The Feminist Press is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Appointed as executive director in 2017, Jamia Wilson is the youngest director in the publishing house’s history and the first African American to lead it. Here she talks about the Feminist Press’s history and future, as well as her own writing and activism.
Wilson has published in many places and speaks widely on race, new media, and activism. Most recently, she is a coauthor of Road Map for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy for All (2018), and has written several volumes for young adults, including Young, Black, and Gifted: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present (illustrated by Andrea Pippins, 2018) and ABCs of AOC: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from A to Z (illustrated by Krystal Quiles, 2019).
This interview took place at the Feminist Press offices at the CUNY Graduate Center on October 31, 2019. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams and transcribed by Bethie Wang, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University.
Jeffrey J. Williams (JJW): You’ve been the executive director of the Feminist Press for almost two years now. What is the charge of the Feminist Press?
Jamia Wilson (JW): Our mission statement, which has just been updated as we near our 50th anniversary, is to create a more just world, where everyone recognizes themselves in a book. We have always been—as one of our former board members has said—a press of discovery.
Feminist Press has always had the charge of amplifying feminist perspectives, and amplifying insurgent, marginalized voices. The press has been at the forefront of amplifying issues related to gender, race, and class before they become a part of the mainstream conversation. It also had an understanding of intersectionality in its early days, as part of second-wave feminism. A strong foundation was laid down by Florence Howe, the founding director, and the foremothers of the press.
JJW: How many books has Feminist Press done so far?
JW: About six hundred books. That includes the volumes of series like Women Writing Africa and Women Writing in India, and issues of Women’s Studies Quarterly, in addition to individual books.
JJW: In its first phase, one of the press’s charges was to recover lost works, particularly by women—like Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1861 story Life in the Iron Mills, or a collection of Zora Neale Hurston’s work.
JW: Yes, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Mean and Impressive is the collection of Zora Neale Hurston’s work that Alice Walker found and edited. Florence Howe realized, as she was teaching literature courses, that her students had a craving to learn about women’s writing and wanted to read women writers, but they didn’t know where to find this catalog. So, she founded the press as a place of discovery and a place of unearthing. She knew that these women writers were out there, but she also understood it would take digging and it would take resources.
That’s how she found books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper (an 1892 story, published by the press in 1996), which is often taught in college classes. I read that book in high school.
After visiting India and Africa, Florence also had questions about women’s writing there. This is how projects like Women Writing Africa came to be. So, the press’s charge was the unearthing of works, correcting the canon, the amplification of marginalized voices, and discovering new works.
My read is also that the Feminist Press provides a nuanced place for people to determine their understanding of feminism. I’ve worked in many feminist organizations and some of them have specific stances on specific issues, or positions connected to “This is the founder’s belief,” or “This is how we work with funders, who determine what our stance is.”
What I love about Feminist Press is that you can see many of the issues that feminism has grappled with in the last 50 years. The press has explored and complicated and connected and affirmed different stances through the conversation these books have with each other. Two different feminists might have a different theory or approach, and I can find them both in Feminist Press books. They come to their own conclusions about what feminism means and how it can be applied to create solutions to the world’s problems. We’re unafraid to complicate narratives.
JJW: How did you first encounter Feminist Press? You mentioned that you read The Yellow Wall-Paper in high school.
JW: I grew up with a mom who had Feminist Press books on her shelf. My mom was a professor, not in the humanities but a speech pathologist and neurologist. And she had a Black feminist praxis for how she saw the world. My mom and my dad had been active in social justice movements, from the civil rights movement to Black liberation work. But my mom was in a lot of movement spaces that were still very male dominated, thinking, like a lot of other women during that time, “What about us? Where do we fit into this?”
I learned from her about the Combahee River Collective, I learned from her about Audre Lorde, and I learned from her about books like But Some of Us Are Brave and the Zora Neale Hurston reader, which were Feminist Press books.1 They came out in the early days of the press and they were intersectional feminist books: they talk about class, sexuality, gender, and race, and what it means to talk about gender in the context of community, what solidarity means, and how the nation and citizenship need to be complicated.
There is a perception that Feminist Press started out as a second-wave organization, but it had a role in that conversation early on. Black women and Latinx people were involved in the Feminist Press and shaping it. We still have work to do, but I’m happy to say that our framework was inclusive from the jump.
JJW: In the ’90s, there was a generational tension within feminism, with third-wave feminists pushing away from the second wave, seeing them as too entrenched or controlling.
JW: My predecessor at the press was Jennifer Baumgardner, and she was one of the most prominent voices of the third wave. When I was in college, I remember reading a copy of Manifesta—which she wrote in 2000, with Amy Richards—and reading books by Rebecca Walker and other third-wave contemporaries. They were talking about how pop culture had value, too, and saying that you could talk about academia, and that the personal included social institutions. Jennifer came to Feminist Press after having cut her teeth at Ms. Magazine. Gloria Jacobs, who was the director of Feminist Press before her, was an editor at Ms. Magazine as well.
One thing I love about Feminist Press is that there’s always been an intergenerational, shared understanding of why this place is important. All of us have a connection to this work and mission, and yet there might be different books we are more attached to because of our generational position and because of our personal position on any number of the issues. But we believe that all of the other books are just as important, because those voices need to be amplified. I love that.
This is a dream job for me, because I now get to see people come through our doors in our internship program who might think, “Oh, I could be a publisher too, I could do this work.”
JJW: Now it seems like there’s less generational tension.
