This year, John Jay College’s nationally recognized literary magazine, J Journal, is celebrating its tenth year anniversary. In January, the twentieth issue of J Journal was released, marking a proud legacy of the College’s history in publishing justice-related literature.
Founded by professors Adam Berlin and Jeffrey Heiman, the journal began during Jeremy Travis’ term as president and remains the only print and online literary magazine housed at a CUNY college. At the time of its founding, Berlin and Heiman were both relatively new professors, and they saw that out of the hundreds of literary magazines in the country, none of them focused specifically on justice. “There’s always been a scholarly emphasis on justice,” said Heiman. “But there’d been nothing like this before.”
The journal defines “writing on justice” loosely, and according to Berlin, “the more nuanced the connection the better.” This approach ensures that submissions are varied in content and form, and it also ensures that the editors, who accept only 8-10% of the submissions they receive, are always busy. Berlin and Heiman often send detailed feedback to writers, even those whose work they don’t end up publishing. “We discuss submissions together and if we’re on the fence about a particular piece, we’ll talk about it for hours,” Heiman said.
J Journal editors Jeffrey Heiman and Adam Berlin
In 10 years, the editors have established strong relationships with their writers, some of whom include formerly incarcerated people as well as law enforcement professionals. Writers featured in the journal have also been nominated for and won Pushcart Prizes, which honor the best in literature published by small presses, and others have gone on to publish novels at major publishing houses.
J Journal is released twice a year, and some of the pieces seem to speak directly to the current moment. In the most recent issue, the #MeToo movement is immediately called to mind in contributor Sophia Veltfort’s story Man Accused. Regardless of what justice issues may be making headlines, the editors never put out themed calls for submissions. “We try to stay away from things that are topical,” said Berlin. “What surprises us aren’t themes, but sentences,” Heiman said, adding, “and when those sentences are beautiful.”
Always seeking the “most tangential and quirkiest approach to justice,” they’ve published a number of surprising pieces. In a story by Zachary Tyler Vickers, Berlin and Heiman were captured by Vickers’ unique and jagged voice. Another story by Rob McClure Smith, partly told in a Scottish dialect, is a compelling exploration of the intersection of justice and language. The editors say they stand by all the work that’s appeared in the 20 issues of the journal.
But with a team of only two, the future of the journal relies on John Jay’s continued support. “The journal needs resources so it can be taken as seriously as we know it is,” said Heiman. According to Heiman and Berlin, those resources include support from the College to cover printing costs and build a wide readership base, as well as hiring additional staff to work on the magazine.
That support would ensure the survival of J Journal, which not only bridges the gap between criminal justice and the arts for readers, but also for John Jay students. Dalyz Aguilar, a senior who has worked closely with the editors to build up J Journal’s website, says that working on the magazine has opened up possibilities for her future that she hadn’t imagined before.
“I didn’t know about literary magazines until I worked with J Journal, and now I’m totally submerged,” she said. “There’s a group of us students at John Jay who have transferred from other majors to English, and it’s because we’re inspired by our English professors. I feel prepared now to go into the universe of literature.”