Jagged Paths: Morgan Jerkins at Literati
I accidentally purchased two copies of Morgan Jerkins' This Will Be My Undoing. I bought one copy the day it came out and the second copy, a digital one when I mislaid the first, because I simply couldn’t wait to read more. She writes about things I have thought about but don’t think I’m brave enough to put on paper. It seems important to her that she writes openly. “Hey, I’m messy," she said at her Feb. 16 reading at Literati.
I first found out about Morgan Jerkins from a post on Electric Lit, “46 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2018.” The book's cover drew me in: Jerkins in profile looking skyward, her long braids trailing down her back as if she is outside enjoying a kiss from the sun upon her face.
Because of an engagement immediately before her reading, my son and I found ourselves standing in the back of a packed room. It’s no surprise that many people came out in order to see Jerkins speak. She has cracked the New York Times bestseller list, and newly, the Washington Post list. I missed the introduction and arrived in time to hear Jerkins in the middle of reading a selection from her book, a love letter of sorts to former First Lady Michelle Obama. “I was really in my feelings when I was writing that letter to her,” she said.
Jerkins then went a bit into her history as a writer. Originally, she wanted to be a doctor and dreamed of taking over her father’s practice. She had gotten into writing as a way to hide, a response to bullying. Then, she was writing a lot of fiction, creating worlds she found comfortably habitable. In 2014, the year of Michael Brown’s killing and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Jerkins tweeted about current events, participating in a vital and passionate online conversation. She described this time as one when there was a hunger for female voices, personal voices. By 2015, an agent reached out to her via Twitter and Jerkins joked that this makes her a “quintessential millennial.”
When it was suggested that Jerkins write a nonfiction book, she associated the genre with autobiography. Her knee-jerk reaction was, “I’m not dying anytime soon.” Before she hooked up with her agent, Jerkins had felt pushed out of publishing. After college, despite speaking several languages and having taken multiple unpaid internships in the industry, Jerkins spent a financially and mentally draining time period applying for entry-level jobs in publishing that never materialized.
When her publisher asked her for a list of books that would share an audience with This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins realized she couldn’t come up with many names. She listed Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, a book that Jerkins had devoured and enjoyed. Though she “gorged on essay collections” in general, Jerkins couldn’t think of another black woman’s essay collection. Then she broadened her thinking out to women of color, which yielded Mindy Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Then, Jerkins thought, “OK. Women.”
Jerkins loves stories about women’s interiorities but realized that the women she read didn’t look like her and she hoped that potential readers would afford her the same generosity, believing that a broad audience would find something for themselves in her work.
“Wokeness is not a linear path. It’s very jagged.” --Morgan Jerkins
Jerkins recognized she could only have a debut book once, so with that in mind, she wanted to dig deep, do the work, so that she wouldn’t later regret stopping short. In other words, Jerkins was committed to “bring it!” Bringing it, however, wasn’t always easy. For example, when writing about the relationship between black women and black men, at times, she felt like she was violating something by telling those stories. Those sections of the book are examples of the writing that I very much enjoyed, taking in each word hungrily, perhaps because I know how uncomfortable writing it would have made me.
When asked how it feels to be the author of a New York Times bestseller, Jerkins' response was, “Trump gets on my nerves. That’s all I have to say." It reminded me of everything that I love about her book. Of course, Jerkins had more to say, but suddenly, you’re more interested in hearing it; you’re sure that you’re about to hear something good. She elaborated, explaining that a lot of the cultural conversation in books has to do with President Trump and his presidency. When Fire and Fury came out near the release of her book, she wondered whether her book would get lost in this storm.
The audience also asked her to read another selection of her book. Surprised, she thought about it for a moment and, citing how close we were to Valentines Day, she decided to read a piece about dating. She talked for a moment about her time at Princeton, mentioning that during her four undergraduate years she hadn’t even been kissed. Here, the audience made collective noises of mildly horrified surprise.
After college, a man whom Jerkins once dated said, “You sound like you’re falling into the trope of the overachieving black woman who has super high standards.” She talked about the impact of this statement, this betrayal. Her achievements, things that she had worked for and was proud of, had been wielded against her.
Jerkins fielded a question about what it feels like to be a part of a black renaissance and whether she sees herself as a part of this type of renaissance? Jerkins replied, "Now I do!” Then she said that it does feel good to be a part of a group of artists, listing musicians Solange, Sza, and Kendrick Lamar, visual projects such as Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO and the newly released Black Panther movie, and poets Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, and Safiya. Jerkins is honored to be a part of what feels like history in the making.
One of the things I noticed when reading This Will Be My Undoing is that Jerkins seems very aware of the privileges she has had in her life. Because of this, I was a little taken aback when she was asked a direct question about the socioeconomic class she grew up with. Maybe it was the directness of the question, or maybe I guessed Jerkins had grown up middle class because of my own familiarity with the things she said and the experiences she mentioned, the way that she had processed them. Jerkins confirmed her middle-class upbringing, using it as an opportunity to raise questions about whose story is told and to point out that one story is not a stand-in for all others. Jerkins admitted she finds it challenging to talk about class differences without sounding like she’s bragging, and she acknowledged other factors that impact the way people move through the world, such as skin color and the way that one dresses.
When asked about her own writing-related dreams, Jerkins said she would like to edit an anthology of erotica. My solitary clapping surely embarrassed my son. She would like to see complex situations explored such as “situationships,” polyamory, and Christian marriages. She wants to produce things that would make Anais Nis blush. I hope we get to see this anthology one day. Or maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Who knows how many copies I would accidentally buy; that could be my own undoing.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.