Teen Vogue featured the Radical Hood Library, a community space and library in Los Angeles, in our By Any Means package, which highlights people who are working throughout the system to make change happen. The library is the headquarters of Noname Book Club, which bears the name of musician and poet Fatimah Warner, better known as Noname.
Teen Vogue columnist Kandist Mallett speaks to Fatimah and Radical Hood Library project manager Natalie Matos about the radicalizing potential of books, building community, and dealing with criticism of their project.
What follows are condensed and lightly edited quotes from their conversation that didn’t make it into the original feature.
On growing up in her mom’s bookstore
Fatimah Warner: My mother did own a bookstore for several years, about 20 years, and I was not interested in reading at all — was very much turned off by it, I think, because I grew up working in the store. I struggled with reading in school, so I just had no interest at all. It was work. It was something I was forced to do. But as I've gotten older, and as I've become radicalized, politicized, whatever, I do see the importance of having these sorts of spaces, not just bookstores that are for profit, but free libraries, just educational spaces where people can come.
Seeing some of the conversations that my mother was able to facilitate in some small way because she had a space where people could go and talk about whatever for hours, that is the most memorable aspect of the store to me — not necessarily the books because, again, I wasn't reading, but the community.
On being part of a worker cooperative
Natalie Matos: This is a way to learn how to check in, learn how to be accountable, how to take criticism, but also learn how to celebrate yourself and have others celebrate you too when there's something really wonderful going on. This is a wonderful space, but it's nicer when you have a team with you that's like, “Damn. You did that. You did that!” It’s very affirming for sure. For Fatimah, I think it was important to also decenter, to go against celebrity culture and decenter that so it's not like, “I say this is going on.” All of us could collectively be like, "No, Fatimah. That's actually a bad idea."
Fatimah: There have been plenty of moments where my ego has been checked.… To say, “Okay, let's be a worker cooperative,” I really didn't consider what it would feel like when I'm not in that sort of hierarchical role the way I've been used to in other spaces, where I don't just get final say. But it's been good. I think it's helped me grow as a collaborator, as a community member, and just as a person, because those moments are... they're uncomfortable.
On the Noname Book Club books that have stuck with them the most
Fatimah: George Jackson's Blood in My Eye definitely was a major one for me. It's one of my favorite books. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler — fantastic book. And As Black as Resistance by William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi.… I had never really read any sort of Black anarchist text before, so that one was really, really big for me.
Natalie: I'm going to agree that Parable of the Sower was a big one. It connects a lot of things for me, including the need for community and moving as a unit and believing in growing something together, even though it can get a little depressing.
On the name “the Radical Hood Library”
Fatimah: I actually still have a back-and-forth relationship with that title, if I'm being totally honest. I'm terrible at naming things, hence my name. So I think, when we finally decided, "Okay, it's going to be the Radical Hood Library," it just described everything that we're trying to be. We're trying to be radical. It literally is in a hood — it's in a predominantly Black-brown neighborhood, Jefferson Park. And it's a library. So that's the name. And then for me, when I think of “radical,” or when I'm saying “radical,” I'm thinking of a space or a person who is promoting liberatory and revolutionary ideas and politics. So I think radical is the undoing of all things that create harm. To me, that's the destruction of the state, that's the destruction of our carceral institutions and borders, and so on and so forth. Radical is trying to push against a very capitalistic, hegemonic norm in society and trying to grow something better.
On dealing with public backlash to the library
Fatimah: When the critiques first came, it definitely hurt my feelings, just because it's personal to me. This is a thing that I have imagined with my brain, and I'm trying to bring it to life with a community of coworkers that I f*** with. We work so hard, and I think pretty much all of what we do is in service of others. We don't hoard our profits.… All of our profits literally just go back into the space, and primarily our prison chapters, so everything we offer is free.
That’s what was weird and hard to see, because any time another one of my peers in the industry is promoting something that they're selling, it's wildly celebrated. It's talked about for days on end, and then here we are just like, “Here's a bunch of free s**t,” and people were still upset. I do think that the criticisms around gentrification and the space becoming increasingly white, based on my fan base and white people liking s**t, I think those are definitely real concerns to be had. They're concerns that we had.
It's interesting to see — fast-forward to now — all these conversations being had around books being removed from libraries inside of high schools, and everyone is talking about critical race theory and the importance of literature. I was like, “This is interesting, because y'all were trying to tear us to shreds a few months back for literally trying to provide what now folks are really seeing as incredibly important.” People are removing The Bluest Eye and Jazz and Toni Morrison's entire collection from high schools, and the state libraries only offer one or two copies.
That's been my constant struggle, especially with the team and the cooperative, because I am positioned differently within the organization. It's literally called Noname Book Club, so I am a bit harder on us, the organization, than I probably need to be, because of that outside criticism that does come in. But it's also just that I think we all hold ourselves to a really high standard, and sometimes it could just be difficult to take that step back and appreciate all the labor and love that has gone into getting us to this point.
On forming partnerships with other libraries and bookstores
Natalie: Obviously, if you don't live in L.A. County, our library is probably not accessible. But when Fatimah started Noname Book Club, there was a drive to go to public libraries, go get your library card. To build on that, we've continuously sent emails or communicated with different libraries about what our reading material is going to be for the next couple of months, because there's bureaucracy. They have some rules [in place], but it means that we're able to let them know what the [books] are, engage with them that way. Same thing with bookstores, and we'll ask them, “Hey, do you want to give a couple dollars off to someone if they want to buy this?” And they'll do it, because, of course, it incentivizes people to read and to buy from them.
You don't have to come to the Radical Hood Library. Go to literally any library, and they might have the books [we’re reading] now.
Fatimah: We're so big on making sure everyone can access the books that we're reading for free…. I wish, us as citizens, we invested more in libraries. Libraries have so many different job training opportunities. They have childcare.… These are the types of things that our taxes actually help us with.
On how to start — and maintain — a book club
Fatimah: We got in a loop of reading a lot of more dense, heavy stuff, and we're trying to break out of that now, because it's hard. It's hard to stay on that path. So I would say, if you're doing it just on a small level with friends, the best way to do it is to make sure you have at least a meetup scheduled every month. That is really helpful, and maybe some check-ins…. because it's the accountability. And it's the reminder too, like, “Oh, damn.” When you hear someone talking about what's in chapter three and you haven't gotten there yet, that can be the little bit of encouragement you need to just keep it going.
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