Margo Jefferson is the author of Negroland, On Michael Jackson and Constructing a Nervous System, which won the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize Book of the Year. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University.
Guy Gunaratne was a judge of the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize Book of the Year and is the author of the novels In Our Mad and Furious City and Mister, Mister.
Gunaratne interviewed Jefferson after the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, and they discussed her prize-winning book.
In Constructing a Nervous System, you trace a path along the joys and discomforts of imagining yourself into the art of others. I wanted to ask you about the discomfort felt in the imagery and language you reference in the book. How did you account for the illegitimacies of tropes and caricature, while also insisting on your right to claim them as generative?
Each trope, each caricature asked for – demanded – a shift in tone, in stance, in attitude; in what perceptions and vulnerabilities I drew on and why. And in what style I chose to express and perform. I made myself the director, the composer as well as the interpreter. Athletes like to talk about the strategies you develop to turn defense into offense. Here, defense (against the illegitimacies) could be turned, strategically into offense – my techniques as I sought and found the excitements, the pleasures, even the entitlements intended for me by the original tropes and caricatures. I was stern with myself: what do you love, need, in Topsy, Bing Crosby, Willa Cather, Ike Turner? Name it; examine it; let the full measure of embarrassment or shame sweep you over. First I’d be analytic about that, then I’d plunge into the pleasures it gave me, the lure, the love, the fascination. The tainted and the desired can be so close. Accepting that let me bask, analytically, emotionally, linguistically in this charged material. And this was exhilarating.
It seemed to me that the shape of the book carries evokes a reading experience that often feels like constant unsettled invention, bringing together many works of art. I’m curious as to how you arranged it.
The sheer fact of so many differences set me going. Different art forms, different genres, different time frames (personal and historical), differences of race, class, gender, temperament. The book needed momentum, but not a single, driven one: I need plurality and variety. I wanted to resist a steady, clearly unifying narrative. Momentum as contradiction, as mood swings, as daydreaming (which we always do when reading). More formally, momentum as assemblage, collage, even mosaic in sections. Once I acknowledged how much I wanted to assimilate – appropriate, gobble down – the words, (therefore briefly, the personae) of other writers, I had to keep faith with the swerves of voice: rhythm, inflections they offered. I kept testing different sequences and shapes. Digression, monologue, changes of register, pauses that could be calming or disturbing. Even now I think of it, formally as a work in progress. Not unfinished. Happy to unsettle and be unsettling.
There are moments throughout where you note the language imposed on Black women, and particularly teenage girls, such as ‘wayward’, ‘incorrigible’, ‘ungovernable’. I wonder to what extent your writing repurposes language in order to retune meaning. I’m thinking of the work of Saidiya Hartman and Dionne Brand in this context.
I like ‘repurpose’ and ‘retune’ because both verbs insist on process. And they refuse to cover up the hard work involved. They don’t smooth out, prettify, transcend the ugly source materials. Hartman and Brand repurpose all kinds of language: the language of disciplines and discourses, the language of narrative and poetry. They conjoin words that like to insist on being oppositional. The stirring discords of ‘wayward’ and ‘beautiful’ in Hartman; Brand’s seeing Black bodies in the African Diaspora as braced in ‘virtuosity or despair, on the brink of both’. I’ve taught Hartman to my writing students; I plan to teach Brand. Their work instructs and emboldens.
The Black women I write about used their art, their work to defeat language imposed on them. Think of how their voices, their bodies, their minds, contain whole histories of subversion and innovation, multiple performance legacies and traditions. Think of Harriet Jacobs constructing her narrative to end ‘with freedom, not in the usual way, with marriage’ or the Tennessee Tigerbelles making themselves hour by hour, day by day, year by year into brilliant athletes. Even my mother and her friends, bless their hearts, sought to repurpose the tropes of Gone With The Wind for their vocabularies of glamour.
In your acknowledgements, you write about the ‘scope, the daring, and the cost’. I’d like to ask you about that cost, and how it relates to risk. You write about the ways in which some of these artists were denied certain freedoms during their own time. I’m curious as to whether this recognition animates your own approach to risk-taking. Do their stories make you braver, hesitant, or perhaps even more determined when approaching form and subject matter?
You can’t take in these artists without taking in the brutalities they endured and intricacies of what they were denied. And then what they claimed anyway: creative discovery, the pleasurable right to make art and to be fully imagined versions of themselves. But as a writer immersing myself in their lives, I often feel despair about what it cost them. The elements of my despair? Rage, of course. Guilt too, for I’ve have never had to face such sustained humiliations and dangers. I felt, writing this book, that I’d fail them and myself if I didn’t take every risk I could with form and subject matter. Had my relative privilege inclined me to be too reticent, too afraid of making mistakes, of exposing vulnerabilities that could be generative? Taking on, taking up these women meant no shelter in critical distance or personal mythologizing. I had to go for broke. Break with roles and rules I’d depended on in the past.
There is a line in this book that will stay with me forever: ‘When American horror has invented you, you stand your ground and invent right back.’ A fellow judge suggested that this is a line that strikes a chord throughout your other books and work. Could you speak to that?
Actually, those words are my repurposing of Richard Wright. I took great pleasure in seizing his words about Poe and horror, then altering and fitting them to Kara Walker. Thinking about it now, I see them as a companion to my claim that there can be great power in imagining what hasn’t, won’t, and can’t imagine you. Racial horror insisted on its right to invent Black life in the Diaspora. The Black elite of Negroland traditionally defended itself from horror with elaborate social rituals, and conventions; with a meticulous curating of its own history; and a determination to treat their achievements as protective fetish objects. The challenge for me as a Black, female writer here and now is to acknowledge and contend with the subtler forms of horror, the ones that destroy gradually by degrees. Self-censorship. Boosterism. Being content as a symbol instead of struggling to be a force. The dream is to be your own work in progress.