In the fifth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson.
Margo Jefferson has been a staff writer and cultural critic for The New York Times and Newsweek, in addition to having essays and reviews in Harper’s, Vogue, and New York Magazine, among others. Along with a Pulitzer Prize, Jefferson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation/Theatre Communications Group grant. She is the author of On Michael Jackson (Pantheon, 2006) and Negroland: A Memoir (Pantheon, 2015). Jefferson teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.
EB: Why were you, as a writer and also a woman, drawn to writing nonfiction in the first place?
MJ: I really liked the idea of that intimacy with books but also the authority that being a literary critic meant. I later spread out to other forms. Once I really started to write, that variety is what I wanted. I liked the challenge; I liked the sense of being engaged with all the arts and with so many aspects of the culture. That was important to me.
When I look back on it, I really admired novelists—when I came along, the novel was the ideal form—who wrote criticism, and I really admired women who took charge of that voice.
EB: And all of the nonfiction you wrote at first was criticism?
MJ: Yes, all that was published was criticism. What I worked on in private I called short stories, but it really could have been creative nonfiction. I published mostly reviews and an occasional arts feature. After I left Newsweek, I would write review essays, because I wanted to write longer, and, as I saw it, write in that “more serious form.” Then I moved from only literature to music, dance, movies, theatre—to wanting to think about the culture in lots of ways, whether it was through fashion, sports, or some passing phenomenon.
EB: Your new book coming out in September. I hear it’s a memoir. Is that correct?
MJ: Yes, it is, but it’s really cultural history and criticism in the form of a memoir. It’s called Negroland: A Memoir—and “Negroland” is my word for the black elite that I grew up in, which was both a segregated and an integrated world. It’s the rituals and the conventions of that world, of race, of gender. It’s a memoir of a world, or of several worlds, interacting, interlocking, antagonizing, collaborating with my sensibility and my life.
EB: Did the process of writing Negroland feel different than writing other nonfiction?
MJ: At times, very much so—anything involving memoir is very complicated! There’s a great Oscar Wilde quote: “Whatever is first in feeling comes always last in form.” Does that sum up your contending with yourself: your unconscious self, your instinctive self, but your interrogating self, you historical, psychological and craft self too! I had to draw on theatrical devices, dialogue—different kinds of forms than what I traditionally use as a critic. With the Michael Jackson book all my resources were focused on him. Filtered through me, but turned on him.
EB: Regardless of form, or the type of nonfiction, what do you feel that you personally bring to your nonfiction?
MJ: I bring a capacity to enter and render several, sometimes multiple, viewpoints—to look at something from many angles—and to enjoy that, and to give it flesh and spirit. I’ve lived in various worlds all my life, and my sensibilities and temperament always work with on the other hand—let me inhabit this other thing too, let me see if there is some other way to look at that. As I’ve gotten older, written more criticism, and taught it, I’ve gotten more and more interested in criticism as finding authority in questioning and exploring as least as much as examining. I’ve always been picking a very wide range of books to write about, and wanting to move into these other art forms, and what’s going on with male and female, what’s going on with black and white. There isn’t just black and white—there are all these other realities. Now these days, it’s not only just male and female.
It’s easier to play with this now that I’m not on a beat. I have more freedom.
EB: What has writing criticism, memoir, and other forms of nonfiction done to enrich your life?
MJ: For all I just said, all my tooting my love-of-complexity horn, I don’t know if it would matter to me as much if I hadn’t lived the life as a critic who also had to deal with pushback. You get letters, objections. There are always moments when people question your authority: excuse me, ma’am? Because you’re a woman and you’re black. How do I assert my right to be here and yet not be confined or constrained by this anger, this resistance?
The other thing that I learned that I think was good for me, was when the Michael Jackson book came out, the reviews were mixed. You have to look at positive ones and the negative ones, and look at when a critic who is criticizing you is being fair. I had the authorial sense of total defensiveness, but as a critic, I had to make those distinctions. The hardest thing was seeing some reviewers do the things to me that I had done to others—the haughty tone; the inserting of intellectual vanity and pride—and all of that has been very interesting.
You shift constantly between a position of what appears to be unquestioned authority, and authority that is up for grabs. You’re constantly in flux.
EB: What else has been challenging or difficult about writing nonfiction?
MJ: My first official job was at Newsweek in the 1970s. The challenge for a writer of color and for a woman is that it was very easy to get stereotyped as the person who would write exclusively about black literature, women’s literature. I made a very conscious decision to write about both and not to do that exclusively. I would not let myself get pushed off turf, which I was capable of writing about—reviewing European literature, European history, white American male artists. I worked very hard to do all of those things. And I made sure that other people of color, women—I made sure that their work was reviewed by me, because I cared about it—and it was almost never getting reviewed by anybody else. I made sure that I walked the waterfront. That was very important to me. I kept thinking about that when I got to the Times. It was my way of asserting two kinds of power and confidence and authority. The power I had as a black person and a woman, and the power I had to look at the world and the larger culture.
It can be a very hard line to walk. You’re doing at least double duty, but it’s really, really worthwhile. My motto is: it’s wonderful training to be able to imagine what hasn’t imagined you. For as much as we’ve evolved—your generation as well as mine—we all grew up with some of the old traditional canons, and we know them as well as anybody, and we have a right to talk about them. In our particular ways.
EB: Last, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MJ: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.” – Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.