Constructing a Nervous System | Granta

  • Published: 05/05/2022
  • ISBN: 9781783785544
  • Granta Books
  • 208 pages

Constructing a Nervous System

Margo Jefferson

Shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2022

In this intimate and innovative memoir, Pulitzer prize-winning author Margo Jefferson gives us her own personal and intellectual formation.

As she comes of age in an America whose freedoms are distorted by race and gender, she finds herself in a cast of others – jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are among the author’s alter egos. The sounds of a jazz LP emerge as the intimate and instructive sounds of a parent’s voice. W. E. B. Du Bois and George Eliot meet illicitly. The muscles and movements of a ballerina are spliced with those of an Olympic runner, becoming a template for what a black female body can be.

From Josephine Baker’s radiant transformations, to Willa Cather’s aesthetics of whiteness, Jefferson shows us how we can find space in cultures that will not make room for us, and how, even in times of stricture, we might learn to construct ourselves.

Electric [Jefferson] takes vital risks, tosses away rungs of the ladder as it climbs, and offers an indispensable, rollicking account of the enchantments, pleasures, costs, and complexities of "imagin[ing] and interpret[ing] what had not imagined you

Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts

Margo Jefferson has created a startling and digressive form of auto-analysis... an intimate view of the aesthetic and political landscape of American culture and the secrets, longing, withholding and disavowal necessary to imagine oneself inside it and ward off its damage

Saidiya Hartman, author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

She knows everything and has felt it all deeply. If you want to know who we are and where we've been, read Margo Jefferson

Edmund White, author of A Previous Life

The Author

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, MARGO JEFFERSON was for years a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York magazine, and The New Republic. She is the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.

More about the author →

From the Same Author

Margo Jefferson on

In Conversation | The Online Edition


Margo Jefferson & Guy Gunaratne

Guy Gunaratne interviewed Margo Jefferson after the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, and they discussed her prize-winning book, Constructing a Nervous System.

In Conversation | The Online Edition

In Conversation

Leslie Jamison & Margo Jefferson

‘The self is the work of art. Criticism puts that self in the service of other art.’

The authors discuss the multiplicity of the self, the idea of necessity, and how to work with what you lack.

Essays & Memoir | Granta 140

Monster | State of Mind

Margo Jefferson

‘Today’s a day for you to feel blocked and impeded; a coward in work and love; resenting duty; suspecting pleasure.’