Meet the author: Margo Jefferson
Meet the author
The meetings with writers at Passa Porta, prepared with passion, courage and thoroughness, are more than simply the presentation of literary works. We seek to achieve a genuine connection between writer and reader, and among readers themselves.Go to overview
Margo Jefferson, the author of the original and bold Negroland, has, in her own words, written a ‘spirited autobiography’. Constructing a Nervous System is neither criticism nor memoir, but a blend of the two. It opens with the account of a bad dream. Jefferson saw herself alone on stage, her arm outstretched, her finger pointing accusingly at her own body. What follows is an inner tempest, an in-depth examination of black female identity, the nervous system of the title referring to the materials that make up her life: ‘chosen, imposed, inherited, made up’.
As the daughter of a paediatrician and a fashionable mother, Margo Jefferson grew up among the highly educated and well-off black elite in Chicago in the 1950s – in what she calls ‘Negroland’. Her life played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism, and was also marked by the contradictions of a black middle class with apparent privilege. In Negroland, she asked herself, ‘what has made and maimed me?’ She found her own form for this, zigzagging between perspectives, cheerfully borrowing phrases from song lyrics and from other writers.
The same holds for her new book, in which she explores who the ‘me’ is in that quote. Now Jefferson opens up completely the genre of the memoir. In Constructing a Nervous System, she takes herself apart and then rebuilds herself by interweaving criticism with the words of deceased family members and key moments in her life as well as poetry and jazz sounds. There are letters, song lyrics and diary excerpts. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are two of her alter egos. Thus, she rewrites herself in a new musical form suffused with life.
Great sensitivity is required to make this anatomical dissection, this cutting, into a coherent whole again. Jefferson possesses this sensitivity, this talent, and what’s more, she reveals herself completely. This allows us to come into contact in a delightful way with artists such as Powell, Josephine Baker and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but we also cogitate with her when she writes ‘STOP! Collect yourself, Professor Jefferson’. This is all part of her nervous system, of her intimacy, which thus achieves a prodigious, hypnotic density.
Thus Jefferson explores how her tastes were shaped by artists for who she did not even exist, how she learned to think like artists who were condescending or utterly indifferent to black women like her. Yet self-consciousness in Constructing a Nervous System goes beyond gender, race and class. These are important, but her writing is more personal, more physical. Jefferson fits into the artistic tradition of Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman, who scrutinized themselves mercilessly, free from any political agenda or navel-gazing.
about the author
Margo Jefferson (b. 1947) teaches writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. She has been a staff arts critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her reviews. Negroland: A Memoir won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. Constructing a Nervous System was released in 2022.
about the moderator
Reine Elisabeth Nkiambote is a multilingual host and communicator who’s worked as a journalist at the Flemish Public Broadcast and in several regional newsrooms. Her professional journey has afforded her valuable experience as a political spokesperson and advisor specialising in decolonisation matters. In addition she is the host and producer of the podcast, What's Up With - Reine?. An engaging platform where challenging topics are discussed in an insightful way, with guests from around the world.
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