For Colored Girls Book Club + Morgan Jerkins

 

Morgan Jerkins is the author of the acclaimed collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing. In it, she shares deeply personal experiences and frames them within the political structure of anti-blackness. She shines a light on and celebrates black woman and black womanhood, explores disabilities and how even the Black Girl Magic movement isn’t exempt from ableist thinking, and investigates the dual-sided nature of the strong black woman stereotype.

We caught up with Morgan Jerkins over the phone to talk about her essay collection, the accusation of anti-blackness lobbed at her from other black readers, and the writer’s responsibility to vulnerability.

 
Morgan Jerkins. Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

Morgan Jerkins. Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff

 

FOR COLORED GIRLS BOOK CLUB:              

You are really very vulnerable in your writing and I'm curious to know if or how much fear there is there, because there doesn't seem to be any.

MORGAN JERKINS:                 

There was a lot of fear from start to finish. I was fearful about how everyone would perceive it, including my parents. I think being fearful about what you're writing is actually a good thing, as unhealthy as that might sound. I think usually when we're afraid to divulge something, it’s because we're afraid of what everyone thinks. But it's usually an important indicator of something that maybe we're shameful about, and we need to interrogate that shame. When I write, a lot of times I’m interrogate some years-long shame lodged in my body, and I'm trying to work my way out of it through prose.

FCG:              

Would you say that your writing is more for you than it is for an audience?

MJ:                 

When I'm writing a personal essay, I have to really submerge myself within myself, if that makes sense. I talk to myself as I'm writing—for example, how did I feel when this moment happened? What do I feel now? Were there any problematic things that I had to unlearn? But also, I write personal essays after I’ve pitched the idea. The pitch is usually 250 words, 300 words tops. So when I usually write personal essays, it is for an audience. But I have to give myself the space and the grace to center myself first before an editor's eyes are on it. Every writer has their own routine, and I develop a routine to make sure that I center myself so that I can say what I have to say.

FCG:              

The essays in This Will Be My Undoing that focused on your younger self are written with a lot of clarity and eloquence about like your younger self’s perception of herself, of race, of her blackness. Are things that you realized in your youth, or did they come with the privilege of hindsight?

MJ:                 

The clarity only came years later, 10 plus years later. And it's still hard because I was really going through it. I never gave myself the space to really say, "Hey that was messed up what happened to me. That traumatized me." And I know it traumatized me because my body still remembers. Even talking about it now, even reading passages from those particular chapters, make me feel like I'm 14 years old again. I'm taken right back to that spot, and that was how I knew this needed to be documented.

FCG:              

In the first essay, “Monkeys Like You,” the way you talk about Jamirah and your own “anti-black girl violence” against her was so evocative, it felt immediate. I thought it was possible that there could be people reading it that think this is how you feel right now.

MJ:                 

There were people who accused me of that, which is absurd, but I understand where it's coming from. The confessions that I documented on the page about myself were chilling and they were horrific. But I wanted people to understand that when I was 14 years old, I didn't have complex thoughts about systemic racism. I didn't know about police brutality like that. I didn't know about police surveillance and racialized policing of black and brown people. I was just angry, and these were the thoughts that I had. Yeah, it made a lot of people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. But I wanted to be able to explain to people that my understanding of who I was as a black girl began with my being compared to a monkey. And because of that I had very low self-esteem. And because of that, I was very anti-black, particularly anti-black girl. And so, what I hope that readers would get from reading the entire book was that there was a narrative arc as I grew up. And if you check my work, the work that I have done online for five years now, or if you checked my Twitter, you would get some indication that [I don’t think like that anymore]. With that particular passage, I told people I am ashamed of what I felt. And some people just glossed right over that.

FCG:              

Why was it important for you to put this story out there?

MJ:                 

For one, because I’m an honest person. We live in an age of black girl magic, which is incredible, but that's not how my particular story began. And I feel like, as an essayist, as an author, I would be doing my audience a disservice if I tried to hide the ugly parts of my life because I'm afraid it’ll make people uncomfortable. I'm not saying that I wrote it to be gratuitous. I wrote it because I wanted people to see that there was an ugliness inside of me, but that ugliness was not 100% my own. And so, what I hope is that in spite of that discomfort, people could understand why I had these feelings and give me the grace to expand upon how I've grown and matured for the remaining 200 and something pages of the book.

