El Paso's Jessica Powers talks with Lone Star Lit

"The years I’ve spent perfecting the craft of writing have been indispensable to my work as an editor and mentor to other writers, to the development of the books I choose to publish as publisher, to how I operate as a teacher of writing and literature." 


Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Powers, you wear many hats: author, editor, publisher, teacher, and now Director of Editorial and Foreign Rights for El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press—and I’ve probably missed a couple. Do you enjoy, or feel drawn to, any one hat over the others, and why? Is that an impossible question? How do these multiple hats work together and inform each other? Where do they come into conflict, if they do?


Jessica Powers: You missed “mother,” lol, and that’s probably my most important hat (and the one I feel most drawn to). All kidding aside, all of these hats are informed by and created because of the oldest and probably my favorite hat—that of being a writer. I’ve been writing novels since I was ten years old. I might quit any of these roles—but not that one, even if it does often take a backseat to the others. The years I’ve spent perfecting the craft of writing have been indispensable to my work as an editor and mentor to other writers, to the development of the books I choose to publish as publisher, to how I operate as a teacher of writing and literature. Those skills are the ones I bring to the table—have learned to read extremely closely; having learned (through hard work and error and the practice of returning over and over to the work) how to identify what a manuscript needs at any given stage in order to reach the next stage on to completion and publication; having learned to listen to my intuition and gut, but also then to articulate the why and reason that my intuition is correct. These all flow together.


The main conflict right now is time. I’m struggling to find time for my favorite thing—my own work.


You are the author of several novels—including a series you co-write with your brother, Matthew Powers, and a picture book, as well as the editor of a couple of anthologies. Please tell us about your writing process and from where you draw inspiration. What are the differences in process when you’re collaborating with your brother?


JP: I draw inspiration from my everyday life as a mother, wife, sister, friend, daughter—these are the things that end up in books. But I’m lucky to live an extraordinary life. I spend part of almost every single year in southern Africa with family and friends, exploring and learning and growing in this distinct cultural and political landscape; I spend part of every year in my homeland of the U.S.-Mexico Border, where nothing is ever still or trite, and where the political and social energy is one of the most vibrant and also explosive for our country; and I live in California’s Bay Area, where I encounter fascinating people from all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds every single day.


My writing process is pretty simple: I write a few pages and then revise them before I can go onto new material. Each time I add new material, I have to go back to the beginning and revise again before I can continue. It’s a constant process of re-engaging with old material and revising it while adding new. This is similar to how I work with my brother, only I’m adding a second personality and voice to the process; we don’t always have the same ideas, but we’ve never had a fight over it. Instead, it’s a joyful experience where we sometimes find ourselves shouting with laughter over something absurd one of us thought, or said, or wrote. I don’t know that the process would be like that with anybody but my brother, who is my best and oldest friend.


LSLL: Your most recent book is Under Water (Cinco Puntos Press, 2019), a young-adult novel about a teenage girl coming of age in South Africa. Please tell us about your new book.


JP: Under Water is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Khosi Zulu growing up in South Africa. Khosi's grandmother has just died. Her relatives are accusing her of killing her grandmother. Though Khosi had desired to be a nurse and to work in the medical field, the ancestors called her to be a sangoma, a traditional healer. Already orphaned by her mother's death from AIDS (which happened in the first book about Khosi, This Thing Called the Future, published in 2011), Khosi must now try to keep the promises she made to her grandmother, while taking care of her sister, Zi, making a living as a traditional healer, and somehow finishing high school—all while alienated from her family. Almost immediately, however, she is forced to break those promises, when the situation in Imbali devolves into violence; her boyfriend becomes embroiled in the violence, a murdered man is left on Khosi's doorstep as a warning to her, and a kind and handsome police officer begins to sweep Khosi off her feet.


Booklist calls Under Water "raw and honest and engaging" while Kirkus calls it "captivating" and "cathartic."


LSLL: You hold multiple graduate degrees in African studies, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in South Africa, and your publishing house, Catalyst Press, specializes in African literature, including an imprint called Story Press Africa, a collaboration with Jive Media Africa. How did you become interested in African studies and why did you decide to specialize in African literature?