JW: We talk about intergenerational movement building a lot, and we have people within this organization who are 90 years old, and we have people who are 22. When we think about what can happen across the span of their lifetimes, it’s really profound. We all see the importance of this work and what these books mean for building empathy and connection, and for advancing scholarship.
Intergenerational questions can still rise up. There are things that we disagree on sometimes, and this environment presents an opportunity to talk about why it is that we see things differently. For example, recently I said in a meeting that I wanted to think about the works we publish in a new context, where books do not exist in the way that they’ve previously existed, as objects. This elicited a reaction from someone older, who felt, “I never want to think about a reality where that would happen.”
In response, I said that there’s something about the power of books that will always remain a part of what we do. But we also want to make sure that people can access the content we create. That is why digital work is so important, and that is why we are thinking of new and innovative ways to engage our public. She understood that, as long as the integrity of what books do is maintained. But we had to have that conversation.
JJW: How would you characterize the books that you’re publishing now? I was surprised at how much original fiction you do, as well as nonfiction and memoir.
JW: We have a history of publishing beautiful literary works, but we have also been deepening our literary translations. What’s really great about Feminist Press—because we’re living our feminist ethos in practice—is that people with diverse perspectives and diverse backgrounds come together, and our editorial meetings are really democratic. The whole team gets to look over the content that we receive, and we take unagented submissions. Everyone gets to weigh in.
We have people who are passionate about translations. So, because our senior editor is passionate about Spanish-language books, you will see many books translated from Spanish on our list. You will also see that Jisu Kim—who runs our sales and marketing team and is also a beautiful writer—has edited our book Go Home!, which is a literary diasporic Asian collection.2 Jisu also edited Apsara Engine, an upcoming graphic novel by an Asian graphic artist, Bishakh Som.3 We are very literary, but we also represent the diversity of our community.
JJW: About how many book proposals do you get a year?
JW: Probably a little over two hundred a year.
JJW: And you publish roughly 10 or 15?
JW: Since I’ve been here, it can be anywhere between 12 to 22 books. Right now, 12 to 15 books feels good.
JJW: What do you see as the press’s relation to academe? You don’t do high theory books like an academic press, but you’re not a trade press like Simon & Schuster either. You’re in between.
JW: That is, in some ways, also a generational conversation, depending on whom you ask. When the press got started, it was part of the gender-studies movement, with Women’s Studies Quarterly as well as the books. And there are some people who see Feminist Press very much as an educational, scholarly press. Other people see it more as a trade press, even though we have an academic affiliation, because the majority of our books are trade—literary fiction, nonfiction, memoir, graphic novels. And then some people see it as both.
Other than WSQ, our books are not peer-reviewed or meeting the standards that the academy has set. But I think that is a part of the opportunity of the press right now, because we acknowledge—and this goes back to the Black feminist praxis that informs me—other ways of knowing as being valuable, and valuable in academic conversations.
JJW: You’ve moved very quickly in your career. You’ve written journalism, you’ve worked for feminist organizations, and you worked for the TED organization. How do you reflect on your path?
JW: I worked for Rookie, which is a teen magazine, for a long time, and then I worked for Women’s Media Center, where I worked with Carol Jenkins. I don’t believe in accidents. I consider myself a very spiritual person, and I go where I feel called to go. When I decided to come to Feminist Press, I had been offered a couple of other opportunities, but I knew that this was where I needed to be, merging my experience and my passion with where this organization had been and where it was going to go.
There was something about the resilience of an organization like this. We are the longest-running feminist publishing house in the world. Many of our sister publishers that started at the same time no longer exist. I wanted to learn from the people who kept this press alive and growing, and to be in conversation and active working relationship with an intergenerational team.
I thought I could contribute the media skills that I’d gained and the movement-building skills. I still consider myself an organizer, from when I first worked at Planned Parenthood after college. I’ve been focused on helping to bring Feminist Press to more people’s lives, to people who might not have heard about us yet.
JJW: I have one question about the structural politics of nonprofits, as nonprofits depend on the political arrangement and structure of wealth that we have. You coauthored a book called Roadmap for Revolutionaries, but nonprofits are embedded in the philanthropic world, which is not really revolutionary. How do you sort that out?
JW: We wrote that book after Trump was elected, because so many people, across many different cultural contexts, were asking, “Do you have advice about what to do?”
Our thought was to create an easily accessible guidebook that could help people learn quickly what they need to know about civic education, what they need to understand about the laws that relate to your status as a student, what they need to know about being an activist despite your immigration status, how to get reproductive healthcare services, or how to create a media platform for your community, if it doesn’t exist or you don’t have resources. We thought, “What kind of books gave us that support as kids?” We realized that Scout handbooks did, and so we formatted the book that way.
The reason we say “revolutionary” is because we believe in the capacity of everyone to create change, and we don’t want to contribute to any sort of gatekeeping hierarchy that would keep people from getting there.
In terms of nonprofits: with our tax status as a 501(c)(3) organization, we’re not allowed to advance any specific political agenda—to vote for or against. That doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate or condemn policies or create or elevate commentary that does so. But that’s something that 501(c)(3)s have to navigate, especially those that need support from grant-making institutions to keep their work moving forward.
But one of the things that I think is important is that the nonprofit model allows us to present and publish the most insurgent works, even if there’s no market imperative. Sometimes there are books where we’ll say, “We know it might not sell a lot this year, but it is the first book of its type that needs to be published,” or “It’s going to lift a voice that would otherwise never be lifted.” We can take a moral stand to publish those works because, with our nonprofit model, we can sustain ourselves.
This article was commissioned by Jeffrey J. Williams.