It’s not easy to be the first in anything. And though 2017 was dominated by headlines about what went wrong, a lot also went right, including three inspiring women of color who rose to prominent roles in publishing. Bitch Media’s [former] editorial director, Lisa Factora-Borchers, caught up with Kima Jones, founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts; Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation; and Jamia Wilson, executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press, to talk about transforming the future of literary culture for readers and writers of color.
Let’s lay this out for our readers. Lisa, you’re the third executive director at the National Book Foundation and the first woman of color to hold that position. Kima, along with your writing achievements, you founded and now head Jack Jones Literary Arts, a publicity company that focuses on Black women and women of color writers. And most recently, Jamia, you transitioned into the position of executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press as the first woman of color and the youngest person to hold that role. How did you all get here?
Kima Jones: I’ve always had two jobs, and I’ve always been proud of that. “Hardworking” was and is a real identity marker for me. My father was an entrepreneur and passed that bug to me—he was the first Black person to open up a store in our local galleria. He also owned a fried-chicken spot, a halal farm, and a drug rehab. I saw him make batches of black soap and shea butters before aromatherapy was a trend. I’ve seen him sell panty hose to women in front of Penn Station. I’ve been able to be successful because my father made a lot of mistakes for me, and I learned and studied how he moved. My father was brilliant. He taught me how to think globally, work hard, and invest in myself. I’ve always been interested in working in publishing more formally, but an internship wasn’t realistic for me. I couldn’t afford to work for free and my principles wouldn’t let me. I’ve worked as a case manager for transient and homeless youth, a 911 dispatcher, and a nursing assistant. In college, I worked for a family-owned upscale luggage and leather goods store. At my last nine-to-five job, I was the director of marketing for a Beverly Hills–based drug rehab center. Back in 2014, a friend was publishing with a very small indie press and asked me to help her [with marketing]. I knew that if I kept growing my contacts I could grow this enormous idea I had. I started Jack Jones in March 2015, and I left my job permanently. Last year, I hired my first two staff members and opened an office in Downtown Los Angeles.
Jamia Wilson: Although I cut my teeth as a grassroots organizer and later a feminist media trainer and advocate, I have always written for myself and for other outlets on “the night shift” after work. I graduated college during George W. Bush’s administration and poured myself into movement building to ensure a better future for my generation and the next. It feels almost quaint compared to the current cultural climate, but times were tough in that environment—especially for young women of color. When I came home from organizing marches or other campaign actions, I devoured books and wrote as a form of coping and catharsis, and as a way to envision a different world. On a very sleepless Election Night in November 2016, I gravitated toward my favorite books in order to absorb truth and be reminded that it will prevail above all else, eventually. I learned early on that books hold the power to shift conversations and to open new possibilities. They are transformative enough to evoke empathy, spark revolutions, and mobilize masses. Throughout my career as an organizer, a series of life-changing books guided me along the way. And that’s why I joined the Feminist Press. When Florence Howe founded the press in 1970, the world desperately needed feminist publishing—and now, almost 50 years later, our world desperately needs us more than ever. At FP, our job is to put feminist words to the page, words that will then reverberate throughout our culture as ideas and actions. Beyond changing hearts and minds, I feel called to help create, uplift, and share books that will inspire people to vote, run for office, lead, speak truth to power, march, and act.
Lisa Lucas: The road was certainly higgledy-piggledy! If you look at my résumé, it looks as though I’ve jumped around a lot—theater, film, literature—but I’ve always really been an arts administrator, that’s the through line. My first job was at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; I was the telefund manager, which was about as glamorous as it sounds, but it allowed me to be part of an incredible development team and learn a ton about what working for a cultural nonprofit looks like. I eventually landed at the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), where I ended up staying for years and was the director of education. When I left TFI, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I’d always loved books more than anything, and the idea that I might do something publishing-related crept in. Somehow I found my way to Guernica, where I ended up as the publisher. I’d never had the opportunity to be so immersed in a world full of writers, writing, and people spending their days engaged in making sure that ideas and beauty and joy and truth made it out into the world. I was instantly a goner. And somehow I found myself as the executive director of the National Book Foundation. When I think about how I ended up in this role, I think back to all the jobs I held over the past 15 years (more, if you count youthful internships). I learned how to fund-raise running that crazy telefund, how to create access to art through running TFI’s educational department, and how to support and champion writers at Guernica. Every position I ever had taught me something that is fundamental to my work today.
How does being a “first” impact you and your work? Does it help, hinder, inspire? What is difficult?
