If you haven’t heard Morgan Jerkins’ name yet or seen her work, chances are you will soon.
Her debut collection of personal essays, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, won over Roxane Gay, who lauds Jerkins as a “deft cartographer of black girlhood and womanhood,” while Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called her writing “personal, inviting, and fearless.” In the weeks before it debuted on Jan. 30, This Will Be My Undoing was named one of the most anticipated books of 2018 by Elle, Vogue, Esquire and Nylon, among many others.
The essays track Jerkins’ journey toward self-affirmation, beginning in Atlantic City and Williamstown, N.J., where she deals with the rejections of a white cheerleading team, a Filipino childhood friend and a new black girl at her high school. The reader follows Jenkins, now 25, just a few miles but a lifetime away to New York City, where she is eager to land bylines at the world’s top publications.
Along the way, Jerkins takes the reader to deeply personal and, at times, uncomfortable places. She chronicles her struggles with dating and heartbreak, unflinchingly guides her reader through a personal surgical procedure and wrestles with a variety of different gazes: that of white men and white women, but also of potential lovers, of her host families and other people in Japan and Russia, of her black female peers and, most important, her own evolving view of herself.
The work-in-progress nature shows at times. Gay mentioned in a recent interview with Jerkins in Elle magazine that “there are places where I wanted [Jerkins] to push her conclusions further,” and Jerkins’ approach to certain topics likely won’t be appreciated by everyone. Jerkins’ feminism includes unbowed self-advocacy, and some readers may find fault with the way she calls out specific people and their behaviors, including some high-profile black women. For her part, Jerkins says she “stands by the book and everything I wrote in it.”
Putting it all out there, she said in conversation with The Glow Up, is the whole point.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.]
On writing about having labiaplasty—and other taboo subjects:
“I was worried about what my mother would think, what my father would think, the church in which I was raised would think. The men whom I haven’t even met, I wondered what they would think—would I be unattractive to them?
“The whole point of the book was just to lay it all out there on the table, and not with the aim that you agree with me, but that you at least have an understanding of where I’m coming from. I probably look at certain chapters where I talk about dating or where I talk about my labiaplasty, and I’ll look at it and I’ll still feel that reverberation—like, you had to go there?”
On revealing the more unflattering parts of her experiences:
“Writing about yourself isn’t supposed to be easy. Anytime you feel nervous about writing about something, I believe that’s when you know you’re on the right track. ... I had to keep telling myself, ‘Stop worrying about that invisible person and whether or not they’re going to be freaked out by it or whatever. Think about the people that might read a little bit more expansively because of what you’ve said. Or don’t think of anybody. Write what needs to be said. What you want it to say.’ That’s what I had to do.”
On the pain of being called “intimidating”:
“The worst thing someone can say about me in a personal sense, because I’ve heard other media outlets say this about me, is that I’m intimidating. Sometimes it hurts more than someone calling me a bitch or cunt.
“They don’t know that as soon as they utter that word, I think about all of the times where I have been pressured, subconsciously or not, implicitly or explicitly, to shrink—or be completely shut off from romantic love for the rest of my life.
“It makes me feel so large and like there’s no room for anyone else. … It makes me feel like they’re saying, ‘Well, there’s no room for me in your life.’ How can I even fit, metaphorically or figuratively, in your life, in this conversation? It’s like a rejection, but it’s also like, ‘Stay the way you are.’ And it’s like, but if you’re telling me, and so many other people are telling me this, then where does that leave me?”
On receiving her first vibrator—from her mother:
“When I tell you that my body was on fire—I had all of this kinetic energy and my heart just got broken. I didn’t know what happened. I just wanted to be touched and I wasn’t getting it anywhere. There were moments when I was just waking up in the middle of the night just like, it felt crazy. And my mother was kind enough to be like, ‘I’m going to help you because, what else can I do?’
“She knew that I was going through it. And it’s a very taboo subject in Christian circles, but it helped me because it helped me to take control of my sexuality. And also it helped me to avoid situations that were not going to be healthy for me.
