, work by Richard Stevenson and Hank Willis Thomas.
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