When it comes to Black stories featured in mainstream literary magazines, there is a noticeable deficit – and it’s not due to a shortage of gifted Black writers. But instead of accepting the closed doors that many Black writers face when trying to get published in mainstream journals like The New Yorker, Jason Parham simply created his own. In June, the New York-based writer published the first issue of Spook, featuring thought-provoking essays, fiction, art and poetry from Black writers across the country. Since it has already sold out in many of New York’s independent bookstores with requests for more copies coming in, he is proving that the demand for Black art is real.
Now working on the second issue, due out in December, Jason spoke with EBONY.com on the Black tradition of making your own path when doors have been closed to you.
EBONY: What made you decide to start a Black literary magazine?
JP: Spook isn’t a terribly original idea. We as a people come out of this highly literary Black tradition where we’re trying to break down societal barriers through art and give a voice to people who often go unheard. We create our own conversations and dictate our own conversations and show we are just as powerful and we have just as much to say as anybody else. So the idea for the magazine grew from that tradition and it was also just a meeting of circumstances.
I had a few false starts in getting my fiction published in journals, so I decided I’ll publish my own fiction in my own journal. Another of the circumstances was that in New York, there are a lot of independent bookstores and I’d go there for inspiration from time to time and see Harpers and The New Yorker and all of these great journals but nothing with a heavy minority focus. Noticing that hole and talking with some other writers I just decided to try and fill that void.
[Initially] publishing it was only supposed to be a one-time thing. But now it’s snow-balled into something greater than me needing a place to publish my own work. In this first issue, I didn’t even publish anything I’d written; it’s solely the work of others. That was kind of my goal, to give others a voice. I know so many great artists and so many great poets and they’re left out of these established liberal journals but they can have a voice in Spook. Hopefully I’ve done that and will continue to do that.
EBONY: The word “spook” has a negative connotation and has been used as a derogatory term for a Black person. Why did you choose this as the title of your journal and what does it mean to you?
JP: The title came to me when I was reading a collection of African American humor called Hokum by Paul Beatty, this amazing writer. He lives in New York now and he [also] wrote one of my favorite books, The White Man Shuffle. I was reading one of the humor essays, and in the middle of it was the word “spook.” At the time, I was trying to get together what kind of pieces I wanted to be in the journal, but as soon as I saw the word “spook” in that essay, I knew it was going to be the title. A lot of friends said it’s not a good idea because of the history of the word, but other friends said I could give new meaning to the idea. So that’s what I’m aiming to do: repurpose it and give it new meaning with the poetry, with the fiction and with the art. The word means that I want to move people and kind of rile them up with the work we produce.
EBONY: How can people get their copy of Spook?
JP: It’s being distributed now in independent bookstores in New York. It came out at the end of June in print and they’ve been doing really well and selling out in these bookstores. Readers can also buy the print copy online at Spook-Mag.com. I’m a traditionalist, so it will most likely be print only, but readers can purchase a digital copy when they buy the print copy online. I know digital is what’s now, but I think there is a sort of magic to holding a magazine in your hand. Print isn’t dead; it’s very much alive. Going forward, we’ll see if we can create and translate that online in a creative way. I don’t want it to be a Spook Tumblr or anything like that. It’ll have to give you the same experience online as in print. I haven’t figured out how to do that. But we’re always looking to innovate and do new things.
EBONY: Are you considering expanding to independent bookstores across the country?
JP: I would love to. I’ve got a friend looking into options of distributing back home in L.A. but right now, most people who are not in New York are buying it online. It’s actually being bought by people all over the country: in California, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It’s been really surprising how people have responded. I think people realized and understood that something has been missing and are excited about this. I’m excited for the next one.
For the second issue, I’ve been getting emails from writers that I enjoy reading who are reaching out to submit, so I’m excited. I have a few tricks up my sleeve and hopefully a few names I’d like to get on board for the second issue.
EBONY: You created this journal with the goal of publishing your own work, but then did not include your own work in this journal. What are your goals now for your own writing?
JP: I’m moving into creative writing. It’s a natural evolution for me, from writing at a newspaper and for The Atlantic and Vibe. The transition is weird because the non-fiction side is more observing and writing from that, but with fiction, you’re creating your own narrative. I’m not formally trained in writing, but I have a Masters in African-American literature that gave me Gloria Naylor, [Toni] Morrison and [James] Baldwin and gave me the knowledge and courage to say and do what I need to do.
I’m hoping to get published in other journals and to finish this novel I’m working on. The ideal, of course, is to get a book contract and just write, but we’ll see. I’m excited. I have a few ideas and I have a collection of stories about Black men in Los Angeles that I’m working on. I definitely want to write the great American novel.
EBONY: Who are your favorite writers?
JP: Baldwin and Morrison for very different reasons: Baldwin because his essays are just unreal, and Morrison, I love her fiction, her gauge and how she just approaches subjects and is always thinking so big.
EBONY: What do you hope your legacy will be?
JP: As Baldwin said, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” I hope to be remembered as someone who always spoke the truth about what he believed. And with Spook, I hope to show that our writing is just as good as anybody else’s.
To submit pieces to be considered for the third and fourth issues of Spook Magazine, email [email protected].
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @DistrictDiva.