The Writer Interview: Margo Jefferson

Journalist and critic Margo Jefferson takes a collage approach for the personal and cultural narrative of her new memoir.
By Alicia Anstead, editor-in-chief; photo by Xan Padron | Published: March 28, 2016


margo-jefferson_Xan-Padron

Photo by Xan Padron

Last fall, Margo Jefferson was sitting alone reading in the massive green room for authors at the Miami Book Fair. In that moment, it was easy to picture her as a girl – poised and elegant even then – in Chicago where she grew up in an upper-middle-class family. It was also easy to see the remove she might have had as a young black female positioned between her family’s so-called black aristocratic standing and the shadow of racism in the American landscape. Those are the intersections of Negroland: A Memoir, which combines Jefferson’s personal stories with cultural documentary in a mash-up style of prose, poetry, dialogue, confessional and historical essay. Best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic for the New York Times and for the episodic biography On Michael Jackson, Jefferson relies on her formidable background as a journalist and teacher and her understanding of theater to create a dramatically engaging and intimate commentary on self, society and where the fault lines are for each. As professor of nonfiction writing at Columbia University School of the Arts, she guides student essayists. Negroland is her first sustained piece driven by her own journey and writerly commitment. In it, she grapples with the impact of the political, historical and cultural on the personal. “I believe it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself,” she writes toward the end of the book. “You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.” Jefferson guards herself from such indulgence, but her book is in no way pain or anger free. At the heart, however, is craft. In Miami, we spoke about the process of achieving a memoir. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

ALICIA ANSTEAD
Your book is such an exciting exploration of writing and your life.

MARGO JEFFERSON
Thank you. I really wanted it to be that. I did it in part to experiment with certain modes of writing.

ANSTEAD
I can see theater, poetry, journalism, criticism and essay writing in it. How did you come up with that style? How did you know to have first person and then to go to third person? Or to go into another rhythm all together – a list for instance?

JEFFERSON
As a writer, you do these things internally, and then you do the work intellectually. I had been reading and teaching lots of inventive types of essays – the lyric essay, the traditional essay, the personal essay. Since I left the Times, I’ve also been interested in pushing at the boundaries of a critical voice. How can you be vulnerable and full of ambivalence, but also in some way be the critic analyzing and making the visual and sensory an experience? All of this was in my head. It had a lot to do with being a reader and a teacher, but it all started coming together when I decided to do this memoir. I read memoirs, but it’s not the form I hew unto.

ANSTEAD
Why did you do it? You spoke about not wanting to do it and how painful it was.

JEFFERSON
How else could I have rendered this world without claiming to be an omniscient narrator?

ANSTEAD
Why did you want to claim this world?

JEFFERSON
It has been written about and documented in various ways. It’s a world that attracts both irritations and fantasies, for good reasons. But also it’s overlooked a lot.

ANSTEAD
When you say this world, what do you mean?

JEFFERSON
Well, you see, that’s the other interesting thing, which also helped determine this shifting form. It’s the world of the black elite, the black bourgeoisie, the black upper-middle class. Because of a shifting status, it is an uncertain status, and always in some way questioned, contested. The status of black people has a lot of names and identities. At the beginning of the book, my mother says to me that we are considered upper-class Negroes – Negro being the word of choice in the ‘50s – and upper-middle-class Americans. And, too, her point is clearly that, to all the bigoted people in America, we’re just more Negroes they want to look down on. Intrinsically, there are entities and ambiguities.

ANSTEAD
Is there some reason why that particular narrative has not been mainstreamed?

JEFFERSON
To be fair, there’s good sociology and good fiction and some poetry about that time. But I don’t think there’s any one reason. Maybe the dominant reason is that when black people, Negroes, colored people, when a group is discriminated against, the object of disdain, contempt, laws – it’s always dramatized as a problem. This is even true of women. Certain traits become the tropes the culture – the society – views it by. This narrative of nondramatic achievement – though within that, there’s a lot of drama – still is something that a lot of white Americans traditionally haven’t paid attention to because it doesn’t fit into the dominant narrative of prejudice. It even doesn’t get into the dominant narrative of what makes black people exciting and interesting. Often the same qualities or imposed traits that can arouse contempt can also arouse a lot of excitement.

