Dara is an “Author Evangelist” (and author herself), an avid book lover, Bush Foundation Fellow, cofounder of Wise Ink, and mother to Genesis, a child (still) “unaware of all the outside forces who want to contain her magic.” The magic of Black Girls who go on to be Black Women.
Since Dara and business partner Amy Quayle founded Wise Ink, a Minneapolis based creative publishing agency, in 2012, they have worked with over 400 authors to bring their words to print under the banner, “authors need more.” Wise Ink is not your average publishing company. Each of their authors is backed by a dedicated and creative team that helps bring transformative stories to readers.
This is why, on most days, you will find Dara in her Northeast Minneapolis office deep in dialogue with nonprofit leaders, business owners, activists, inspired intrapreneurs, and movement makers, helping create beautiful books; the kind with two or three climaxes.
But what about Dara’s story?
Like any good future author (or publisher in Dara’s case), Dara’s earliest memories begin with a book in hand. Early on, she knew she wanted to write, unfortunately for many writers-in-the-making there are few signposts left to follow. Mostly, writers-in-the-making are a restless group, brimming with desire for a thing they want but do not know how to fulfill. This was Dara. Enrolled in a high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that by her own accounts was “98% minority” and “stressed for resources.”
“Many of us were not even expected to graduate,” she recalls.
Which meant, where nascent signposts for her career as a writer may have budded, she found none. Instead, what she found were a contingent of recruiters with perks to sell. First came the army recruiters in search of America’s next generation of soldiers in high schools like hers: under-funded, under-resourced. Dara believes the only reason she escaped their clutches was because she could find in them no satisfactory answer to her question:
“But how do I write in the army?”
At a College Night, Dara would run into another set of recruiters, similarly traversing America’s high schools for students like her; young, promising women. These recruiters offered her something she hadn’t stopped to imagine for herself; a college education.
This is how Dara, through a combination of decent grades, a desire to write and the ubiquitous teenage ambition to be anywhere but here found herself at Mary Baldwin University. Set amidst the rolling hills of Staunton, Virginia, Mary Baldwin with its pristine white buildings, 150 plus year-old campus and quietness of small town Virginia was a far cry from her Alexandria high school. That it was, (then) an all girls, majority white college, only served to increase Dara’s sense of detachment. But at Mary Baldwin, Dara would discover a group of young Black women drawn from far flung cities—Dallas, Detroit, Baltimore, Tallahassee—each with a story as similar as hers that began with an encounter with a Mary Baldwin recruiter.
In her sophomore year, Dara, with a group of other passionate young black women, would stumble on the idea for Libations, a literary magazine for this band of 40 or so Black women enrolled alongside her. As would prove instrumental to her success in the years to come, Dara found mentors willing to cocreate with her. With their support, she launched the first issue of Libations and felt an indescribable thrill.
“I didn’t really know what it was called, but that’s when I realized I liked helping people publish their stories. I wanted to make books. “What is that called? ‘Publishing’?” Yeah? That is what I’m gonna do.”
Twenty years on, Libations, which proved foundational to Dara’s purpose, is still a living, breathing part of Mary Baldwin. For Dara, magazines like Libations are core to her publishing practice.
“I want those folks who are in the crevices of society, who are doing life in a magical way and don’t even know it, to know that they could be using that magic to prepare space for the girls and boys who are not here yet. You know what I’m saying?”
“The thing I love most about Jamaicans is that they are unapologetically who they are,” Dara chuckles, “and it’s a very hard thing to do as a Black person on earth.”
Tomme is Jamaican, handsome, effortlessly full of life by the time he arrives in Washington D.C. to intern at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where Dara, freshly graduated from Mary Baldwin, is also interning. In an office with only a handful of Black people, it is not long before they cross paths. They are both in their early twenties, hungry for life. The White House sits across from their stately office building as George W. Bush’s first term as President comes to an end. All of this is before their cross country move together. Before the leap of faith that every fall into love carries as a prerequisite, and most importantly, before Genesis, their daughter has made her entrance into their lives. It is Tomme who will bring Dara to Minnesota. In the meantime, Dara spends her time as Acquisitions Editor for the American Chemical Society (ACS).
