L.A. poet who works to amplify Black voices just sold her own memoir, ‘Butch,’ to Knopf
Kima Jones was working on her first novel in 2017 when her father fell into a diabetic coma while driving, causing a fatal car crash. He was 55.
In the months following, Jones struggled to make sense of his death. A poet and founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a Los Angeles-based book publicity company dedicated to Black and brown women’s narratives, she was determined to finish her first work of fiction. But whenever she sat down to work, another story kept tugging at her. “There’s this other book that just keeps standing up in front of me every time I try to work on the novel,” she told her agent, Monika Woods of Triangle House Literary. “And it’s calling to me.”
That book would eventually become “Butch,” Jones’ forthcoming memoir about growing up in New York City’s foster care system. On Tuesday, Knopf announced that it will publish the book, Jones’ debut, in fall 2023. Jordan Pavlin, senior vice president and editorial director at Knopf, will edit.
“Butch,” said Jones, is as much a story about her mother, father and grandmother as it is about her own life. At its core, it’s the true tale of a poor, hard-working Black family committed to staying together. No matter what.
“In finally being able to look at myself and my grief, I was able to see my father’s grief,” said Jones, 38. “And I was able to understand so much more about his life and my own. ‘Butch’ arrived right on time.”
It’s a story Jones had hesitated to write for years. She didn’t want to tell another story about a Black family in the 1990s struggling with trauma, drug addiction and the criminal justice system. After her father’s death, Jones — who was in foster care from ages 6 to 12 before her parents regained custody — recognized that she had been ashamed of her past.
“I realized that shame was because of people’s preconceived notions of who and what foster care kids are,” she said. “The writing is about self-defining. I think of ‘Butch’ as the revenge of foster care kids.” She also calls it “a liturgical survival text for Black women.”
“My prayer is that readers will be encouraged to survive in their own lives,” she said. “I want them to feel strong.”
Music will play a pivotal role in her memoir, which she also considers her first album.
“Whenever I think about the book, and I think about Black sound, and I think about poetry, it always brings me back to Black music and the idea of a compilation,” said Jones. “I need different songs to dive deep into those feelings.”
Memoirs by Kiese Laymon and John Edgar Wideman; essays by Darryl Pinckney and Mikki Kendall; masterpieces from Michelle Alexander and Claudia Rankine.
Jones isn’t done with the memoir, and once it’s safe to travel again, she hopes to do research and retrace her family history in New York and in Charleston, S.C., where she also lived in foster care.
Until then, she plans to dedicate herself full time to writing, stepping away from Jack Jones Literary Arts five years after its founding.
Jones will continue to consult for two final projects before she officially steps away: Of the Diaspora, a line of reissued work by overlooked Black writers to be published by McSweeney’s, beginning in February with Wesley Brown’s “Tragic Magic”; and Art for Justice, a collaboration with the University of Arizona Poetry Center to commission new poetry that promotes social justice and change.
Frank Johnson, a poet and multimedia artist, will continue to do publicity and consulting for the company.
“The intentional centering of Black stories, Black art and Black experiences is really necessary,” said Johnson. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, “we’re really going to be amplifying the voices of writers whose books and art work are pushing us to a safer and freer future for people of color.”
“Like me,” said Jones, “[Johnson] is invested in Black and brown literature and West Coast publishing initiatives and programming. My role is shifting to small advocacy initiatives while I write my first book, and I’m really lucky to be able to focus all of my time and attention on that.”
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