ANSTEAD
As much as I would like to continue on the cultural historical side, I’d like to go back to the writing.

JEFFERSON
I’m happy to go back to the writing. If anything, the book has been talked about less in terms of writing, and that has frustrated me.

ANSTEAD
The writing is so vibrant in its variety and its musicality, which I know you understand through your time as a critic. But also your background. Your family seems to have prized your development as a person of expression.

JEFFERSON
Absolutely. A person of expression who nevertheless did not go over any lines.

ANSTEAD
At the end of your book in the acknowledgements, you mention the influence of your Columbia University colleague Philip Lopate – you dub him “guardian of the essay.” Memoir and essay have much to say to each other. What do you think the elements of a good essay are? What should writers be thinking about when they construct an essay?

JEFFERSON
It’s always the relationship of your particular obsession with the subject, which might be yourself or something else – an artist you love, a place you visited. But there’s always that core of the absolutely intimate and personal: What’s the relationship? How does it transmit into the larger experience? You’re always translating in an essay between the very intimate and the larger picture.

ANSTEAD
And commenting on it as well?

JEFFERSON
The interesting thing about an essay is, yes, you are commenting but commenting through confession, reflection, analysis, dramatization. We tend to think of the traditional essay as the unfolding of a certain voice that is very compelling, whose style we know. But that voice can play with rhythm, tone, shifts. That’s really what’s interesting, that sense of process and unexpected turns.

ANSTEAD
You call that out in your book. In the first segment, you get to a point where you write: “I’m going to change my tone now.”

JEFFERSON
Yes, I do.

ANSTEAD
How did that happen for you, inserting yourself and saying: “OK, dear reader”?

JEFFERSON
I was very, very intent on not wanting the illusion of one tone, one narrative overview – which is implicitly omniscient – both as a writer and with techniques that interested me, and as a writer trying to think how best to be faithful to this complicated experience. I knew there had to be a lot of personae. So much of being a privileged black person is executing a series of performances. Manners are a performance. This is so true of my childhood: You’ve been told that implicitly or explicitly, any time you walk outside – the way you speak, the way you dress, your diction – all of this, is going to someway signify our place as a people on the larger stage of American society. That’s a performance.

ANSTEAD
Did that set you up to be a critic?

JEFFERSON
Very much so. And you know, children are always learning how to perform at each stage of their lives. I very deliberately chose an earlier part of my life because I wanted to dramatize and confess and reveal that part. A friend said to me: “Because this world is so protective of itself – doesn’t want to be misunderstood, misinterpreted or say anything about itself that can be held against it – in many ways, you were brought up not to write this book.” And it was very important to me to break that spell.

ANSTEAD
Do you think being brought up “not” to write this book contributed to your personal sense of worth, that you also talk about in the book in terms of suicide?

JEFFERSON
I have always struggled with self-censorship. That has been a huge battle for me. My little drawers are filled with writing – that’s true of many writers – that I gave up on, decided what’s the point because it will never see the light of day or this is shameful or embarrassing. So yes, I thought it’s time. If not now, when?

ANSTEAD
How did you know you were at that moment as a writer to take on this immense project?

JEFFERSON
A couple of things. I had ended, in a sense, one part of my life when I left the Times. I chose to leave weekly regular beat reviewing and column writing. I had written the Michael Jackson book – so I knew that I could write a book. Both of those things set loose this desire to write this book. This had been in my head. In some way I always knew I wanted to bring this world to life. I applied for a Guggenheim. Because it’s somewhat removed, the critic in me could write a proposal. I didn’t yet have to face the story. And I got the Guggenheim, so I had to start writing.

ANSTEAD
Could you have done the book any earlier?