KJ: It’s isolating. Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming into a vacuum, but I try to remember as often as possible what my goals are and where my interests lie. I’m invested in arts programming, literacy, cultural capital, women’s advocacy. I’m interested in the relationship between literature and visual art. I’m invested in Black community. It’s all about books, and it’s bigger than books. I’m more than a publicist: I’m an arts producer, I’m an employer of Black women, I’m a writer. I don’t know anyone who has done this work in this way before, but I don’t think about being the first. I just focus on getting it done.
“I couldn’t afford to work for free and my principles wouldn’t let me.” —Kima Jones
JW: I’m the child of parents and maternal grandparents who were “firsts” in a lot of their professional and academic pursuits. Their legacy of social responsibility, righteous solidarity, and downright moral decency imbues me with strength every day. Although being the first can be alienating, it is exhilarating to be in a position to build spaces, communities, and structures that are inclusive and transformative. Due to my own experiences as a younger woman-of-color leader, questions about who is not in the room are always at the forefront of my mind. When I am contemplating new initiative’s systems and structures, I often think about how to make our work more sustainable and accessible to future leaders that might not have the privileges I do. I wish this was the norm instead of the exception, and that’s why I work diligently to live this into existence—because I have yearned for it so much throughout my career.
LL: I try not to think about being first too much, because it’s such an absolute mess that we still have so many firsts. I try instead to think of how to make things better for those who will come after. As for whether it helps, hinders, or inspires? I think all three. One tends to talk about being “first” as an accomplishment, but it’s so loaded. How many people should have already been here? How much better would the work be, in any and every field, if there hadn’t been so many barriers to entry for so many folks—women, people of color, you name it.
Who are some of the people who paved the way for you, people you look up to or who pioneered a path where there previously was none? Or do you feel you are that pioneer?
KJ: I think any writer who is also a literary advocate has to look at Toni Morrison’s example as an editor at Random House, especially if that writer is a Black woman. Morrison pioneered this work. Look at the careers she launched and the communities, the real friendships, she fostered. The legacy is long. She’s the prototype.
JW: The list of people named and unnamed, known and unknown, who have paved the way for me is endless, but I often think of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Carol Jenkins, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Ntozake Shange, Louise Meriwether, and other Black women whose words and work has fed me like medicine. These are all folks who have shown up to take their rightful place in a world that doesn’t treat them with the dignity and honor they deserve every day.
In reference to your question about firsts, I also look to people like my mother, my late grandmother, and Maxine Waters, who own their expertise and self-possession with grace, grit, and power. Recently, Dr. Cornel West described me as a “sister” with a mix of “tenacity and humility.” I was grateful for his words because I felt a deep connection with my ancestors [in] his remarks. My first thought was that I learned how to be those things from my Black feminist foreparents who taught me how to resist, persist, and most of all love and protect the people and values I care about.
At the 2016 National Book Foundation’s “Why Reading Matters” conference, Kwame Dawes said, “A literary activist is somebody who makes things happen that address the needs of literature…. It starts with the community you’re in…and the world in which [you] want to impact, and [your] activity in that space is what I call the activism.” Springing out of this definition, do you identify as a literary activist? And if so, what do you think are the needs of literature right now?
LL: I would never introduce myself as a literary activist, but I suppose you could call me that.
I truly just want to celebrate and support this thing I love, which is also a thing that I think makes everyone’s life richer. There is so much work to do when it comes to getting more people excited about literature; I’d say that literature could use some heroes. And everyone out there advocating on behalf of books and writers—whether it’s giving books away to young people, putting on book festivals all around the country, teaching writing classes or reading groups in prison, or championing diverse writers and books—is a hero. There’s great work happening throughout this country right now, and I’m thankful to everyone doing it because together we can keep literature thriving.
JW: I learned early on about the importance of reading as both a source of education and a tool for resistance. My ancestors were enslaved and prohibited from reading because books are powerful, and they still are [prohibited], and that’s why I feel so passionately about literature.
I consider myself an activist and a writer, and if “literary activist” is an all-encompassing term for how these two identities are inextricably linked, I’ll claim it. I’m committed to disrupting gatekeepers and systems that promote the habits and practices of patriarchy, economic injustice, and white supremacy in the publishing industry, in the media, and in our culture. If we don’t define ourselves, someone else will. If we don’t take our seat at the table and change what’s being served if it doesn’t nourish us—we’ll end up on the menu.
KJ: I’m not an activist, but I will say that my writing is my activism.
Social media continues to be a dominant force in building culture and demanding more representation in books, screen, and music. We see this with #OscarsSoWhite and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Do you see your own work in alignment with this kind of digital activism that pushes back against traditional notions of entertainment, narration, beauty, creativity, and authority?
