VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Morgan Jerkins

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Morgan Jerkins speaks six languages, thanks to a degree in comparative literature from Princeton University, where she specialized in nineteenth-century Russian and postwar modern Japanese literature. But it is the present moment for Black women that takes center stage in Jerkins’s debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, out this month.

Hailed as “a writer to be reckoned with” by Roxane Gay, Jerkins has penned one of the most anticipated books of 2018, according to publications as varied as Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, The Huffington Post, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus.

In this interview, Jerkins, a contributing editor at Catapult whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and elsewhere, talks about getting her start on the Internet, who she writes for, and why her collection of linked personal essays isn’t just another Millennial read.

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The Rumpus: In the beginning of This Will Be My Undoing, you address whom the book is about versus whom the book is for. I want to talk about that distinction. Writers in general—and writers of color in particular—often get asked about our audience, or whose gaze we are we trying to avoid writing beneath.

Morgan Jerkins: As I was writing this book, I was thinking of a Black woman reader. But at the same time, I don’t only want Black women to read it. When I’m talking about hair, when I’m talking about assimilation—a lot of Black women, I’m sure, can identify with that. What makes it feel new is that it’s my personal story. But for other people who do not identify as Black or as women, a lot of it is going to be new. I kept in mind that our narratives are often obscured and then neglected.

I had a white editor, and sometimes when I was writing certain things, particularly in the section when I was talking about hair, I had to laugh and remind myself that I’m not just talking to Black women in someone’s kitchen. I’m talking to a particular audience and not everyone’s familiar with everything. So yes, I’m writing about Black women and I’m writing for Black women, but I also want people who do not indentify as such to read the book and walk away with something.

Rumpus: You also address your age, right off the bat on the back cover copy. It sounds like you felt that question was inevitable, about writing a memoir in your twenties.

Jerkins: I don’t look at my book as a memoir. I just look at it as a series of personal essays and cultural commentary. To be honest, I’m actually intimidated by the word memoir at my age. Because even though there are authors who have multiple memoirs, it’s still so final.

I’ve written a lot of personal essays online, and I was part of this group of women who got their start writing personal essays online and churning them out like crazy. So when I look at the collection, it isn’t a memoir. And it’s even intimidating just being my age and coming up with a book, period. It’s something that I don’t take lightly. I consider it a big responsibility and a big blessing at the same time.

Rumpus: The essays are political, and very personal, and candid. Some of the things that you discuss about your health, or about sexuality, you’ve written about before online. Was it a challenge to do that in this longer form?

Jerkins: Yes and no. There are certain essays in the book that could never work first online. Because I needed the space to be able to talk about my thoughts and my growth, from the ugliest moments to the more triumphant moments. So, it was less intimidating to write about it in a book because, well, guess what? This person already paid money for it—they might as well sit with it. It’s not like on the Internet, where as soon as you don’t like something, you can just click off. Our attention span is so short.

But there were moments after I wrote certain chapters—whether I was talking about high school and cheerleading, or when I’m talking about sexuality—where I finished it, I was like, “Oh, my God. What have I done?” But I also felt that if I didn’t have those emotions, if I didn’t have those reactions, then that meant I didn’t go far enough.

Rumpus: What do you want people to take away from your candor?

Jerkins: Hopefully that they’re not alone. Hopefully someone else will read what I’ve written about and think, “I’ve had those thoughts myself. I’ve had those experiences myself.” And also, I hope to encourage other writers of marginalized backgrounds that it’s okay to take it there. I’ve said this before to people: I can’t promise you pretty. I can’t promise you pretty experiences all the time because that’s not life. And if I’m trying to tell you something, I have to bring you to the depths first before I bring you out. I can promise you pretty in terms of the sentences, the way they’re constructed, thanks to my editor. But in terms of memories and the way that you form your identity, especially as a marginalized person, a lot of it has to deal with trauma. A lot of it deals with suppression. And triumphant moments, too. But I couldn’t shy away from the trauma, and I was fortunate enough to have an editor and an agent who wouldn’t allow me to either.

When I first got into writing, I got into writing to hide. To obscure myself. I was being bullied and harassed every single day. Writing was my mechanism for hiding, and when you’re doing personal essays, you have to do the opposite of that. So there were many moments when my editor could tell I was psychologically cutting corners because I was trying to hide.

I think what has drawn people to my work is that I’m able to be vulnerable. I say, look, I don’t have all the answers. Here are my experiences. I’m a Black woman, but here are my privileges. And not every Black girl is the same. I’ve said that right off the bat so people don’t assume this is just a universal story. And I had to remind myself, whoever I’m talking about in the book who has done something negatively to me, they’re not always the villain. There were certain things I was harboring too, and this is where they were coming from. I have to put myself under the microscope, in addition to the world at large.

Rumpus: Speaking of being under the microscope, can you talk a bit about being a Millennial writer?

