On the website, Spook is referred to as a "literary arts mash up" and it is - an amalgamation of various literary styles and voices culminating in quality fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, and social criticism. Spook is much more than just a biannual literary magazine though. Like the video introduction below, the lyrics accompanying the visuals repeat that, "it's a feeling" - and it is. Reading an issue of Spook is an experience - one that pairs well with a cup of coffee and an hour of uninterrupted time. I imediately fell in love with the magazine at first read; it was moving, hilarious, witty, thought-provoking and well curated. Founder and LA native, Jason Parham, an editor and writer at Complex magazine by day, came up with the idea of creating a literary magazine after noticing a lack of outlets for alternative voices, particularly for people-of-color. After shooting the idea around to some friends and colleagues, Parham brought on a team of contributors - both writers and visual artists. The result is something The New Inquiry calls, ""The most called-for print publication in ages" and The Los Angeles Review of Books says is an "invaluable contribution to the cultural conversation." Accolades aside, Spook is just plain dope. It's a haven for literary nerds (like myself) and one of the best print publications I've read in a while (I'm already itching for my fix with Issue Two). Read on for Parham's thoughts on the creation of Spook, how the voice of the publication speaks to the human experience, and his unwillingness to compromise on his vision.
How did the idea for Spook begin and why did you think it was necessary?
I studied journalism in undergrad and in grad school I studied literature, so writing for me has been a natural evolution. In grad school I was immersed in all of these great black authors; Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Gloria Naylor. In talking to my friends, people in my cohort, and meeting other academics, writers plus being in a creative community in UCLA and then moving out to New York - I felt it was necessary...I thought, I can do it myself, publish my own work, put something together. So, I reached out to some friends - half the people in Spook are my friends or I know most of them. I shot the idea around in December 2011 and they were like, this is great. The idea began to snowball in January 2012 and Spook came out in June.
Were you surprised by the reaction?
It’s weird because I know writers at The Times and big name magazines just being within that world, but I wasn’t sure if I could actually, as an artist, break into it. I was already in it as an editor and a writer but I wasn’t sure if putting my own thing out - if people would be receptive to it. This is a very niche idea, a very small specific idea. I know a lot of creative black, Latino, and Asian writers who don’t get a chance to get published elsewhere and if I have an opportunity to let them write for Spook then why not...we’re not traditionally in the huge art shows, in the magazines, in the lit journals. There are other literary journals but [Spook is] very tailored to black voices, Latino voices, Asian voices. Not everybody is receptive to that so I was a little worried. At the same time, I really believe in this and I felt like a lot of other people believed in it. And I think having a few good names; Justin Torres, Patrice Evans, Richard Stevenson Jr. I think that helps as well.
Do you think it’s harder for people of color to have their work published in mainstream publications?
I think there is a system set in place. I don’t work in one of those high literary magazines but I know the staffs are usually very white, liberal, and very monied and they are looking for specific things. Don’t get me wrong - there are usually always one black author or one Latino author but there’s never a whole book or publication where we’re dictating our own rules and that’s also what I wanted Spook to be. I wanted it to create conversation and open a dialogue between the readers and the contributors.
I was really impressed by the quality of writing. Most literary journals are usually really highbrow. I love that Spook combines various literary styles. It’s also hilarious.
I kind of see it as somewhere in the middle. I wanted it to be a mix of Wax Poetics, The New Yorker or the Paris Review. Kind of like this high literary magazine, very cultured, and stylized where people could have fun and experiment. All of the pieces are very smart. There’s a piece by Tavia Nyong'o about Trayvon Martin and he’s coming as a professor at NYU and bringing an academic background. Then you have someone like Patrice Evans who is writing about Madea, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. He has another take on it. I was bringing people on board and seeking out contributors and I was telling people to have fun and to play to their strengths. It says that I’m the editor but I’m not so much editing as I am curating. They’re all very talented and a lot of the writers don’t need editing. It’s been exciting.
But as a writer yourself, you don’t have a piece in Spook.
It’s kind of ironic because one of the reasons I started Spook was because I wanted to publish my own fiction. But it snowballed into something so much greater; it opened up this dialogue with other artists and I think that’s more of the rewarding aspect of it, meeting these other artists and these other writers and the friendships and relationships that have been created...I don’t want it to be just my work. I want to give voice to other artists who are traditionally left out of other journals.
You said you weren’t expecting as many writers to come on board. Were you surprised how it came together?