LL: I definitely wouldn’t say that my work is in response to digital activism, though in some ways it aligns. I do think that these social media conversations, which spill over into traditional news cycles, help to shape the cultural conversation and that certainly informs the work of those of us who work in the cultural sector, whether we want it to or not. The National Book Foundation was doing a very good job of making sure that we thought about diversity and inclusion when I arrived; my personal hope was to make the work more accessible to more people. To not only think about continued diversity in our honorees and judging panels, but to also think about how to welcome communities left out of the literary conversation.
“One tends to talk about being ‘first’ as an accomplishment, but it’s so loaded. How many people should have already been here? How much better would the work be, in any field, if there hadn’t been so many barriers to entry for so many folks—women, people of color, you name it.” —Lisa Lucas
JW: Online activism has been a driving and democratizing force for my work since I began using (now old-school) social media tools like Friendster and Myspace to help Planned Parenthood organize students for the one-million-person March for Women’s Lives in the early 2000s. Digital tools provide us with swift and unprecedented access to influencers, policy makers, and breaking news in a rapidly changing media and cultural landscape. Since promoting feminist-thought leadership, gender studies education, and activism is a part of our mission, the Feminist Press uses online media to connect with our readers, support the movements and actions they care about, and spotlight work that aligns with our vision for equality. We use social media to meet a lot of our community members where they are. We spread the word about free educational events, upcoming titles, and initiatives like our Louise Meriwether Book Prize that publishes debut works by women or nonbinary authors of color.
It’s important to me to contribute to shaping a media ecosystem where women, girls, people of color, gender-nonconforming people, and people with disabilities have equal access, participation, and ownership. Online tools are not agnostic. We must fight algorithmic inequality and online harassment to ensure that communities who are disproportionately targeted are heard. Moreover, as content creators, we must prioritize pro-tecting a free and open internet to continue to shift culture, drive progressive narratives, and lift up diverse voices.
KJ: Social media is certainly a huge part of Jack Jones’s organic growth. I’ve never taken out an ad, paid for marketing, or solicited clients. Half my business is word of mouth and the other half is generated from social media. People reach out because they see the work I’ve done with other clients on Instagram or Twitter.
Sometimes digital activism aligns with my work, sometimes not. I’ve definitely jumped into some online outrages over the years: the Simon & Schuster mess with Milo Yiannopoulos of last year comes to mind. YA Twitter is notorious for its “takedowns” of toxic writers and organizations. There’s a degree to which callout culture is failing us. There’s a performance to “dragging” that disinterests me and feels disingenuous. I’m not saying don’t check somebody who needs to be checked; I’m saying it’s a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of soul-sucking. I need my soul. I don’t have it in me to argue with folks all day or hashtag my way to the kingdom.
“My ancestors were enslaved and prohibited from reading because books are powerful and they still are, and that’s why I feel so passionately about literature.” —Jamia Wilson
Across genres of writing, publishing continues to be a frustrating and oftentimes inaccessible maze for a lot of marginalized writers. What have you learned from your work that you want these struggling writers to remember?
KJ: I have to remind myself every day to stay true to my own mantra when systemic obstacles get in the way of justice, equality, and equal access to diverse and free expression: We are cheating ourselves and our communities when we play small. I have learned (many times through painful experiences) that instead of asking myself what I need to do to be included, I imagine what I can build and who I can build with to pave new ground. That’s what all of us are doing and I’m proud to be a part of it.
JW: When I used to work overnight shifts, I wrote poems because that’s when I had time to work. I would read and write whenever I had downtime. There was a time in my life when $15 an hour was good money, when $25 an hour was good money, and that’s still good money for lots of people I know and love. Live below your means, and keep your poems close to your chest. There is no rush. I live in the same studio apartment I lived in when I started my company. I’m revising some of the same poems and stories I was working on five years ago. Cakes rise when they’re ready. Everything has to be set out to cool before you can cut into it.
Don’t worry about what I’m doing or what she’s doing. Do what you’re doing and do it so well that no one can say a damn thing to you. Grow your network. Refine your work. I’ll say it again: Grow your network and refine your work.
If you could fast-forward 25 years, what do you most hope will be happening in the literary world?
LL: I hope more people are picking up books and reading—it matters.
JW: I hope that the literary world will reflect the diversity of all people in our community at all levels of the publishing industry. I want to see the robust participation and engagement of our most marginalized members in editorial and critical decision-making positions because the media, and specifically books, shape our understanding of who we are and what we’re capable of in the world.
KJ: Black women. Everywhere.
Kima Jones founded Jack Jones Literary Arts in March 2015 and works as lead strategist on all its publicity campaigns. She is a widely published writer and decorated poet. Her work has been anthologized and included in many collections.
Jamia Wilson is the executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press. Her writing is published in numerous outlets and she is also an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Lisa Lucas is the executive director of the National Book Foundation and has served as a consultant and advisor for art, theater, and film organizations, and she also serves on the literary council for the Brooklyn Book Festival.