If you want to catch up with Kima Jones make sure it's not during awards season.
Jones is a busy woman. In 2015 she launched her full-service publicity firm, Jack Jones Literary Arts, and this year her clients are bringing home all the accolades. Rion Amilcar Scott won the 2017 PEN America Prize for Debut Fiction for his novel Insurrections. Tyehimba Jess won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Olio. And The Hate U Give, a debut novel from author Angie Thomas, hit the top of the New York Times’ Young Adult bestseller list in its first week on shelves.
Jones, a Harlem-born, L.A.-based writer, has won a number of awards herself. She is a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellow and a recipient of MacDowell and Yaddo fellowships. Jones isn't overly modest about any of her accomplishments, but she is quick to avoid saying that they automatically indicate a watershed moment in the publishing world.
"There's all this talk about Black folks winning right now — 'We're having a Renaissance;' 'It's on trend.' And there are market trends, and there are certainly publishing trends, but Black people have always been the cultural barometer," Jones says during a phone interview with Refinery29. "I've said before, and I’ll say it again: Black cool sets the standard. The only difference now is that you see Black artists being paid and awarded in the same ways that white artists are for what they’re giving to culture."
Jones is not only pursuing her own creative work, but is also creating opportunities for others. This year, she officially opened office space for her agency and hired her first part-time employee. Growing the business is exciting but comes with challenges. Below, Jones talks to Refinery29 about what being a "feminist employer" in the literary world means to her.
What made you decide to get into the business side of the literary world?
"I felt that there was really no virtue in this idea of the starving artist. There are business practices that I think are fundamental and common sense, and most writers or artists that I met at the time took that stuff for granted. I’m not saying that the business needs to come before the art, but I am saying that you have to think of yourself as a business because you need to feed yourself and feed your family. There's an idea that there’s some kind of purity in not eating; that to participate in capitalism in that way makes you less of an artist — and I just don’t agree with that. I think there’s a difference between being a vulture and trying to commodify people and culture, or misuse folks and their labor, versus being paid for your art in a way that allows you to continue to make art."
You've mentioned before that you want to be a "feminist employer," and I don’t think people necessarily think that way. They’re generally like, I need someone, and I need them to do some stuff.
"Right, and that’s the problem. My first question [when I decided to hire] was whether I needed an intern versus employee. I interviewed for an intern last year but [ultimately] did not accept the young lady. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of an intern because I was never able to intern. During undergrad, I worked two part-time jobs so I could put myself through school. The way my life is set up, I cannot give my labor away for free. I worked at a shoe store. I was a 911 dispatcher. I did whatever I had to do when I was in college, but as much as I loved literature, I could not be poor in that way. I would not have been able to survive. So, I wanted to create the opportunity that I needed as a young twenty-something, and the more I thought about what that opportunity looked like, the more I realized it couldn’t look like what we think of as traditional employment.
"Traditional employment means she clocks in, shows up, and performs tasks that I need her to do. But for me, the idea of being a 'feminist employer' means there’s space between the tasks I need her to do and what she wants to do in the world. The question is how do I bridge those two things? If the work she’s doing for me doesn’t help her grow toward those goals, then she’s only growing laterally. People can go from job to job to job for the rest of their lives. I want to know how I am setting this woman up to get to the next place she wants to go.
"When it came down to benefits, I thought about what I would have needed in my life as a twenty-something in L.A. that I have now because I can afford it. Because if there was a woman who was willing to mentor me and bridge that gap between what I needed to make money and how I needed to grow culturally and intellectually, I would have gotten where I needed to get a lot sooner. So, I came up with a list, sent it to two girlfriends, and asked them their opinions about the coolest, most fun things happening in L.A. What are the feminist things? What are the cultural things that I don’t have on this list?
"She started at $13 an hour, and I set it up so she would get a raise if we were on track after her first 90 days. (Note: Conner is now paid $15/hour.) I also set up a benefits package. She gets a membership to the Underground Museum, membership to the Los Angeles Public Library, annual tickets to the BinderCon conference, two paid mental health days a year, and $200 worth of Lyft credits so she can get around. She's on her parents' insurance plan, so I didn't need to provide that benefit."
Feminism in a corporate setting is a complicated idea. For example, the founder of Thinx, who was marketed as a feminist when several employees had different things to say behind the scenes. There's an assumption that a woman boss will be a certain way. What does it mean you to you to be a woman who is an employer?
"We need to take a look at labor practices in this country as a whole and the way we talk about bodies and work. I’m not trying to dominate anyone, and I’m not trying to supervise or oversee anyone. Words have history, and if you are in an office and someone is standing over you, making you feel uncomfortable, and kind of policing your body, it is a type of surveillance. My feeling is, I hired you because you are capable, because you are willing, because you want to learn, and because you want to do work that satisfies you and makes you feel good about yourself and the way you are participating in the world.
"I think the problem is, if I can be frank, white feminism. There are white, female bosses patterning themselves after successful white men. They’ve looked at the way these companies work, how they're run, what their practices are, and they take those things, throw a little millennial pink on it, and think they’re doing something new. But it’s the same exploitive practices. They’re not looking at the ways in which they’re being abusive and are reproducing the same culture they claim to be tired of.
"So, for me, there’s no difference if a woman or a man is standing over my shoulder. There’s no difference if a woman or a man is paying me $10.50 an hour. If we keep reproducing this kind of toxic work environment, that’s what we’re going to keep getting."
"Obviously, Jack Jones does publicity, but I have a lot of different interests in publishing. My deepest interest was always in youth, cultural capital, and in building communities of arts. So, I decided to call it Jack Jones Literary Arts — not Jack Jones Publicity — because I knew I wanted to offer a lot of programs and services under that umbrella. I couldn’t do it all in one day, so I waited until I got kind of good at one thing, and then we’d add another thing and another. I felt that it was time.
"If I had to say anything to a woman, a Black woman, or a woman of color who’s interested in publishing but feels like there’s already a Kima Jones, or there’s already a Well-Read Black Girl, or there’s already a Cave Canem, or there’s already a Kimbilio, it would be: Girl, please. Maybe we have 25 institutions nationally that are devoted to writing [from artists] of color, compared to thousands of institutions historically for white writers?
"I’ve been to the best writing residencies in the country, MacDowell and Yaddo, and had amazing, beautiful, wonderful experiences. While I was at MacDowell, I was the only Black person there during my tenure. While I was at Yaddo, though, there were six of us, and we couldn't believe our luck. We kept saying, 'Oh my god. What did we do to be so fortunate that there are six Black people in the cafeteria at one time?' I really wanted to replicate that feeling. I thought, I want this all the time! Why does it have to be serendipitous? Why can’t we just make this happen? The retreat is born out of all of that stuff. I want women to walk in a room knowing that they are going to be taken seriously as soon as they step through the door."