Jerkins: When people talk about Millennials, I always think of it as white Millennials. People saying, “Millennials eat avocado toast.” I don’t know any person of color who eats avocado toast. I don’t eat avocado toast. All I want is my Greek yogurt and my strawberries. That really all I want. [Laughs] If someone picks up my book and says, “Oh, my God. Another Millennial read,” they’re just counting it out. I’m not going through the book with a list of complaints. But when people describe me as a young, Millennial writer, I can hear the groans at the end of somebody else’s computer. But that’s what I am. That’s my generation. And yeah, I’m nervous about things. We have our neuroses just like every other generation. But I’m not irresponsible. So it’s difficult. Because I think this generation is under so much scrutiny, and a lot of it I believe—because I’m biased—is unfair.

Rumpus: Do you feel like your book will expand the conversation about or the understanding of what it is to be a Millennial who is a Black woman?

Jerkins: I sure hope so. Because there aren’t a lot of Millennial Black female writers who are publishing essay collections, unfortunately. A lot of the essay collections that I read are by white women. The tide is changing, but there’s nowhere near as many Black women publishing these collections. So I hope people take away from this: Here’s a young Black woman who’s trying and she’s writing and she’s documenting. And she knows she doesn’t know everything. It’s just another piece of the puzzle. My book can’t be the end all, be all. It just can’t. There’re just so many more narratives left unwritten, left unspoken, left unpublished. Mine is just one. And I hope I do a good job with what I say and what I can claim for myself.

Rumpus: In light of the dearth of collections by Black women essayists, who are your heroes in that sense?

Jerkins: Roxane Gay. When I picked up Bad Feminist back in 2014, I think that was the first time I’d read an essay collection by a Black woman. I graduated from Princeton, my studies were in post-war modern Japanese literature and late 19th century Russian literature. So [it was] completely different—all the way on the other side of the world. I was not reading people who looked like me. So, when I read Bad Feminist, I thought, “This looks like a book for me.” The cover was white, pink, black. I was still morphing my ideas of what feminism looks like. Especially coming from a background where feminism is a pejorative term, it was great to read.

And now the same imprint that published Bad Feminist is publishing me. It’s just awesome.

Rumpus: So your collection is about this particular moment for Black women where fascism is staring us in the face, people are being made accountable for sexual harassment and assault, and there’s police brutality and extrajudicial violence against Black people. In this particular moment, what are your essays telling the world about Black women?

Jerkins: We will not be ignored. We are here. We are not cultural footnotes. We are incredibly influential. And we deserve, period, everything. To be understood. We deserve to not be compared all the time to white women or anybody else, but thought about and considered in our specific context.

And that’s all I really want. You don’t have to agree with me on every single point but to come from a place of understanding and put me in a specific context as well as other Black women, and to know that we can’t be ignored, and we won’t be. And luckily, in the time that we’re in now, we’re not being silent either.

Rumpus: And that specific context is historical?

Jerkins: Historical context, socioeconomic context, depending on the story. When we’re talking about our hair, a lot of it has to do with historical context. A lot of it has to do with pop cultural context. When we’re talk about where we live and code-switching, a lot of it has to do with socioeconomic context. And that’s what I want people to understand. We’re talking about Black women, but also, there’s so many different kinds of us, and the way in which we navigate this world. And why wouldn’t you want to know more about that? When there’s such a wealth of information there.

Rumpus: In the collection, you write about your mother. Writing about family can be tricky. How did you negotiate that?

Jerkins: I was writing about my mother in the context of the ways in which she protected me, and the way that other women judged her. My mother is the closest person to me. My mother is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s not okay for me to say, well, this is wrong, why would she do that? She did it for protection and survival. And hopefully mobility.

Rumpus: And that’s a nuance that you were able to capture, again with candor.

Jerkins: It came from my mother. We both grew up in a very tight-knit Christian community. My mother was a single parent. My mother is just as short as I am, with a voice that carries. I don’t know what it’s like to be quiet, in a sense, because I was raised by a single mother who did everything, unapologetically.

But I also told myself, “Listen girl, you got one time to make your debut. You need to make it good. You gotta make it good. You have to go the whole way.” And so there’s nothing in my book that I look at and say I didn’t go hard enough. Not one story. And I would have been hurt if I looked back and said, “I should have said more in this but I was too scared.”

I felt like a fruit, and someone just squeezed everything out of it. Me. I squeezed my own self. I just felt so zapped after it was over. Even now, when I think about the dating experience I wrote about, I think, “You could’ve just been at home. You didn’t have to go through any of that! If you just realize how valuable you were!” And I remember when I finished that one chapter about sexuality and dating, I cried. And a friend of mine said, “It’s because you’re mourning your former self.” When I was writing that chapter, I was mourning that girl who wanted to be loved so badly. She knew that her gift was talking and writing, but she thought that was a detriment to being loved. But I needed to go through that. I had to. That was part of my evolution, so to speak.

Rumpus: At the end of This Will Be My Undoing, you talk about building a network as a writer, and finding support. How did you go about that?