 
This Will Be My Undoing  by Morgan Jerkins. Photo via  @_morganerkins

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. Photo via @_morganerkins

 

FCG:              

Do you think, then, that writers have a responsibility to be vulnerable?

MJ:                 

I think if you are writing a personal essay, you have to be vulnerable. At the same time, you have a choice of what you want to divulge. I tell my students that the best essays are by writers who are not afraid to interrogate themselves, who will unravel and complicate their thoughts and their perception of themselves and their worlds. That requires vulnerability. I always stress to myself and I stress to the people who listen, that it's important to be vulnerable. That doesn't mean you have to spill your guts, so to speak. But I feel like you have to interrogate whatever you're trying to write about and tackle your thoughts. And also check yourself and check the world around you. So, yes, I think writers do have a responsibility to be vulnerable.

FCG:              

Your essays are well structured, despite weaving in and out of several seemingly disparate topics and events. And it’s clear you did a lot of research. I'm curious to know how you write without letting research overwhelm the narrative.

MJ:                 

Having an editor helps. I also have a comparative literature background, so I'm always trying to look for intersections. A lot of times when I write, I’m hyperaware that I don’t live in a vacuum and I'm try to show [readers] that there is an historical precedent for what I am saying. Some of the essays talk about cultural appropriation or misappropriation or the power of owning our narrative. I may know intuitively things that other black women know intuitively, but there has to be evidence for what I'm saying. Not to gaslight myself but to boost what I'm saying. In terms of making sure it's level, that comes from editing, someone saying I’m not making myself clear here or I need more sources there or I need to change the language of there.

FCG:              

You have published very prolifically and show no sign of stopping. How do you decide what to write about, what to engage with?

MJ:                 

When I started my writing career, I was promiscuous, if you will. What I mean by that is that I was just trying to get published everywhere and build up my portfolio, which was initially personal essays and what people call “hot takes.” But now, I feel like my wheelhouse is kind of changing. I want to do more reporting. I want to write about the stories that don't center me, that are about other people's lives and command national or international attention. I think I'm in an interesting transition [with my writing career] in terms of trying to change my wheelhouse a little bit and just trying to challenge myself. For example, I want to be able to write a piece online that’s 5,000 words. Or do on the ground work. I remember back in February or March, I traveled to Texas to do a story on these remains of black prisoners, convict laborers. Their remains were found, and it was a huge international story, and I loved being able to travel to another place, being on the ground for days interviewing people, being in the field, as they say. That's something that I didn't get to do early on in my career and that's something that I would like to do more of.

 
Morgan Jerkins. Photo via  @_morganjerkins

Morgan Jerkins. Photo via @_morganjerkins

 

FCG:              

Did you choose nonfiction or did nonfiction choose you?

MJ:                 

I've never got that question before. I would almost say nonfiction chose me. In my senior year of college, a freshman white male wrote a piece about privilege in our school newspaper, and he got it terribly wrong. But he got national attention for it. Like, Fox News spoke about it. And I was just so upset about it that I decided to write an op-ed in Ebony magazine about what he said. It was like I was compelled because of something that someone else wrote. So, I got into it from being reactionary.

FCG:              

Why is it important for you to tell the stories that you tell?

MJ:                 

I personally believe that there should be as many narratives about black women as possible. That, and it feels powerful to let people know that at the end of the day, that my story is mine. I really enjoy that. I think that the more voices that we have, the better. And if I can add to that, then that's great.

FCG:              

Have you read any good books lately and can you share some of your favorites?

MJ:                 

I'm reading a novel called The Idiot by Elif Batuman. If you like dry humor and college life and young love, I think you would enjoy that book. I just read Patsy, a great novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn and then On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Nonfiction, I've read Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman. It is incredible, because she's writing about young black women in the early 20th century, not too long out of slavery, and examining their intimate lives, whether they were queer, whether they had multiple lovers, whether or not they were ladies of the night, if you will. And it's fascinating how she tries to piece together the lives of these unknown black women.

And essay collections, I've liked We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, Shrill by Lindy West, All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey, Sick by Porochista Khakpour, The Collective Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang. I love essay collections, especially written by a woman, because I'm very nosy. I want to hear about your terrible dating lives or your wonderful dating lives or ethical dilemmas because I just love reading about other people's lives. Especially if that person has a strong narrative voice.