Meet the Renegade Putting More Women of Color On Your Bookshelf
Tucked inside a labyrinthian building on a shopworn block in downtown Los Angeles, there’s a tiny room in which one of the generals of the literary revolution is planning her next move. On a pale yellow wall, a cloth pennant that reads “Sometimes the king is a woman” hangs over her desk; on another, a black and white photo of science fiction writer Octavia Butler watches over a small library containing a copy of Olio by Tyehimba Jess, a book of poetry about the music in the Antebellum era and the African American artists who have largely been erased from its history. Just a few weeks prior, that book, published by a small, indie press and represented by a small, indie publicist, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
That publicist is Kima Jones and I’m sitting in the office of Jack Jones Literary Arts, the company she founded in March of 2015 and ran as a one-woman show up until last month, when she hired her first employee. “Yeah, the Pulitzer thing is nuts,” she says, pausing to temporarily turn off Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., which had dropped at midnight the night before. “But I also feel like it speaks to the work that I'm interested in and the writers that I'm interested in and the kinds of narratives that I want to see produced more. It's of course a surprise and it’s thrilling, but at the same time, it's not. Because this work--it's amazing.”
It should be noted that Olio’s success is exceptional not only for its against-the-odds trajectory, but because the writers Kima represents are almost exclusively women of color; 98% of her client roster is made up of black women and women from minority backgrounds. “I was very deliberate in the beginning about only wanting to work with women of color. I didn't want to work with men. I feel like men get opportunities all the time that women don't get, and I was like, ‘I'm good.’” She only made an exception for Olio after she read the book and Tyehimba and made his case over tacos in Brooklyn: “He came to me and he said ‘I want you to do this book. I love the work you're doing. I see what you're doing in the world, I want to be part of it. I trust you with this.’ And it was just brilliant. The word is so overused, but when you actually encounter brilliance and genius, you can't deny it. I said that from day one.”
But if she’s made room outside her original parameters, there’s no denying Jones’ commitment to promoting the work of women of color and establishing a place for their voices to be heard within a publishing landscape that has long been dominated by white men. Earlier this year, Jack Jones announced that they would be putting on their first-ever writing retreat, open exclusively to women of color. Originally slated to take place in Dairy Hollow in Arkansas, the response has been so overwhelming that it has now been pushed back to October and relocated to a bigger facility in SMU-in-Taos in Taos, New Mexico. And as the result of donations from prominent writers like Roxane Gay, Angela Flournoy and Natalie Diaz, as well as a number of anonymous donors who reached out, unsolicited, to support Kima’s vision, 11 attendees will be awarded fully-funded fellowships. In addition to National Book Award finalist Flournoy serving as writer-in-residence, attendees will have the option to participate in daily one-hour Skype sessions with agents, editors and other prominent women working in publishing who will provide guidance on navigating the industry. But above all else, it provides these women with two weeks’ worth of time in which they are able to focus on one thing: writing.
Providing this time to women of color is the driving factor behind the Jack Jones retreat. “I'm a book publicist who sees a lot of gaps in the publishing industry, because I'm also a writer and I'm also a black woman. I see how we are doing great in some areas and failing in others,” Kima said, recounting her own experiences at prestigious writing retreats where she was often the only black writer. But after attending Yaddo one year, where she found herself in attendance with five other black writers (something none of them had ever experienced at previous retreats), she realized that that sense of community they experienced needed to be replicated with greater intent and purpose: “I wanted to start a retreat that's just for women of color, so that we don't feel like we are always walking through the door by ourselves, or that when we do walk through the door, that we're being discounted or discredited.”
She cites a recent personal experience as an example: “I went to the post office to mail out some [review copies] for clients and I see this white guy and he has some mail. I saw that it was addressed to the New Yorker. So I'm like, ’Good luck with your submission.’ He comes and looks at me and cocks his head, and I'm like, "Oh, Lord." Then he goes, ‘Oh, you read the New Yorker?’ like he’s very surprised. Part of me wanted to say ‘Do you know who I am?’” Kima recounts, laughing. “But then within myself I had to say okay, this person looked at me, scanned me, and felt I'm not a person who would be culturally aware of the New Yorker. He decided that I couldn't possibly know anything about American literature. That's fine. I don't need to tell you who I am, I don't need to spark a conversation. Continue to discount me, that's fine.”
Rather, it’s better than fine. In two short years, Kima has emerged as a powerful force not only as an accomplished publicist, but as an outspoken, passionate champion for marginalized voices, and she’s moving forward at a pace that threatens to leave a notoriously slow-moving industry behind.
Part of her success is that it’s an effort rooted in smart business that was carefully laid over an ambitious mission; when asked about what advice she can pass on to young female entrepreneurs, Kima answered quickly and emphatically: “Savings,” she said. “Savings,” she repeated.
“Do your research. Is a corporation best for you, an LLC, a self-proprietorship? Interview a few accountants. Don't hire your cousin to do your logo. Once you start thinking about yourself as a business, and as a small business owner, you will start acting like a small business owner. What is the evolution of this brand, this company, going to look like? Who do you service? What are your rates? Figure out your rates, stick by your rates. This is especially important for women. Your rate is your rate is your rate, period.”
So go the secrets to success from literary badass and champion of marginalized women Kima Jones. Be emphatic about your passion and smart about your business. Take no shit and lift others up, and one of these days you may find yourself echoing what a smiling, infectiously enthusiastic Kima said the moment she found out her client won the Pulitzer Prize: “I told you guys. I told you.”