Publishing Iowa Narratives: The Long View for Progress and Hope

December 6, 2023

Picture by: Omar Flores

Katy Swalwell and Jennifer Leatherby understand why you might feel a sense of dread when you listen to the news or scroll through your social media. We’re constantly met with stories of anger, frustration, and hatred. Everything can start to feel hopeless after a while. Progress begins to seem impossible. 

Katy and Jen hope to change that narrative with their new publishing venture, Past Present Future Publishing. 

Past Present Future Publishing (PPF Publishing) is a new publishing company with the mission to “lift up Iowa stories from the margins that have national significance as a way to challenge bigotry and ignorance for all readers.” The company works with Iowa artists to share stories of marginalized and minoritized folks who haven’t seen themselves represented in traditional media and also of Iowans working to make our state a more welcoming place. 

The duo have dedicated themselves to challenging the prevailing narrative around the state of Iowa. They publish stories that they feel don’t get enough attention and use their profits to support youth justice movements. With these resources, Past Present Future Publishing hopes Iowans can gain a better understanding of their shared, complex history to reach for a better, more inclusive future in which everyone feels welcomed, seen, and valued.

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves

Katy and Jen began PPF Publishing with the goal of creating a home for stories that celebrate the rich diversity and storied narrative of a state often assumed to be lacking each. 

“I think the story people tell about themselves really matters,” said Katy. “There are stories that get told about you, but we can tell different stories about ourselves.” 

The first story Katy wanted to tell was about women who have made a great impact in Iowa. She reached out to Raygun, where Jen worked as Creative Director, for support with the idea. Raygun agreed to publish the book, and Jen supported the project with layout design and managing the illustrations.

Katy Swalwell

Together, under the Raygun brand, they published “Amazing Iowa Women” and “Amazing Iowa Athletes.” 

“Katy reached out to me after because people kept contacting her asking, ‘How’d you make your book? I want to make a book.’ So she asked me if I’d like to keep making books with her, and we’ve been figuring it out ever since,” Jen said. 

PPF Publishing will take on stories and projects that focus on communities often ignored or simplified in the larger Iowa narrative. They want to not only educate Iowans about the community around them, but inspire potential changemakers to fight for a better Iowa. 

As deeply connected community members, Katy and Jen have experienced firsthand the cultural and artistic diversity of Iowa. They believe in giving space to people with marginalized identities to tell their own stories and have made it an essential part of their process to involve writers, artists, and advisors from these communities. 

“I like to think of us as the doulas of these books,” Katy said. “Our job is really to help. How can we help bring these stories to press?” 

“Whenever I find myself in a place where I can lift up a story or person or I can give money, I always try to give it to people who don’t traditionally get as much,” added Jen.

Jennifer Leatherby

This philosophy has led to partnerships with local artists like Alex Barr, a queer Midwestern artist who uses their art to illuminate the vibrant, creative, resilient queer community in the Midwest. 

A visual artist, Alex worked on both of the books Katy and Jen published through Raygun. They also illustrated PPF Publishing’s upcoming children’s book, “From Here & Queer: A Love Letter to LGBTQIA+ Youth.” 

Alex said that while they are always aware of the bad things happening in the world, working with Katy and Jen has given them space to use their art to uplift their community.

“My main focus is not to ignore the real world, but to bring out the traits of it that I am in love with,” Alex said. “I like living in a world of parents who hold their children's hands when crossing the street, partners who fall asleep together feeling truly loved, and strangers who open doors for each other. I could easily spend just as much time making art as an outlet for my deepening anxiety of the state of things, so my focus on tenderness is a choice that I am making every day. That's why this project with Katy means so much to me. It is a deliberate choice to go out of our way to celebrate, to be excited, and to feel enthusiasm and cherish the things that queer Iowans have done.” 

By sharing the successes and joys of women, LGBTQIA+ folks, and people of color in Iowa, Katy and Jen hope to complicate the idea of Iowa being a homogeneous place lacking creativity. Celebrating the many different people that have fought for equal rights and created a home inclusive to everyone may reveal to a reader that they aren’t alone here.

“The more you learn about Iowa, the longer you’re here, the more you understand the reality of the state,” Katy said. “It’s so much more complex and diverse than the common narrative people hold. Understanding ourselves as a complex and diverse community pushes back on the narrative that certain people don’t belong here.” 

For the Youth

Katy and Jen initially considered operating PPF Publishing as a nonprofit organization. When they considered the types of stories they have promised to tell, they knew it wasn’t the best option. 

“We knew that with our mission, we wanted the freedom to be able to write about what we need to write about and tell the stories we want to tell without getting tripped up by the requirements of a 501(c)(3),” Katy said. 

Instead, all of PPF Publishing’s profits will go right back into the community. Katy and Jen have committed their profits toward youth movements and youth equity justice work in the state. 

“We’re trying to create resources for and about young people fighting for a better world,” said Katy. “The resources generated from the creation of those books will go back to those young people as well.”

“We want to tell stories that inspire people and educate people about the truth,” said Jen. “We’re doing it to give more money and power to movements that do the same thing.” 

The first two projects under the official PPF Publishing name, “From Here and Queer: A Love Letter to LGBTQIA+ Youth” and “(Re)Present: Racism and Resistance in Iowa,” will educate Iowa children and young adults on the history of their state. With these books, they hope to provide Iowans with the resources that may disappear with current legislation.

“For ‘Racism and Resistance,’ a woman from Des Moines reached out frustrated about the divisive concepts law in Iowa, HF802,” said Katy. “She wanted young people to have access to the information she had access to. So we gathered all sorts of stories to look at the truth that systemic racism is real and ongoing and there have always been people organizing creatively and courageously against it to build a community that is equitable and inclusive.” 

“From Here and Queer” features the stories and illustrations of over 80 LGBTQIA+ Iowans from throughout the state’s history. This story follows a child worried about homophobia and transphobia in their community and emulates a scrapbook sharing the history and resilience of queer people in Iowa. 

Preorder From Here and Queer and (Re)Present: Racism and Resistance In Iowa

“We wanted this project to have a joyfulness and pride as part of the resistance to messages of hate and bigotry,” said Katy. 

Katy and Jen hope, above all, that PPF Publishing can act as a beacon of light to inspire more and more young people to build equity in their communities.  

“The stories we tell are focused on inspiring and motivating people to do anti-racist work and to know that sometimes, you can win,” Jen said. “If you look at the news right now, you might think there’s no point or that progress can’t be made. But we want to show that truly, progress has been made and continues to be made.”

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