Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Sincere Brooks, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Margo Jefferson about her book Negroland (Pantheon), which is the National Book Critics Circle Award autobiography winner for 2015.
Sincere Brooks: The first line in Negroland is "I was taught not to show off." You go on to explain what the connotations of "showing off" are and then ask "But isn't all memoir a form of showing off?" Having written a memoir do you think you're showing off and is that okay in spite of the taboo?
Margo Jefferson: I was looking back wryly at all the negative connotations of “showing off”–being vain, self-centered, boastful; calling too much attention to yourself. It was seen as a kind of shallow hubris. As a writer, I hope–I think–I avoided those traps. And I hope I broke through the repressive underpinnings of “showing off.” It’s interesting, isn’t it, that girls in particular were cautioned not to show off? For a writer, self-scrutiny, the work of being emotionally honest, requires self-display. And it’s definitely not always flattering, which showing off is. In memoir you show yourself off and you show yourself up. With all the writing skill you’ve got. That’s definitely okay.
SB: There is a section in memoir where you discuss discovering the freedom to be depressed. How do you think the "impervious black woman" narrative is addressed today? Do you see any shift away from that image?
MJ: That narrative is definitely being reexamined and revised by young black women writers and scholars. They question it, they unpack it, they layer it. They find the gaps and the overlooked subtexts. It’s very exciting.
SB: In Negroland, you reference how pop culture influenced you and your self-image. Currently the standards of beauty have shifted to an appreciation of black women's features as long as there are not on black woman. What are your thoughts on this cultural shift and what does that mean for black woman today?
MJ: Well I think both things are going on. There is the appropriation of black women’s features for familiar white narratives. There are also more black women visually and culturally present in the pop world these days. So what you’re asking I think is, how do black women, as creators and consumers, take more control, find more sources of, routes to, kinds of visual and cultural power. Appropriating desirable aspects of black life and culture is an old story: only the aspects and the settings change. We need to ask ourselves what we want–there’s no one answer, we’re various!– and be inventive about choosing and creating outlets, for the representations and narratives we desire.
SB: Does Negroland or a version of Negroland still exist? What does membership look like now?
MJ: Some version of “Negroland” still exists: many of the clubs, for instance; and the sense of shared achievements, ambitions and histories. You’ll have to ask a younger generation what the current membership looks like now!
SB: In your memoir, there are places where you switched from first person to second person singular. How did you decided when and where to make the switch? How do you think the switch affected your storytelling?
SB: I wrote the book in bits and pieces, so at first, I made those decisions on instinct. This pronoun, this tense, that sudden move from one to another felt right in the moment. As a literary strategy it excited me too. It was fun. Then, as I revised, putting the pieces together, I realized that these shifts were crucial to the Negroland experience. Growing up in this world, being trained and taught its rules, meant that you were rehearsing and performing race, class and gender regularly. Negotiating shifts of behavior, circumstance, expectation, consciousness.
SB: Do you have any advice for M.F.A. students about to graduate?
MJ: Trust you intellectual and emotional passions. Then push them further – don’t resist being challenged, expanding your aims and vision. Revise, revise. Talk to writers you respect and trust, especially your peers. And read like a maniac. It’s amazing how much you can learn from other writers and texts, even ones that feel alien.
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.
Sincere Brooks is a MFA Nonfiction student at The New School. She is working on a collection of personal essays. She also co-hosts and produces the 2 Girls 1 Romcom podcast. Follow her on twitter @sincere_convos.