"We do have power": "Queens of Resistance" books profile the politicians who inspire us most – women

On "Salon Talks" Krishan Trotman discusses the 4-book series on Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters & AOC

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 9, 2020 6:12PM (EDT)

Queens of the Resistance (Cover images provided by Random House / Salon)
Queens of the Resistance (Cover images provided by Random House / Salon)

So many young people are disenchanted with our political system. It's like you have to pay millennials to vote and give them a sticker. Can you blame them for lacking excitement after watching the way Republicans blindly blocked everything Obama tried to do during his time in the White House?

Even if it was in their interest –– that sent a clear message about how broken our political system is. Oh, and then Donald Trump was elected and well, many of us are worried if America will still be here by the 2020 presidential election. But America will be here, not because of Trump and his racist cronies but of the voices of strong women in our Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, and Maxine Waters. 

Krishan Trotman, an executive editor at Hachette Books and someone whom I have had the pleasure of working with on my own books, documents the journeys of these amazing women, their powerful voices, and the changes they have made since Trump took over in her new book series, "Queens of Resistance." Trotman and I recently covered all of these issues on an episode of "Salon Talks." The last four years has been difficult, however, Trotman's books offers hope in a time where we couldn't need it more. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Trotman here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about the evolution of Black publishing and how Toni Morrison paved the way for her. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You are an outstanding editor with an amazing reputation across the publishing industry. People love working with you, and now you are switching sides as a writer. Was it easy?

It was so fun. I just loved it. At first, I just didn't think anything of it. The idea came about because I was talking to my friend, who's also my agent now, in her living room over some tea and we were talking a lot about politics, and she was like, "I think you should write a book series about it." And I was like, "Are you kidding me? I'm an editor. Why me?" She's like, "You're a good writer. I think you should do it. I think you would know how to do it in a great way to actually let it reach people and in a new way." And I was like, "I don't know."

But at the time I was going through a lot of changes. My mom had just passed away, and she was like, "What are you going to do? You're just going to sit home and be sad. Express it somehow, use that energy and write something." So I was like, "Okay." And I did the proposal. But you know me D, I was telling her why other people weren't going to be interested in it. Why I wouldn't even buy the series. A four-book series? I was like, "Johanna, are you serious? You think a publisher is going to buy four books and publish them at once?" Because that was our vision. And she was like, "Yeah, I know it's going to happen because I love the proposal." So we got really great feedback. Everybody loved the proposal. We did all the meetings and everything with the publisher, as you know how it goes. And it was so much fun. I just loved it.

As an editor, do you feel more connected to your writers now that you're a writer yourself?

Oh my God, I feel so much more connected. I'm probably going to be a little bit more humbled now as an editor because I know how painful of a process it is. I mean, it's a beautiful process, but it can be really hard to execute what you deeply want to say. And as an editor, I'm used to being on the other side of the table and I help my authors get their points across and get their messages across. But even before you get to that place, I think writing is a very spiritual process. It's a very emotional process. And then actually putting yourself out there, putting your words out there, is another whole thing.

Toni Morrison, one of the best writers to ever live, if not the best, was an editor as well. I feel like being an editor, wearing that hat makes you a better writer. Do you feel that way?

I think so. For one, working with writers like you, who I feel have an authentic voice. With your books and your work, you don't really remind me of another writer I know. That was important for me. These books are written in a way that it's like my inner monologue about politics as a Black woman. I wanted that actual voice to come across on the page. I didn't want to be an author that is Krishan, the same editor or a corporate voice speaking about politics. I really wanted to find authentic voices. Especially for people of color, I think we've been trapped in a certain way of writing and a certain way of speaking that is normal or acceptable or fits the status quo.

I just love when I see people take and really translate our true voice, or our different voices as people of color onto the page. That's what I love about your work and I find that about a lot of the authors that I work with. I mean, my thing is I like to work with bold writers — people who know what they want to say, and they will express it exactly the way that they want it to be expressed. And I think those are things that reach people. I wanted to do that with my work and I was really inspired by the writers that I work with.

Well, we thank you. And congratulations on completing that task. There's four books in your "Queens of the Resistance" series. We have AOC, we have Elizabeth Warren, we have Maxine Waters, and we have Nancy Pelosi. The books could not have come at a better time because our country is fractured. We need new dynamic leadership. We need leadership from people that have experience. We need these worlds to mix. Can you talk about why now is the time?