Toni Morrison is famous for saying, “write the book you want to read.” So Spook comes from that thinking. Create the magazine you want to read and so I reached out to friends, dream contributors, and dream artists. Some got back to me and some didn’t. They believed in it, I believed in it. I was surprised. Justin Torres, who had this huge book in 2011 called We The Animals which was praised in The New Yorker and was one of my favorite books, I reached out just to see what he would say and he said yes. I think it’s a testament to the idea that they came on board and believed in it and made me believe it in a little bit more.
Can you speak to a particular piece in your first issue that really moved you?
This is a tricky question, mostly because I loved all the pieces, and each for different reasons. “Living With Aphrodite” by Karla Rose was especially touching. Her honesty was refreshing, and the piece was successful for two reasons, I think: she sought out answers—who is this woman I call mother?—while affirming her selfhood at the same time. Justin Torres’ short story, “P.S. Girl” was equally moving. In 700 words he rendered a world full of complicated, messy love. One devoid of easy remedies and fairytale endings. Kyla Marshell’s poetry was also a joy to include. The second issue continues in this tradition, with fiction from Aaron Michael Morales, poetry by Sidony O’Neal, art by Kajahl Benes, and much, much more.
Although there is a certainly a focus on black writers, not every piece is about the black experience. Karla’s piece touches on identity and familial relationships, which can be applied to everyone.
Yes, she’s so good. I don’t want to be mistaken though. Spook isn’t only for black folks. Spook, the title, comes from this idea of being “othered” or left out so the flip on that is we’re re-imagining what Spook means with our art and our essays and poetry.
My goal for Spook has never been for it to be exclusive to the black experience. I do want it to be an outlet for alternative voices. The onus, though, is not entirely on me. It’s also up to the reader to look beyond the content and understand that our stories, despite being told through a certain lens, speak to a number of circumstances: our struggle with identity, the need to belong—to a person, place, or idea—one’s capacity to love, so on and so forth. These are universal themes that all people wrestle with. But, to answer your question, I create a perception of Spook being for everyone by publishing content that, above all, aims to deepen our understanding of the human experience. If someone really gets it, they’ll see that it’s not just about black people or black voices. I’m not saying that Spook defies categorization but it’s not as self-defined as people make it out to be.
What were some of the challenges you faced putting Spook together?
I come from a creative and editorial background. I’ve never done the business side of a magazine so putting it together was a big learning experience. I was kind of making it up as I went along. I invested my own money into this so I was making sure the pricing was right so that I would break even or make a profit and on the creative side, I was corralling people and making sure we were on deadline. Also balancing that with my day job and my personal life and wanting to go out and see my friends. It’s a big balancing job. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep this going. I’m at least doing a third issue. The reception has been great. It’s kind of a like a passion project at the moment. I always say it’s a lot of work but a lot of fun work.
It must have been so gratifying when you got the first issue.
Yes, when I got the proof it came to my apartment and I was smiling at it all day [laughs]I’m also able to track readers through the publishing platform we use. I’ll see places in Georgia or on the West Coast in the Midwest and even in London. It’s not just New York or LA where I’m from. It’s been exciting and also overwhelming sometimes because it’s just me.
How does your vision for the second issue compare to the first?
The second one has more art. The first one was very wide ranging. I wanted it to be a tapestry of ideas so we had fiction, poetry, essays. The second one, because we had more space and pages, I wanted more art…the third issue will be a lot more specific and will be all fiction. Spook is still changing and still figuring itself out. I’m more excited for the art this time then the writing. It’s still very much changing and adapting and figuring out what it is. I always know I want some dope art on the front. I always know I want to work with artists that are not necessarily huge or super well known…I try to work with people who are trying to figure it out and there are so many out there especially living in New York.
You mentioned in our interview that you "compromise a lot" but you will "not compromise with Spook." Can you speak more on that?
My background is in journalism, and for the five years I’ve been writing professionally, there have been a number of instances where I had to compromise my work for the publication. Of course, I wasn’t in a senior role, and my editor usually had the final say—whether it was simply rewording a few sentences or restructuring the entire piece. With Spook, it’s different—and not just because I’m in charge. I work really hard to tap into each writer’s individual voice. And really, that’s what makes the publication so special. There is a certain essence that I try to capture with each issue—something beyond description—and the day I compromise is the day I hang it up. I have a very good idea of what Spook is, and what it can be. So my refusal to compromise is me actively trying to keep the magazine’s soul intact. Even if Spook stays small I’m extremely proud of it and happy. It’s a lot of work but it’s fun.