Jamia Wilson on storytelling
Wilson spoke on campus for Mount Holyoke College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Commemorative Keynote as part of its yearly Racial Justice and Reconciliation series.
Jamia Wilson is an award-winning feminist activist, writer, speaker and podcaster.
She joined Random House as vice president and executive editor in 2021. She is the former director of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York and the former vice president of programs at the Women’s Media Center.
Wilson has been a leading voice on women’s rights issues for over a decade. She is the author of “This Book Is Feminist,” “Young, Gifted, and Black,” the introduction and oral history in “Together We Rise: Behind the Scenes at the Protest Heard Around the World,” “Step Into Your Power: 23 Lessons on How to Live Your Best Life,” “Big Ideas for Young Thinkers,” and “ABC’s of AOC” and is the coauthor of “Roadmap for Revolutionaries: Resistance, Advocacy, and Activism for All.” She is also the cohost of the second season of the Anthem Award-winning podcast, Ordinary Equality.
On January 25, Wilson was in conversation with President Danielle R. Holley to discuss “Storytelling: A Powerful Tool in Our Struggle for Social Justice.” This talk was Mount Holyoke College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Commemorative Keynote as part of its yearly Racial Justice and Reconciliation series, organized by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. During her visit, Wilson also visited the Building Literary Communities course and met with students, staff and faculty.
In advance of the talk, Wilson spoke to Mount Holyoke College about connections, Anne Frank, calling oneself a writer and what stories she’s currently focused on.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Thank you so much for coming to campus for this talk. We’re very excited to have you at Mount Holyoke.
Yes, so thank you so much for having me. I can’t wait to be on campus soon. I am a big fan of Mount Holyoke and the beautiful Pioneer Valley in general.
Talk a little bit about the power of storytelling for activists.
I think I’ve cellularly always understood that storytelling is one of the most powerful ways for us as humans to connect with one another, to share a truth. To build bridges with each other across differences [has existed] since the beginning of human experience, whether we’re doing it around a campfire or in a consciousness racing group in the ’60s. Or whether we're doing it now in an accessible group for people who can’t be together, but are connecting heart to heart. I’ve come to find that, looking back through a book I’m writing right now about student activists and youth-led movements, storytelling is the way that we build empathy. It’s the way we move people to take collective action. It’s the way that we help people become deeper seekers, even if we don’t present answers when we present our stories, and we help people understand that it’s OK to be navigating the questions, that it’s actually an integral part of being human. We then expand more, we then open more to each other.
Through my work as an organizer, my work as an editor, supporting and uplifting and amplifying other stories, but also my work as a writer — that it’s really about connection. It’s really about engaging another human with an experience and then placing a mirror to them, maybe not a mere reflection of the exact same experience that you’ve shared, but a mirror to how that story has created glimmers within the story of their own life. And then there's a magic that happens as that plays out as that is processed. And I’m just very much interested in that and attracted to that.
The mirror metaphor is very impactful — it echoes the George Orwell quote, “Good prose is like a windowpane.”
Yes, I think of the books that have shaped me and changed me in some way, and it really has been the opening of the window, the reflections and the glass. What do I see outside the window? Maybe the things that either excite, inspire or intrigue me. Outside the window are the things that frighten me. I think of the shadows outside the window, too, lurking. And I think there’s so much in that metaphor that's really powerful, and I’m going to continue to meditate on it.
I think the single most important book in my life in terms of moving me is “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank. That book has been personally meaningful to me since I was about eight years old. I insisted upon going with my parents to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. She was a young person who took herself seriously as a writer when the adults around her didn’t take her seriously. She stood in her own agency and authority about her important story. The value of her story through her lens very much moved me profoundly, as I thought about what it would mean to take on the label of author for myself.
And although we had a very different experience, a very different time, she knew what it means to be “other” — to be a part of an outsider experience — and she had an inherent birthright to a sense of dignity and integrity. Through her diary, she was in the process of saying, “I own this story, I deserve to have the story. I deserve to be a channel for the story of my people in this time of persecution.” It's a time of human failure. When I think about that idea of the windowpane, I think about her specifically looking out of the window upon the world. That's a connection I hadn’t thought of.
Did you always think of yourself as a writer?
I’ve always wanted it. I knew it was something I had to do to be OK, but taking on the title of it — because of all the errors of our society, because of misogynoir and many other things — it was hard. Some teachers didn’t want to take me seriously when I felt I should be taken seriously. But the people close to me did take me seriously. My mother, who was an amazing person — who has passed on, but still lives in me — my mom always believed in me, and she always believed I would become a writer. She kept the first book that I made that was just stapled together with ribbons and all of that, and when my first book was published, she handed that to me and said, “I always believed you could do this.”
I just know I need oxygen. I need water. I need chocolate. I need to write every day to feel OK. My partner, because he's an artist, a musician, he will sometimes see if I’m being irritable or distant from myself, he’ll say, “Has somebody written today? Have you not eaten? Have you not slept? Written?”
Talking about stories and with the importance of storytelling, what stories are you focused on at this moment in time?
I am really excited that I have an opportunity to have a broad range of interests on my list at Random House. When I moved [from the Feminist Press], I moved to this particular house because I acquire on the fiction and nonfiction side. As long as a book aligns with the standards and values of the imprint, it can be about or around many different types of things and themes. So what I love about my list is that I am never bored. I have so many ideas and channels. I am dancing through every day.
Just this week I have been working with a writer who is a feminist Christian theologian on the history of Thecla. That's about the reclamation of spiritual authority by women whose stories need to be revealed and unearthed, because they were silenced after Constantine in the Council of Nicaea. I’m also working with authors like Tressie McMillan Cottom, who is engaging in discourse in different ways, and engaging with the sociological lens in an accessible, inclusive, and expansive way. I’m working on Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s memoir, “Lovely One,” which we announced last year.
I also have two fiction books that I signed last year in progress right now. One is from Camille Acker, who was my first author at Feminist Press. I loved working on “Training School for Negro Girls” because it's a short story collection. I’m working with Ira Maddison III, who is a TV writer and podcaster, and he is writing pure, innocent fun. And that book is a comedic essay collection. I just love it. It’s a book about nostalgia culture. So depending on the day, I’m getting to really dig deeply into a variety of topics, and I really enjoy it. Oh, I was just thinking of another one — Samhita Mukhopadhyay, who was the executive editor at Teen Vogue. I’m working on her book, “The Myth of Making It.” I love it.
I’m excited about what it means. To be working with these amazing voices and what it means to also bear witness to their power in this time, but also being the documenters of the times we’re living in, through their work.