Jerkins: It was hard! Because I had many different spaces overlapping. I did an MFA at Bennington, so I had an actual community there that I saw every six months for ten days each, up in rural Vermont. And then I was also very present on the Internet, particularly on Twitter. So sometimes I’d reach out to writers and ask them to meet up. Like Porochista Khakpour, whose book, Sick, is coming out with Harper Perennial too, in June of next year. I messaged her and said I’d really love to meet her. I found out she lived less than twenty blocks away from me and she took me out.

And, you know, it’s things like that. Just reaching out. Because I tell myself the worst someone can do is just say no. And that person was not meant to be in your life anyway. And that same kind of attitude has helped me in my career, period. I tell people all the time, especially people of color: Don’t ask for permission. Don’t wait. Some of the biggest stories that I’ve done got published because I did not take no for an answer. I said, “Alright, well, I’m just going to DM this other person on Twitter and find out who might be able to take this.” And then they take it.

You can’t wait for the train to come and get you. You know? I’m an impatient person as well, so I can’t just sit.

My community feels strong but amorphous at the same time. I have friends I can contact, who can help me with ideas, who just want to talk about writing and help me with my anxieties, being a baby author. But at the same time, we each have our own lives. We don’t meet regularly or have a group that meets in somebody’s living room, but at the same time I still feel their presence while I’m trying to carve out my career.

Rumpus: What would you say to aspiring women of color writers who are looking to get published?

Jerkins: Publishing a book—I went in so wide eyed that I wasn’t ready for everything and anything. There’s just so much waiting, and then there’s not. Waiting with agents, editors, and all that, and then all of a sudden things happen. And then things keep happening, and then it keeps rolling. My advice: Make sure you keep your self-centered. You don’t have to be the singular voice. Because when you’re a Black female writer, you’re so used to being Black representation that you’re afraid you have to get it right, whatever right means. But you don’t have to. Just acknowledge your blind spots.

And reach out to people. I wish I would have reached out to people more in the beginning, just to tell them that I was a fan of their work. I wish I wasn’t so afraid in the beginning to ask people out, or to hop on the phone.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Jerkins: I knew I wanted to be a writer at fourteen years old. And I was writing all through high school and college. And this is what I thought was going to happen: I thought I was going to graduate from Princeton, go work at a publishing house or literary agency, have an apartment in North Jersey with one of my girlfriends who was also a literature major, and someone was going to find my story someday, and I was going to get signed and get a book deal. And I was going to meet the love of my life, and we were going to get married, and it was going to be fluid ascension.

But that did not happen. I didn’t get a job after college. The guy that I thought I was going to be with, as I mentioned in the book, it did not work out. It was horrible. And the only thing that made me not abandon my dreams of writing altogether was getting into an MFA program. I had some talent. So I did that. And at the same time, I was at home because I didn’t have a job, so I was on the computer all day long, and I was seeing people exchange content. And whoa. People can get published online? People can get paid to publish online? So I did that, and I told myself, “You may not be the best writer, but you’re going to work harder than the best writer.” So I never thought that I was brilliant. I just thought that I was a really hard worker.

I wanted to create a reputation amongst editors who I worked with that I could churn out a thousand words in forty-five minutes. I could do that. I could get a piece from the first draft to the final draft, and it could be up and live within three hours, by noon. That’s the reputation that I wanted. And editors started coming after me.

After a couple months of freelancing, I met my agent. Then I moved to New York in 2015, got a job a Catapult, freelanced some more, got the book deal, graduated my MFA program, and now I’m here. Everything feels really quick because I’ve only been writing professionally for three years. But I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade.

Rumpus: Have you always felt like, “I deserve this as much as anyone else?”

Jerkins: Oh no. Imposter syndrome hits me all the time. And it’s not even a matter of my ability. I’ve always felt like I was a good writer. But when stuff keeps happening, good things, I’m thinking, “Why is it not happening for this person? And maybe I don’t really deserve it, maybe it’s just somebody being nice to me.” All of these nonsensical things. And I have to keep reminding myself, you worked for this.

My imposter syndrome comes in waves. And it probably will continue to do that. If I have more success, God willing, it’ll keep happening. Instead of trying to suppress it and ignore, it’s important to acknowledge it and lean into it.

Rumpus: Who are you reading and loving right now?

Jerkins: Besides Roxane Gay, I love Jesmyn Ward. I love Carmen Maria Machado, Masha Gessen. I love what I’m about to read: Michelle Dean’s book, Sharp. And Black women writers. I love them.

Rumpus: Any final words for someone who is aspiring to write but is maybe a little discouraged?

Jerkins: Your words matter. Your stories are important because they shape who you are. Fight against the notion that you don’t deserve to be at the center of your own narrative. I would tell female writers, “Don’t ask for permission for the story that you want to write. Do not wait for somebody to give you a hand out because you will be waiting forever. And you only need one ‘yes.’” My agent came after me when no one would give me a chance. And whatever you invest, whatever you sow into the ground, is going to come back up. So find the people who uplift you when it gets hard. Don’t give up. Somebody needs you. Someone needs your words.

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Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →