I met Jessica Powers when she took the picture book semester at VCFA, and I’ve been interested in her work ever since. In this guest post, she talks about who she is and the paths that have led her to what she does.
I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico Border in a working-class Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood. I am what people call a “third-culture kid”—I grew up in a culture completely different than my parents’ culture (they are from the Midwest U.S.A.). This fact shaped me more vigorously than just about anything else. I always feel a bit “in-between”—not quite this and not quite that. Sometimes that’s a wonderful feeling; it’s easy to distance myself from the cultural habits and values of white, middle-class Americans—after all, it doesn’t represent me or my lived experience. Sometimes, it’s difficult because people are determined to place me in that cultural box even if it doesn’t fit me very well.
The summer I turned nineteen, I worked with street children in Kenya, and quickly leapt into a genuine love for African people that went on to sustain me as a graduate student of African history, as a learner of Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele and currently Afrikaans, and now as a publisher of African writers. I have spent the last decade in and out of southern Africa, loving the many people there who have chosen to embrace me as a friend and family member. Yet I still have a very strong connection and pull to the Mexican Border, where my family still lives.
Even though I loved many of the classics as a kid, they produced in me a keen and vigorous longing. I never saw my world represented in children’s books. So as a writer of books for young people, I’ve always written about the worlds that I do live in, which are generally not mainstream.
My first novel was set in El Paso, about Mexican-American and Mexican kids, because that’s the world I’ve always known. My second, third, and fifth novel (forthcoming) were set in African countries (South Africa and Somalia) because that’s the world I’ve immersed myself in as an adult. My fourth novel (co-written with my brother, and the start of a series) is pulling on my love for the vast and wonderfully varied cultural terrain of the U.S. But can I say that I am returning to the Border soon enough for a future book? Look for that on the horizon!
I’ve worked for wonderful diverse publisher Cinco Puntos Press for a very long time. That’s been a classic fit. And last year, I launched my own publishing company, Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa.
Why in the world would I do such a crazy thing? Well. I’m glad you asked!
After my child was born, I was really frustrated with the lack of African literature for young people. It seemed like there were two types of books: folk tales and books about Nelson Mandela. Come on, people! We publish tens of thousands of books every single year!
So I teamed up with the amazing people at Jive Media Africa to start the African Graphic Novel Series. And because I love African literature widely and indiscriminately, I’m also publishing a variety of short story collections, crime novels, thrillers, and other books by Africans and/or set in Africa. Come check us out! I promise we will have something you love!
More about J.L. Powers: In addition to her writing and publishing, J.L Powers also writes and edits The Pirate Tree, a blog on social justice and children’s literature.
Books by J.L. Powers
Under Water (forthcoming January 2019)
Broken Circle (co-written with M.A. Powers, 2017)
Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza (2014)
That Mad Game: Growing Up in a Warzone, a collection of essays from around the world (2012)
This Thing Called the Future (2011)
Labor Pains and Birth Stories: Essays on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Becoming a Parent (2009)
The Confessional (2007)