“Now that I’m an adult, my mother and I have talks about men and everything like that more vividly and more explicitly. It was powerful for me because it let me know that she cared. It let me know that I could talk to her about pretty much anything. When I had my labioplasty, she was there; when my stepfather passed, she was there. There [were] so many moments when she was there.
“I think people have to recognize that black mothers, they aren’t all the same. But in terms of my black mother, she was trying to do stuff [that] when I was younger might seem like, ‘Oh, she’s trying to make you assimilate to something.’ But she just knows how the world is, and how cruel the world is to black girls.”
On being progressive and Christian:
“I think what is important for people of color who identify as Christian to do is to divorce themselves from a white male lens. A lot of times, I’ll meet Christian people and their politics aren’t there. And then I’ll meet people who I’m really great with politically, and they’re agnostic or atheist, and I’m like, well. ... I think the thing for me is it takes deeper investigation on my part to say, ‘How do I think about Christianity in a liberating sense away from a white male lens?’ And that may be more self-study and less relying on preachers to tell me everything.”
On how her faith influences her ambition:
“I have to remind myself that if it’s true that what it says—that God knew before I was even born; that he stitched every part of me before I was even conceived of—then why am I going to deny myself? When I think of the professional endeavors ... I think back [to] getting published in the New Yorker at 23 years old. Where did I have the nerve to think [I could do] that?
“When I used to teach, people, they would say, ‘Well, how did you know you were ready? Did you say, “Oh, I’m going to write 20 articles before I pitch there?”’ And I just said, ‘I don’t ask for permission in anything that I do in this world, because no one is going to just give it to me. What I can do is come to you with this opportunity that I want. Say, these are the reasons why I can do it.’ And you take from that what you will.”
On impostor syndrome and the audacity of being on the cover of your own book:
“There was belief, but don’t get me wrong—when those pieces were, in fact, published, I had very terrible impostor syndrome. I’m talking about looking at my byline, tracing each letter of my name with my eyes and still not believing that I wrote that. ... There were many times with this book ...with the anticipation of it all, [thinking,] ‘How dare I think that I can write what I just wrote? Where did that type of courage come from?’
“Even now, when I look at the cover of my book, I think, ‘How dare I look so proud of my own book? How dare I even be on it?’ But I think what I have to emphasize is that I’ve always been afraid. I’ve always been a worryful person; I just don’t let it overtake the courage.”
On living in an unapologetically black space:
“I think Harlem is the only place where I’m not so hyperconscious about white people. I know that if I go to the nearest store and I got a scarf on my head, no one’s going to treat me any differently. I will still be acknowledged. ...
“Harlem is different for me, because it’s the only place where I’m not second-guessing any type of mode of behavior that I have. Despite gentrification, I’m not worried about the white person next to me. I know I’m going to be acknowledged regardless of what I have on my head, what it is that I’m wearing. Nobody’s going to deny me proper treatment.”
On growing into, and accepting, a desire to be beautiful:
“I think my conception of beauty happened [in] two different ways: One was when I saw Zadie Smith in person, and I was like, she looks exactly as she does in the pictures. A part of me was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m jealous! She’s stunning!’ And then when I got on the cover of my book, I became much more hyperaware of how I looked.
“I was like, it wasn’t just enough for me to be a great writer, which is what I strive to be all the time. But I wanted people to say that ‘she’s beautiful’ as well, because that’s the culture we live in. And also because I’ve denied myself acknowledgment of my beauty.
“I feel empowered putting on a bold lipstick. I feel empowered when I try on a new eye shadow in a color that I never thought that I would really like, to be able to indulge in that way, because I never really did that for myself. And if someone acknowledges that attention that I spend on myself, then so be it. It makes me feel good!
“And I want to be able to say that with confidence and not think that is, you know, that’s going to be detrimental to my art. Because this is such a personal book, that’s why I’m like—I think that I’m noticing the relationship. It definitely kicked into heavy gear when I was on the cover of my own book. I’m out there.”