JEFFERSON
Could we have done anything earlier? I’d like to think I could. What I did do earlier was code some of this material into a theater piece. I need not to leave that out. That was a big step. You speak it aloud. Sometimes speaking aloud is easier for me than writing. Still, there it was written down, and I had put it in front of people. And my ambitions as a writer to do more got fiercer and fiercer.

ANSTEAD
How did you transition from daily journalism to writing removed from yourself – the Michael Jackson book – to writing a book about yourself?

JEFFERSON
The Michael Jackson book was moving from contained criticism to essayistic criticism. I’m so interested – as I said before – in critical authority mingled with ambivalence and uncertainty. How can you not bring that to Michael Jackson? My editor and I were talking about him at lunch one day. We were having lunch to talk about a possible book. I said that I was mesmerized by Michael Jackson. We agreed he was a genius, and my editor said it would be nice to see him get his due before he completely self-destructs. I was not able to write the book in time to do that. But I said absolutely. We knew we had it.

ANSTEAD
How did you move to that voice?

JEFFERSON
Once I knew I wanted to do it – this also has to do with my teaching and wanting to see what was out there in terms of nonfiction writing and experiments in nonfiction – just seeing this range of expressive possibilities that nonfiction prose writers were engaged in set up my excitement, my competitiveness. Dave Hickey [the cultural critic] and loads of critics talk about this. Since we all are a little parasitical, any good critic is in some way thinking: How do I push boundaries, play with structure, do something different? Offer a piece of writing, a description, a rendering, that’s alive in and of itself?

ANSTEAD
As a critic, you’re always on the periphery of creativity. You have a window on that that is unique in the world. You’re with artists. You’re watching the process.

JEFFERSON
Yes, you’re trying in a way to recreate it for the reader – or at least the result, if not so much the process.

ANSTEAD
And you’re opening up your heart and your mind to the impact of that creative moment. There’s a skill with that to be open rather than judgmental.

JEFFERSON
So often the openness and the judgment have to exist simultaneously – and often in the commercial world of writing, the judgment can be pushed, can be emphasized more. That becomes the brand.

ANSTEAD
Let’s talk about the biggest challenges with the writing.

JEFFERSON
All the challenges become a blur at some point. I found myself having to work in very small pieces because if I thought to myself there will be scenes, a kind of monologue, I would freeze up. I had to work in small segments. Sometimes they would come out as essays or reviews or scenes or cultural encounters. The confessional parts were always very hard for me so that’s another reason I did them in discrete. Structure was the devil because I knew the last thing I wanted was the orderly elegance of a chronological narrative – though I knew I needed some kind of chronology. The first completed version was collage: I love it! The first completed version was also too internal, an internal collage. You could not see all the connections. I was jumping and I had the links, but the links could be as ephemeral as a song title, which in my mind made the link. But my very good editor and I talked through how you blend this desire for something more discreet and surprising and unexpected with a reader’s desire for a narrative momentum. That combination turned out to be part chronology within collage and still with jumping.

ANSTEAD
Did you control that in part with headlines of segments?

JEFFERSON
I had originally had titles over virtually every section. The process of editing made me realize that this wasn’t going to work. Not again and again and again. It was too fractured. In a way, I was evading taking control of certain parts, still hiding behind fragments rather than recusing the subject.

ANSTEAD
And transitions?

JEFFERSON
I had to work so hard on transitions. Transitions and endings are killers – not least of which in a small essay, but for my book, each section had to have an ending that mattered. Within that, the long historical section at the beginning was very difficult for me because it’s not something I had done before. Not at that length and not with that kind of historical and social narrative. I had to write and rewrite and rewrite it.

ANSTEAD
It’s so important, that section.

JEFFERSON
I felt it was.

ANSTEAD
The bravery of the book – I’m using that as a synonym for innovation – created such a fresh voice, even though I’ve known your voice as a critic. It was unexpected. I was happy to get to know you through those voices.

JEFFERSON
Good. Thank you. I was happy to be able to deploy them.

Alicia Anstead is the editor-in-chief at The Writer magazine. She worked for more than two decades as an art critic. She is also editor and co-founder of the Harvard Arts Blog at the Office for the Arts at Harvard.