Looking Backwards to Go Forwards
When Morgan Jerkins MFA ’16 graduated from Princeton, she expected to get a job as an editorial assistant in New York City, be serendipitously discovered, and be launched into literary stardom.
While that last is coming true for Jerkins, whose essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times bestseller list, and whose two forthcoming projects will be released by Harper Books, her post-collegiate journey has otherwise gone differently than expected.
“After college, I did multiple unpaid literary internships,” Jerkins said. “I was interviewing, going back and forth between New York and Princeton, but I never got called back for anything. It was devastating.”
Bennington Writing Seminars
At her mother’s urging, Jerkins applied to the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2014, shortly after finishing undergrad.
“I thought I would get rejected, and I would just wave the rejection letter at my mom and say, ‘See, I can’t do this, stop bothering me,’” Jerkins said.
Instead, Jerkins was accepted into the program. Then unemployed and suffering from a terrible breakup, Jerkins figured she had nothing to lose by attending.
“By then, all of my problems had compounded, and I felt like I was worthless,” Jerkins said. “At the time, Bennington was the only place that made me realize I had value. Luckily, that potential was in the thing that I loved the most, which was writing.”
Jerkins’s time at the Bennington Writing Seminars was both challenging and rewarding. As the youngest and only black person in her cohort, Jerkins initially felt out of place.
“I was definitely afraid that I wasn’t as talented as I thought I was,” Jerkins said. “Everyone was very nice, but I had an insecurity complex.”
Those insecurities, however, started to ebb away by the end of her second term: a personal growth that coincided with professional success as Jerkins began to expand her own writing portfolio.
The low-residency nature of the Seminars appealed to Jerkins’s sense of independence. She enjoyed engaging with her advisor, novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, over email and appreciated the oasis the twice-yearly residencies offered her away from New Jersey and New York.
“I liked the professors, too,” Jerkins said. “I thought they were very down to earth."
I really learned about craft at Bennington in a way that indelibly changed the course of my career.
Morgan Jerkins MFA '16
In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins steps backward into her own life in order to chronicle her personal evolution and illuminate a way forward.
“As I was writing, I had to unpack all these painful memories I’d suppressed, just so I could continue living my life,” Jerkins said. “Having the expanse of a book gave me the space to go back and explore, which was helpful because I had the distance in order to do it.”
As a “chaser before the alcohol,” Jerkins begins her memoir with an epigraph taken from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, which tells the story of three generations of Gullah women as they prepare to move from their insular community to the mainland.
“I am the first and the last,” begins the quote from Daughters of the Dust. “I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters.”
“That epigraph contains so many contradictions about what a black woman is,” Jerkins said. “I wanted that to give people a teaser of what they’re about to experience in my book. Depending on where I was in my life, a lot of my memories and my politics might seem contradictory, incredibly messy, but that still encapsulates me as a person.”
While Jerkins acknowledges that she can’t speak for anyone’s experiences but her own, she wants readers walk away from her book discussing the complexity of her story and likewise considering the intricacies that other black women’s stories carry.
“I hope people discuss the ways in which trials can inflict a black girl or black woman, the ways in which she tries to explain herself to others, and the ways in which she triumphs while still acknowledging her former selves who weren’t in a good place,” Jerkins said.
In the meantime, Jerkins’s cross-country book tour has been her own triumph. She has enjoyed reconnecting with old friends in various cities, reading in front of crowded audiences, and being heard on a larger scale.
“My mother also traveled to Atlanta with me, and she was there when I made The New York Times bestseller list,” Jerkins said. “It was great getting to celebrate with her.”
As the whirlwind of the book’s release begins to settle, Jerkins is thankful for every opportunity: for her, this is just the beginning.
Fear, Motherhood, and Beyond
For her next two projects, Jerkins has taken on topics she gravitates towards.
Inspired by the cultural anthropology chronicled by writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Joan Didion, Jerkins’s nonfiction book Why We Get Out, slated for a fall 2019 release, explores black communities in four different parts of the country, examining their relationships with each other and the ways in which they navigate continued threats.
The seed for Why We Get Out springs from Jerkins’s own experience watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out at the Magic Johnson theater in Harlem with a predominately black crowd.
“There’s a climatic scene where the black protagonist finds out his white girlfriend’s a villain,” Jerkins said. “He has his hands around her throat, and a police car pulls up. In the theater, we all gasped at the same time.”
Jerkins was intrigued by that collective knee-jerk response. In it, she recognized a communal sense of fear. Why We Get Out will continue exploring the dualities and realities black people navigate, as well as the beliefs, tactics, and superstitions that get passed down from generation to generation in order to survive.
“Looking in, it seems like we’re paranoid, but we have to understand in a larger sense what white supremacy has done to us in this country,” Jerkins said. “What Get Out demonstrates so elegantly is the ways in which white people have wanted to possess our bodies, our identities, and our lands, so what I have to show with my book and with these communities is how this is still happening today.”
Caul Baby, Jerkins’s magical realism novel, to be published in spring 2020, is rooted in a short story Jerkins wrote as her thesis project at Bennington.
“Alex Chee told me it should be a novel, so I expanded it,” Jerkins said. “Luckily, my editor and my agent also liked it, so that’s the plan.”
In African American folklore, it is believed that if a baby is born with a caul, that baby has second sight, a preternatural ability to see the past and future. With this novel, Jerkins will explore that concept with black women and their relation with motherhood, either biological or nonbiological, in modern-day Harlem.
As her career evolves, Jerkins is conscious of how she continues to grow, both as a person and as a writer.
“Maybe 25 years from now, I’ll do another memoir called This Will Be My Doing and have a conversation with myself,” Jerkins said. “I’ve definitely thought about that.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer