Publishing is notoriously rough terrain for authors of color. Jack Jones Literary Arts—an all-black, all-female firm—is seeking to change that, committing to publishing and promoting books by writers who have traditionally been pushed to the margins of a historically white and male-dominated industry.
Founded by Kima Jones in 2015, Jack Jones Literary Arts boasts an impressive portfolio of campaigns that include young-adult novels, poetry collections, nonfiction and literary fiction.
In the middle of a year that was politically and personally tumultuous—Jones’ father died unexpectedly late last year—JJLA (which is named for Jones’ mother, Jacqueline) bloomed: The company grew from a one-woman operation to three, celebrated client Tyehimba Jess’ Pulitzer Prize in poetry and hosted their first writers’ retreat, exclusively for women of color.
And as one peek at their Instagram would tell you, the team looked damn fine doing it. The Glow Up caught up with the JJLA team—consisting of founder Jones, publicity assistant Allison Conner and special programs coordinator Amanda Choo Quan—to hear them dish about Fenty products, personal style, and what they read to inspire and restore them.
This year was one of those years where I was so nervous and so worried about everything. ... Everything felt urgent in a way—I hadn’t felt that sense of urgency before. For the creators, for the people behind the scenes, for the people who are doing this work—I’m going to speak for myself—there’s part of me that says, “Oh my God,” I have to get this out now. I have to get all my dreams out today, because Lord, tomorrow is looking really dismal. That’s what it felt for 2017. Like, let’s do all of the plans. Let’s do all of the projects. Let’s do all of these things, because who knows what will happen?
I’m obsessed with beauty, in that I like beautiful things. I love flowers, and so my office is full of plants. I love what it does for the air obviously, but it just makes me feel better. ... When my clients come to the office, I want them to feel kind of restored. I want them to feel calm; comforted. I want them to see that things are good over here. Regardless of what’s happening over there, when you’re in Jack Jones’ office, things are beautiful. I want them to feel assured because it makes me feel assured. I love walking into my office. I love walking into my home.
My wardrobe is a good dress with florals, denim jacket and hoops. ... Always hoops, always lipstick, always a dress ... I got that from President Obama. One day, I was reading an interview he did, and he was just like, “I have the nuclear codes, I have to make all these really important decisions for the world, I don’t want to be worrying about what I’m putting on.” Every season, I get about five to 10 new, beautiful statement floral dresses, and I rotate those out throughout the season ... but I don’t ever really worry about what I’m putting on, because I know it’s always going to be a dress.
I read one time, Lena Horne, they asked her what her beauty secret is. And she said she eats a can of sardines a day for the omega-3s and for the fatty acids, and literally since then I’ve eaten a can of sardines a day. And I read that when I was, like, 25. So I eat a can of sardines every morning. I want the Lena Horne situation!
When I’m feeling small and the world feels too big; when I am inconsolable; when I’m not sure what my professional move is going to be or personal move is going to be; when language doesn’t feel sufficient; when it just feels like all of the words aren’t quite adequate to describe the thing that I am feeling, I can always read a Gwendolyn Brooks poem.
There’s so much care there. ... And as you continue to read each Gwendolyn Brooks poem, you realize how much you’re being built back up. And you begin to see the complexity ... like, “Oh, this poem is about poor people in a boarding house.” But then you go through her book, and you go through these very different, complex relationships and this very complex world. So I always read Gwendolyn to put fat on my bones.
For me, my sartorial choices happen because people feel very specific ways about fat women and how fat women should and should not dress. What we should and should not wear. How busty women should and should not dress. Nappy-headed women. Dark-skinned women. And for me, I wear every shade of lipstick. I wear Afros, I wear braids, I wear my hair pinned up. ... I know my shape. I dress for my body. There are some things I’m not going to wear just because I think it doesn’t look good on my body, not because someone told me it doesn’t look good on a fat body.
