Jerkins discusses switching between writing fiction and nonfiction, what interests her most as a writer, and her advice for young people
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In this episode, author and journalist Morgan Jerkins discusses switching between writing fiction and nonfiction, what interests her most as a writer, and her advice for young people. Jerkins is the author of The New York Times bestseller, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in White America, a collection of essays that weaves together her commentary on pop culture, feminism, African-American history, misogyny, and racism, along with her own experiences.
Morgan Jerkins’ website
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a new podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who will share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
Jerkins is the author of The New York Times bestseller This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in White America. The book is a collection of linked essays that weave together her commentary on pop culture, feminism, African-American history, misogyny, and racism along with her own experiences. Jerkins’ work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, ELLE, The New Republic, and The Atlantic, among other publications. She came to Tufts to speak as an invited guest of the university’s Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora.
Let’s listen in.
KERRI GREENIDGE: It’s so wonderful to talk to you, Morgan. I just want you to say your name and the name of your book and what it is that you would say describes what you do.
MORGAN JERKINS: OK. My name is Morgan Jerkins. I am the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in White America and I am an author, editor, and journalist.
GREENIDGE: What would you say is the focus of your book, of your work? If somebody were to say, “I’ve never heard of this book,” what would you say that it’s about? I’ve read it, but what would you say that it’s about?
JERKINS: Okay. So I would say that it’s an essay collection tracing my trajectory from a black girl to a black woman, but I’m also incorporating a lot of cultural commentary of how I came to know myself through these particular points.
GREENIDGE: And what would you say is the reason that you became a writer?
GREENIDGE: And how do you see yourself expressed on the page versus expressed as a person, if you know what I mean? The fact that you’re expressing yourself and you’re so honest and so straightforward in your writing, but how do you see yourself expressed on the page versus how you are as a person? Do you think they’re different or one in the same or how would you. . .
JERKINS: I think it’s a little bit different. I think when you’re reading my words you can’t see me and I can’t see you. So it’s easy for me to express myself. It’s as if we’re sitting back-to-back of one another and we’re telling each other our deepest emotions. So, when I’m writing I feel like I have control over the environment 100 percent and that’s not something that always happens when you’re in front of someone. So, when I am by myself, I’m very much unfiltered because there’s no one around, so it’s easier to express myself. It’s another extension of who I am in person, but it’s just a lot more intimate.
GREENIDGE: And what would you say is the thing that you like most to write about in your writing? Or that drives you in your writing the most?
JERKINS: You know, it can be many different things. It might be that I hear a conversation and it’s between two black women and I find something that they said intriguing. It might be just be a part of a sentence and I’ll be like, “Hmm, I wonder what that would be if I could like magnify that.” It might also be something that I see in the news, something that has to do with morals or something like that with regards to race and gender and how would you navigate certain decisions, and it’s not all black and white. I’m very interested in things like that.
GREENIDGE: I remember reading your book, which is very powerful, you were talking a lot about the public trying to put you into certain categories as an African American, as a woman, as a younger person. And what would you suggest to younger people—people at Tufts who are students—about how it is that you navigate that in such a graceful way as you do?
JERKINS: Thank you. It didn’t feel graceful at a lot of times. It felt very awkward. I would say to try to find your people, and I think that could be an organization on campus . . . one person even who you know you can talk to about anything, and they can help to guide you or even just be with you when you’re trying to figure it all out. I think that’s incredibly important, especially for young black women, is to find someone who’s not going to gaslight them when they talk about their experiences and things of that nature.
GREENIDGE: And what do you consider your biggest accomplishment with the book? If you had to look back like two years ago and you were anticipating where you would be in 2018, what is the most . . . you stand back and you say, “Wow, that you can’t believe it’s two years.” It’s now 2018 and you’ve come out with this incredible collection. What would you say is the thing that sticks out to you the most?
JERKINS: That it debuted on The New York Times bestseller list. That was the best accomplishment. Yup.
GREENIDGE: Pretty good . . . The New York Times bestseller list is what anyone would look for. What are you working on now? What is your future project?
JERKINS: Yeah, so I am working on two books right now. The second one is a nonfiction book. It’s an autoethnography. So, what I’m doing is, I am writing about the potential origins of fear and the African-American experience with regards to how people’s cultural territories are at stake. So, I traveled across the country interviewing a lot of people, African Americans of different ethnic groups and showing how they’re all connected in a way to talk about, like, even though I’m a woman from New Jersey, you’re connected to a woman who lives in Oklahoma or a woman who lives or a person who lives in Louisiana. It’s all connected under this part of the diaspora.
And my third book is fiction, which is awesome because fiction is my first love. I went to an M.F.A. program for fiction and there is something in African-American folklore about people who were born under the veil—or caul, so to speak. They’re said to be gifted with certain powers. So, I’m going to be writing a novel about African-American women who are caulbearers and it’s set in present-day Harlem.
GREENIDGE: So, do you find that difficult or what do you find that’s most challenging about switching between the two genres? Between fiction and your nonfiction work and your essay work? Are there new challenges you see in that? Is it seamless or what do you see as the challenges?
JERKINS: It is seamless. What’s helpful for me is that both of my books aren’t in the embryonic stage, so it’s staggered. So my nonfiction, it’s right now being revised—started being revised. My fiction, this is a book that I worked on when I was in my M.F.A. program, but I’m starting all over again because the world has expanded so much. So, because they’re not both at the embryonic stage it’s easier. So something that my mind does that’s pretty cool is that if I’m not working on nonfiction, my mind will switch to fiction.
However, I will say that the difficult part about it is learning to take a break, because I’m learning that my motor—so to speak in my mind—is still running. Even if I’m not writing anything and that the cognitive labor of thinking about how to express whatever I’m trying to do creatively, it can go on for hours and then I’ll be like, “Why am I so tired if I didn’t write anything today?” And it’s like because I’ve been thinking so much about it.
GREENIDGE: Wonderful. That whole idea of cognitive and the fact that that actually takes energy. . . I think people often discount that when you talk to artists or scholars that it sort of takes a lot of energy to put into just a thinking process before you put anything on the page. What’s one more thing you can tell us about yourself, Morgan Jerkins fabulous author, that we might not know.
JERKINS: Oh, okay. I would say one thing to know about me is I used to ballroom dance, I guess. I love ballroom dancing. One of my favorites is a rhumba. I love it and foxtrot. It’s great.
GREENIDGE: Really? Oh my gosh. Because I can’t dance at all, so that’s wonderful. It’s a good fact to know. Thank you so much.
JERKINS: Thank you.
HOST: Thanks for listening to Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at email@example.com. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora. Our songs are sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
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