She travels the country convincing chemists from major corporations like Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola to publish their work with the ACS. Bob, her boss, is pivotal to this period in her life: he advocates for her at work, mentors her, and when he sees a newspaper ad for George Washington University’s first Masters in Publishing program, he not only encourages her to apply, but finds the money to fund it. Dara applies and gets accepted. At ACS she falls deeper in love with the publishing world.
“It was a really beautiful experience. I was on the front end of seeing how a book moves from creator to production to print. That was the first job that gave me the opportunity to see a book come together.”
When it is time to leave ACS, Dara will be left with a sense of guilt over the investment Bob poured into her. But love must do as love does—and risk has never been outside its domain. When Tomme gets a job offer in Minnesota (the kind of offer you don’t turn down) and asks Dara to join him, she hesitates, but ultimately follows her heart. Searching online, she finds a small Edina-based publishing house and applies for a sales job. When she arrives for her interview, Dara meets Milt, the company’s owner, a 79 year-old, Scandinavian White guy and questions whether his company is a good fit for her.
Milt sitting across from Dara, Washington D.C. transplant, recently employed at one of the nation’s largest nonprofits, with a Masters degree from a prestigious university senses her uncertainty. But old age, it seems, comes with enough wisdom to maneuver the defenses of the uncertain. He opens his mouth and says to her, “Books saved my life, I bet that’s the same story you have.”
“Yeah,” Dara answers.
Dara would spend the next five years working alongside Milt, helping to grow and expand his publishing company. Here, she would meet Amy Quale, her future co-founder as they published everyone from stay-at-home moms to corporate leaders, learning a few things along the way. Together, Amy and Dara started their blog, Wise Ink.
“We were blogging about the potential mistakes you can make when you indie publish. We were also sharing the possibilities we were observing opening up for independent authors. This was around the time Amazon and e-books were becoming a thing. We were just trying to inform and educate about indie publishing, which at the time was still sort of a stigma.”
When Milt passed away in 2012, Dara had a choice. She could stay or heed Amy’s calling. Amy who was telling her, “We have amazing ideas for authors. We love this work. Let’s go do this on our own.” Dara, who had traditionally preferred to play it safe, a trait inherited from her parents she admits, resisted.
“I was comfortable, I was making good money.”
It took a few months of convincing, but Dara chose risk again in pursuit of a love—and well, we know how that story ends. Seven years on, Wise Ink is home to a roster of award-winning books and authors, and risk remains a cornerstone of its practice. When choosing authors to publish, Dara looks for writers challenging the status quo of what we expect to see, be it in romance, non-fiction, creative nonfiction, or children’s books. Women, she says, are a perfect example of this, as a new crop of books on leadership, marriage, and parenting emerge that push the envelope on everything we have been told to expect as women. That old binary narrative around blonde-haired-helpless-princesses versus boys-who-play-with-trucks? She’s not here for it either. We need more stories about powerful queens, Black and Brown children, adopted children, or children in foster care, she says.
“I feel that readers are searching for stories that reflect who they are: nuanced, outside traditional narratives, and flawed. More and more, writers have to call themselves to the edge. I want books that tell the truth. I want authors who are curious and challenging themselves to create books that don’t tell the same story,” she says.
Dara dreams of elevating the stories of the marginalized: young voices, POC voices, and voices whom we rarely see with a byline. Already, she is working with more writers of color than she ever has in her entire career.
Success as a Black woman in a White man’s publishing world hasn’t come easy for Dara. She stumbles, pauses a breath, summoning the grounding to confess that she is indeed one of (already) very few Black women in the independent publishing world, skillfully adept at what she does. The Bush Fellowship was crucial in arriving at this admission; “It gives you time to really lean into your gift and develop it. To sit with it and challenge it.” Dara also spent that time putting her leadership under a microscope; Where were her strengths? What could she do better? She took time to write for herself, sought new opportunities, thought about how to lead without sacrificing herself, or her family. Dara has since began writing a children’s book series chronicling the lives of real black queens.
“We have long and thorough histories of Black Queens who walked the earth and there aren’t very many books about them, if any. How refreshing is it that those stories don’t have to be created from our imagination?”
As Dara surveys the world around her, the one she is creating for her daughter Genesis, and as she looks at her life’s work, and the publishing company she co-founded, ‘limitless’ is the word that unites them. I ask her one last question. If she were to write the synopsis for the book of her life, up until this moment, what would it read?