I’m not going to put on something to cover up the stretch marks on my arms. Instead, I’m going to wear this really great dress. I’m going to feel breezy, beautiful. And I’m going to look gorgeous doing it.
Renee Simms’ Meet Behind Mars is a gorgeous debut of short stories. I love it because she just talks about the complexity of everyday black life. Just really beautiful renderings of black family, of black womanhood, black girlhood ... you don’t have to have black trauma to sell the book. I want a good story about black people trying to do the best they can, and I love that book.
It’s going to be a great year for books. It has to be. A lot of poets, novelists and short story writers—we were all enraged. I know I’m not the only one who has the pedal to the metal. We were all, as the children say, pressed. Everyone was pressed. And I think a lot of great work got done.
There’s a lot to be frustrated at with the literary world, especially if you’re a person of color or on the margins in any way. So it just felt amazing to work in my passion and also to work in a company that is aligned with my own values and with my own politics. It just makes the work even more special. We’re publicizing books, we get to work with authors; that’s great. I personally love that. But then, on top of it, we’re championing people who mainstream literature wouldn’t necessarily champion. That part of it is just, I always have to pinch myself. I feel very, very lucky to do this work.
One thing I remember reading before I started at Jack Jones was Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, by Kathleen Collins. And that book floored me. ... The stories that she tells aren’t necessarily thought of when you think of black fiction. You don’t think of a teen girl up in her room reading theory and thinking about automatic writing and going to therapy. But that’s who Kathleen Collins is writing about.
Mosquito, by Gayl Jones—one of my favorite writers in general. ... It goes beyond the page to make me think, “Oh, how do I carry myself? How can writing reflect a way that I would love to be in the world?” ... It isn’t easy. It’s kind of a difficult book to get into, and I like that in a sense of, don’t apologize for your difficulties. Don’t apologize for things that aren’t as easy to consume or to explain. Keep those prickly parts of yourself because things can come from that. I really love that book for that reminder.
I really love head wraps. … It’s me being lazy—you just put a head wrap on; that’s really why I love them. ... I love colors, I love patterns. I love mixing all those things. The more color the better.
I definitely have my eye on the Fenty [Mattemoiselle] lipsticks ... for books coming out, I’m really excited about this book by Akwaeke Emezi called Freshwater. ... It just seems like a really exciting book, and another kind of narrative—[that] doesn’t really get a lot of attention in the mainstream—so I’m really excited about that book.
I’m a mixed-race person, pretty multiracial—which is not really unusual if you come from the Caribbean, and I’m a light-skinned black person ... I recognize and acknowledge the privileges that come with being a light-skinned, mixed-race black person, so I love books that interrogate the nuances of that kind of identity and are really, really critical about the position that we hold. So, that said, I loved Danzy Senna’s New People. Apart from it being incredibly hilarious, it’s featuring black people who are kind of ... sometimes their politics are a little bit wonky. Sometimes they don’t have it all together.
I’ve been wanting to be Zadie Smith for a long time ... I love her head wraps; I love her freckles; I love her flared skirts—they’re great. I also really like Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-American writer, just because I feel like style and beauty is also just about confidence and presence and that something. That sense of power. She just has so much presence.
I read a lot of Bhanu Kapil. I’m thinking of her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers—there’s just something about her language that’s just super captivating. There’s [also] a book called Wide Sargasso Sea that was written by a Caribbean writer. ... It’s a retelling of Jane Eyre, but from the perspective of a Bertha, the Creole woman locked in the attic ... I think I’ve always wanted to be Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God in her overalls ... I’ve also thought [Toni Morrison’s] Sula was an amazing, amazing human being that I’ve always wanted to be.
[Kima] is always really, really, really well-dressed. Allison is also really well-dressed, so it’s like, I know I need to step up my game. And it’s also just showing that you care about each other. You care about each other, you care about the work you’re doing, you take it seriously. That’s why you want to be put together and presentable. ... It carries over into life outside of Jack Jones, which feels good as well.
Editor’s note: Each interview has been edited and condensed.