JP: I spent the summer I turned nineteen working with street youth in Nairobi, Kenya—both native Kenyans and Somali refugee kids who were pretty much on their own. That summer transformed my life personally—it made me realize that I needed very little in life to be happy, that as long as I was well-fed, warm, and clean, I would be content—but I didn’t really understand the powerful reverberations of that summer until much later. After my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, which I earned from the University of Texas-El Paso, I went on for my graduate degrees in African history. I felt like I had gained a lot of skills in writing, but my knowledge base and experiential base were still too limited. The graduate degrees in writing launched me deeply into community and family and friendships in South Africa, and that’s where I’ve devoted my energies and time for the past thirteen years as a writer and a publisher. (I still work at Cinco Puntos, too, which allows me to pursue my passions that are outside of Africa—because those are many too.)


LSLL: Another imprint, Powers Squared, is a partnership between you and your brother. The website says Powers Squared is “devoted to marrying science and story, in all of its varied flavors to re-humanize science and the scientist.” Please tell us about the inspiration for this imprint and what sort of manuscripts you’re looking for. Have you had any submissions that marry science, story, and Africa?


JP: The main inspiration behind Powers Squared exists in my brother Matt’s heart, who has a Ph.D. in the oncological sciences. He feels like we have killed peoples’ interest in science by taking the story out of science. We are looking for everything from picture books, graphic novels, text-based books for young people and adults, fiction and nonfiction, and even science fiction, that really captivates readers through narrative but with a primary focus on science. And yes, we’ve already married science, story and Africa! The first book we’re publishing is a series of short, very funny, and informative essays by South African journalist and eco-activist David Muirhead about the animals of Africa called Cat Among the Pigeons: A riotous assembly of unrespectable African animals.


LSLL: Bobby Byrd refers to you as the “vice president of imagination.” Please tell us how you first became involved with El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press and the Byrd family and how that relationship has evolved.


JP: Eighteen years ago, I was in Seattle and realized, for some deeply personal reasons, that I needed to return to El Paso. Susie Byrd, daughter of Lee and Bobby Byrd (publishers of Cinco Puntos), had just left her job at Cinco Puntos to work for the mayor of El Paso. I literally hand-wrote them a letter saying I would be moving to El Paso in late December and would be available if they were looking for somebody. My mom was friends with Lee, though I had only ever met her briefly for about ten minutes and had never met Bobby. They said, “Sure, we need somebody, come on down.” I can’t believe they took that risk. But here I am all these years later; it was apparent very early, I think, that I “got” the work they do and that I could be an asset for the company. And because it’s a family-owned business, they do feel like family.


LSLL: You taught literature and creative writing at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, for ten years. What is your most important advice for beginning writers?


JP: In all these years of teaching beginning writers, my main advice is pretty simple: read a lot and read very widely. Read lots of different styles, genres, writers. The more you read, the more you will grow as a writer.


LSLL: Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you?


JP: I’m working on a script for a graphic novel. It’s a memoir of my life from ages eight to eleven and tells my story about growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border, being sexually bullied by the boys in my third grade class, and becoming terrorized and obsessed by Satan and demons. It’s honestly the story of how I became a writer.


LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?


 JP: An unfortunate truth about working in publishing is that, while I read a ton and every day, I’m mostly reading submissions these days—unless it’s reading to my eight-year-old son. We have been reading the Harry Potter series and are almost finished with book seven. We also read a ton of graphic novels. I was just at the country’s largest library conference and I picked up some graphic novels that I’m super excited about: Curtain Calls by Wilfred Lupano and illustrated by Rodguen, originally published in France, and definitely not to be read by my son; and Rise of the Zelphire written and illustrated by Karim Friha, also originally published in France, which he can read, and perhaps we’ll read together.


Jessica Powers is an author, scholar, editor, teacher, and publisher. Powers is the editor of two anthologies and the author of a picture book and four novels for young adults, the latest of which is Under Water (Cinco Puntos, 2019). Powers is the publisher of Catalyst Press.


Powers holds master’s degrees in African history from State University of New York-Albany and Stanford University; she won a Fulbright-Hayes to study Zulu in South Africa; she served as a visiting scholar in Stanford’s African Studies Department in 2008 and 2009. She taught writing at Skyline Community College for ten years.


The daughter of a geologist and a journalist, J.L. Powers spent much of her childhood camping and searching for fossils in the American West. She grew up on the U.S.-Mexico Border and, though she now lives in Northern California with her family, still considers El Paso home.