Now is the time for the "Queens of the Resistance" series because the books are extremely inclusive as four books. These are women of color, but also non women of color. It shows women's leadership. And I really do think that women's leadership is extremely important, especially for Black women. When you read a book like the Maxine Waters book, you see that she's been through so much with this country. She was around during the Watts rebellion, the LA rebellion for Rodney King. She has been a leader through all. But one thing that is not really talked about is where did Maxine Waters get started?

She started just like you and me. She started maybe even closer to you. I mean, she worked at a headstart and she was volunteering. She worked with the volunteers as the program coordinator who works with the mothers who wanted to give their kids a better education. She was the one who brought everybody together and she became a leader within her community. And they pushed her into politics, it was the Black women who saw a leader in her. She had never thought about doing this. She hadn't had other experiences, working at a telephone company and everything, but she had not thought of this for herself. It was the other Black women in the community who were working with her who got her to the next level. In every stage it was always the women who got her to the next place. And I love Maxine Waters because she is a feminist and I don't think we really acknowledged as much about what she thinks about female leadership, but she is a feminist. She worked with Gloria Steinem and so many other women to make things happen for women in the community, but also women as a whole.

For our voices as Black people, it is a divine timing for us to move, and that's what we're doing. We're moving through it all. We're pushing now we're pushing the system, we're pushing allies, we're pushing everything to get change in effect. So I think it's the perfect time to have these inspiring books about politics, because sometimes politics can be a very sad, deadly issue. And you and I talk about this a lot. We just feel depressed thinking about the politics happening here. I wanted to put something out that was inspiring, that shows that we do have power. Politics is not a negative thing. It is extremely positive thing when you have the right politicians and the right people and doing the work and we just have to have more good people overshadowing the bad people.

I'm glad you broke down Maxine Waters past. When you said she was like me, I didn't want people to think that she started out housing the dice game in East Baltimore.

No, but she's from The Projects.

She's connected. And her backstory is so inspiring. Speaking of politics, when you talk about "Queens of Resistance," was there ever a conversation about stepping outside of politics?

It's all about politics because I'm really into systematic changes, and I think that's where the systematic changes start. I want the "Queens of the Resistance" series to continue. We have people really charged up in the activism space, which I think is great, but the laws and the system has to change and we need people like AOC, young people that are fierce, to go into these places and be in these rooms where all of these things are happening and be in charge.

Maxine Waters now is the head of the financial sector of banking. And as a Black woman, there's been no other Black woman to hold that position as chair. And that's really a good thing for us to have. And I just think that politics is a place that real actual change can happen. And we have to continue to find those places in entertainment and in media and publishing and all the other areas where change can happen. S

What we really need is more Black editors and more Black publishers, more Black CEOs of publishing companies to bring in more of us and to be there for us and know how to publish us. We need more people to also be charged up in positive way about politics, fighting the system as activists, but also those who are willing to go inside and be in the system to create change.

Right now it feels like there is a microscope on every industry when we're talking about representation. When it comes to race, how can the publishing industry continue to improve?

We need more Black people at the top. I want to walk into a publishing house and see a Black CEO. There are no Black men at these top levels. Only a handful of Black publishers. But even outside of the publishing area, even in the business office, we need to pull in and recruit people into publishing that look like us, because a lot of people in publishing and editors start as assistants and they grow. But that means that you have to retain these people. You have to give them a reason to want to stay in publishing. It's not the most financially profitable; they could just go somewhere else and go into a different field and make more money. They have to stay because they have to really feel passionate about it and they will, but the passion comes from seeing people that look like them, working with people, to look like them, understanding that they can actually grow and build something there.

So I just think that we need more people at the top. We need to bring in young people tell them about the jobs, recruit them and know how to keep them there. I started in publishing and I was working with a Black editor and it meant so much to me because I knew I was different from the other editorial assistants that I would be having lunch with. At the time, I had long dreadlocks. So I could go to her and say, "Well, what do you think? How should I be wearing my hair here? What do you think?" And I know that she understands exactly where I'm coming from. She really helped groom me and actually just make me feel comfortable in my skin there, because she was so beautiful and so comfortable and doing so well. But unfortunately not every Black editorial assistant has had that experience. A lot of people leave because they don't feel like they have anyone to talk to. And it's just not a place they feel like they want to stay and grow at.

