“I Can't Sanitize Who I Am”: An Interview With Author Morgan Jerkins
This Will Be My Undoing (Harper Perennial) is an essay collection that has been receiving praise even before it was published, and rightly so. The debut of Harlem-based writer Morgan Jerkins (who by the way is in her twenties) is radically honest, impeccably written, and spectacularly smart.
I felt honored for this opportunity to speak with the author about writing her first book, taking risks, and making it as a New York Times bestseller, all while staying true to herself.
Salomé Gómez-Upegui: I could not put down your book, and one reason I think it was so interesting was that I really felt the honesty & freedom you conveyed in each essay. Is writing a liberating experience for you?
Morgan Jerkins: Absolutely. I mean I started writing because I was being bullied and harassed pretty much every day in high school. I didn’t really know how else to deal with it, and I wasn’t going to retaliate because I assumed that it would lead to a physical altercation, I’d never been in one, and I really didn’t trust whatever I’d do with my hands! (laughs) So I started writing as a way to create new worlds and new characters in which I could seek refuge. I found it as a source of healing. I also think it's liberating because as I write personally about my life, it feels like there’s always going to be documentation that I was here on earth, even though physically I will not be, so its kind of liberating to have this constant.
How did you feel after finishing the final draft of your first book?
Aw, man! I was so tired. I didn’t take care of myself really while I was writing this book. And what I mean by that is that I treated myself like I was a cadet at West Point. If I had to use to the bathroom or if I was hungry, I didn't get up until I had at least a thousand words on the page. I told myself, 'you have to work the hardest you can work because there are so many other writers who would love to be in your shoes. You’re young, you don’t have children, and you don’t have a mortgage, you’re healthy -thank God- so you don’t really have a choice!'
Do you feel like you’re writing for yourself? Or is there an audience that you’re connected to and who you’re also doing this for?
Well, it depends on which stage of the writing process I’m in. When I was writing the first draft of my first book, I had to talk to myself. When resurrecting these memories, you have to really be submerged in it, and so it was pretty nice that at the time I was living by myself in a tiny studio. It was very easy to be isolated. Once I handed it off to the editors, and they started looking over it, that’s when I had to start thinking differently. When you have enough sets of eyes on it, you can’t help but think about others.
In general, when reading the book I was pleasantly surprised to see that even as a young writer you took big risks, I’d love to briefly go into a few of these.
Your religious faith plays a vital role throughout the book. In the Elle Magazine interview, you did with Roxane Gay, you mentioned that to a lot of people: “being Christian seems like the antithesis of being progressive.” As a young writer, did you ever worry about not fitting into “feminist elite circles” because of the faith you’ve publicly embraced?
“Absolutely! Even to this day. I have a friend whose book was published today, she has an event that’s happening tomorrow, and I had to tell her I can’t make it because I have a religious observation. And I almost felt sort of ashamed. In the vast majority of circles that I work in, here in New York, I am usually the most religious person, if not the only one. It definitely seems like my beliefs, my liberalism, go in direct opposition of Christianity because those who have been in power in religious institutions have often hurt others. And although it's very hard to say ‘I find liberation in this, I found solace in this,’ I have. And the main reason is I've actually gone back and read the religious texts myself (laughs).
It’s one of those things I don’t talk about a lot openly because I just don’t want people to think I’m proselytizing –trying to convert others when I’m not- but that’s where I draw my strength. Every time I’m about to write something the first thing I do pray. I focus on the relationship I have with my God, but I still believe in equal rights for women, and these things shouldn’t run in direct opposition with one another.
Another theme that has come up a lot in previous interviews you’ve done is the choice to publicly share intimate details of your private life in your work. You even wrote a brilliant essay addressing the subject, “What Will Your Parents Think?,” and I’m curious to know more about this. Why did you feel you "had to go there" to tell your story?
I am a very vulnerable person. It doesn’t take long for me to open up to someone who I feel like I can be comfortable sharing with, but also because if I feel like I’m not ashamed of it, I’m ok to talk about it. Besides, when you have a really good editor, they can tell when you’re psychologically 'cutting corners,' so to speak, they can tell when you’re trying to skim around certain parts, and I told myself: ‘I can’t sanitize who I am’ I have to tell the truth. There were some times when I was wrong, there were some times when I was really wrong, and I would be doing a disservice to my readers if I didn’t go into that.
How did you feel when your debut reached the NYT best-seller status?
That’s just one of those moments in life you’re never going to forget where you were and who you were with. I was on the phone interviewing another woman for my next book, and I saw that Harper Collins was calling me, and when they called me twice, I knew something was up. It was perfect because I was in Atlanta, and that was one of the book tour stops where my mother came with me, and one of my uncles and his wife were meeting us at the book store. I found out I had made the list, I got in the car, started crying a little bit, got to the bookstore, did the wonderful event, came back to my room, and Harper Collins had sent a bottle of wine. By that time I was so tired, and just so out of it I don’t think I even opened it. I think my mom took it home.
It was a wonderful night. I think a lot of people have that dream of what if I become a NYT Bestseller? I tried to put it out of my mind, because I didn't want to be devastated and publishing a book, in general, is a great accomplishment, something no one will be able to take away from me. But because of all the buzz that I had and all the people I saw coming to my events, I thought ‘wait a minute, could I make, could I not?’ And even to this day, I don’t think it's really settled in -how big of a deal that was. It's not like I took it for granted, but still, the gravity of it was immense.
How, if at all, do you deal with impostor syndrome?
Yeah. I still go through that. I’m a black woman living in America, and I know what it's like to try three times as hard to be noticed. But I also think because I’m in a healthier place in my life, its easier to not feel as viscerally and as harshly as I did before. Going to therapy, working out, saying affirmations and mantras to myself, these are things that have helped me recognize I’m doing just fine. It has definitely gotten better. I can be hard on myself, but I’ve seen so many great things happen to me that I think I’m fine!
Speaking of “lacking credentials" what advice do you have for aspiring female writers, especially those of less privileged backgrounds who haven’t had a formal education in writing, for example, & because of this, refrain from putting themselves out there?
Reach out to the people you love to read. You never know who will respond and you might be surprised who responds. Even though I have an MFA, I don’t believe that you need one to be successful. I don’t believe that you need to be in New York to be successful. Try to find avenues online or even locally at libraries, through writing groups, where you can improve your craft. And you can also do this by reading. Find the pieces that you love to read and figure out what the writer is doing not only at a mechanical level in terms of syntax and sentence construction but also developmentally, how is the story unfolding? How is the writer conveying whatever information they need to get to you?
Digging into the subjects and discussions you do, on social media, through your essays, and now your books must be very emotionally overwhelming. How do you put your mental well-being first?
A couple of days ago, I tweeted something about this mentioning that back in 2017, writer me would say ‘I need to finish this now, I need to write every single day, if I don’t I’m going to be derailed, I’m going to miss my deadline, yadda yadda’ and now, you know what? I'll write, and then I’m going to recharge. If I hit my deadlines once I’m going to hit them again. That comes from time, from being in a better place mentally and financially, and from having a conversation with myself and not trying to invalidate certain feelings. Now I don’t feel bad when I say ‘hey I’m tired.’ I don’t think it means I’m lazy or ungrateful for all of the blessings I have, it's just a matter of ‘I’m tired, it’s a temporary state, and I need to tend to myself. After I do, I’ll be good to go.'
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