Many millennials are disenchanted with the political process. Some don't want to vote at all. Do you feel like understanding where Maxine Waters comes from, or what pushed AOC into getting into politics, will inspire and make young people want to get involved?

We wrote the books for it to be intergenerational. There's this narrator throughout that's definitely a Black woman and it's a fun voice. I wanted people to see themselves in the book. I wanted them to see themselves in AOC's story. There's a section on AOC and dating and just fun stuff where I just thought that it's really important for the young people to see what politics really should look like and inspire them to get to that level. And we also wrote the book intergenerational because we wanted older people to feel inspired again about politics. It's not just the young people, it's older people who also need to feel like there's hope and there can be change.

I think now with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, there's a lot more that the older generation can relate to based on what they had done. Now they're happy to see a lot more efforts putting out there on a massive level. Nancy Pelosi didn't get into politics until she was in her 40s, well she was in politics but she didn't get into Congress until her 40s, to say it's never too late for any of us to become change makers or to be change makers.

AOC, for example, is a whole lot different than Nancy Pelosi, who is a whole lot different from Elizabeth Warren. What was the journey like in capturing all of those stories the right way? And how much input did you have from the women?

We wanted the books to be told from our point of view. We did not want any politics in the book. We wanted to completely own the material ourselves. We didn't really rely on them for any information. We just did it based off our research and our analysis as Black women. My co-author Brenda Jones, she worked with John Lewis for a very long time as his communications director. We just found that there's just not enough storytelling coming from the Black perspective, whether it's to do with politics or other areas and we really wanted it to be solely ours and not be some sort of pamphlet or agenda tied to it.

AOC was really fun for me because I'm also from the Bronx and I really have a connection with her. She's the youngest one and I just love the way she's just changing up politics. She's a fierce advocate, no joke. But she's also fun, she goes on Instagram Live and does her makeup and was cooking while she's answering real serious questions. She's just dynamic.

I think that all of them are dynamic and in their own, especially Elizabeth Warren, who I think is not really seen like that sometimes. I don't think she really was seen like that when she was running for president and she didn't get a lot of air time. She plays fair, so when it came to her having to take down somebody, she took down Bloomberg, she wanted him out of there. He represented everything that she just hates about politics. She probably liked him as a person, but in his run he was just like, "Oh, I have so much money. I'm going to come in and save the world with all my money." And she took him down, she was pretty gangster about it. I would have liked to see more of her with that.

That's one of the biggest moments of that campaign. She really tore into him.

I think she would have been a good person to go up against Trump. She could handle him, she can handle Trump. She's not afraid, and he would not be able to handle her because not only is she a fierce fighter, she knows how to fight, she knows how to throw hard punches. But she's also extremely smart and always will have done the research and always really puts in 110% in her work, her job. She is somebody I admire and I just think she didn't get enough credit for the fact that she didn't come from a political background either. She came from a middle-class background. She saw what happened during the 2008 housing crisis. She went in and did research to figure out what was happening, how the banks were taking advantage of middle class Americans, which set a lot of Black people, especially, back. Just like what's going to happen with COVID as we go on, we'll see just how financially this has sucked from suck the life out of our community, with people losing their jobs and everything.

Elizabeth Warren did all of that and was working with Congress. She wasn't in Congress for the longest, but she helped create the consumer financial protection Bureau that protects consumers from people like Trump who create universities and giving people student loan debt that puts us all back. And as we both know, a lot of those students at those universities are also Black. And she believes in reparations. Elizabeth Warren, like she says, she has a plan for all these things, and she has always had a plan. She's always worked with Congress to try to get things done for the middle class. And she worked with Barack Obama, but she couldn't get the work done that she needed from the outside so that's why she came in to be a Senator and ran for Senate, because she knew that she had to be inside in order to do the things that she wanted.

Who do you think is going to be the first woman president, or the first woman vice president?

Well, I've been focusing on the VP, obviously. Kamala Harris is my choice, and Elizabeth Warren.

I'm watching, I'm excited. I was really, really, really into Elizabeth Warren. She was favorite candidate. But for VP my favorite candidate is Stacey Abrams. We'll see what happens. Any more books in the works?

Right now I have my authors that I'm excited about.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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