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Morgan Jerkins on imposter syndrome, success and writing books to unsettle

As she releases her fiction debut, following her bestselling personal essays and ancestral memoir, writer MORGAN JERKINS talks to KATIE BERRINGTON about navigating the pressures of the publishing industry, tackling topics that resonate strongly in her work and how her move to Harlem inspired her latest release

Writer and editor Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins might be best known for her razor-sharp, non-fiction reflections on the world around her (take her 2018 bestselling essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America), but she is now showing the world her first literary love: writing fiction – and magical realism at that.

Jerkins has penned creative short stories since she was 14 years old and throughout her college years, but it was trying to get her break in the publishing industry that necessitated a detour into the realm of non-fiction. “[It] really expedited my career because, in 2014, there was more editorial bandwidth and therefore opportunity for young women, and particularly young women of color, to write confessional first-person essays or quick op-ed analyses, and that’s where I came up,” she says. Previously an editor at Zora – a digital publication written for and by women of color – Jerkins started a new role last month as the senior editor for culture for ESPN’s The Undefeated, “a platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and pop culture”.

I had never been in an area before that was full of so many people of the African diaspora. It was great to see that type of reflection

Amid the “apocalyptic” atmosphere of the past year (living near Central Park, she was stunned by the extraordinary quiet – barely even hearing a dog bark – of the first lockdown), Jerkins has also released two books during the pandemic: Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots last August, a personal memoir tracing her ancestors’ journeys across America; and, now, Caul Baby – her fiction debut. “I’m hyper-productive and a type-A personality,” she says, matter of fact, about how the year has been for her work-wise. It has still been a lot to navigate, though. “I’m just trying to allow my body to catch up and process everything [that’s happened].”

The release of Caul Baby: A Novel – an intriguing and enigmatic story of family, tradition, power and magic ­­– has been six years in the making. Jerkins started writing it back in 2015, the year she moved to Harlem, which would become the book’s setting. “My senses ran amok,” she recalls, “because I’m from a modest South Jersey town in suburbia. I was not used to the activity on the streets, and I had never been in an area before that was full of so many people of the African diaspora. It was great to see that type of reflection.”

A lot of the themes that I had hinted at in the short story had been fermenting for years – the themes of Black motherhood, the themes of capitalism, the themes of exploitation, of gentrification, of survival

Intended initially as a short story, the book is centered on a powerful Harlem family of female healers, who Laila – a woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages – turns to in her desperate pursuit of motherhood. It has expanded thematically “as I have matured”, Jerkins says. The strong emphasis on Black motherhood, for instance, was incorporated in 2018, after she read an article in The New York Times on the severity of Black maternal and infant mortality rates in the US, which included the appalling statistic that the racial disparity of infant mortality rates was wider then than it had been in 1850 (15 years before the end of slavery).

“A lot of the themes that I had hinted at in the short story had been fermenting for years – the themes of Black motherhood, the themes of capitalism, the themes of exploitation, of gentrification, of survival,” she says of how the story evolved into the complete version of itself that went to the publishers.

It’s easy to assume that there must be a degree of pressure that comes with making her first public foray into fiction, following the esteemed reception of her previous work. The pressures she feels come from within and her desire to keep bettering herself, Jerkins admits, but she also fears the regrets she might have one day of not having taken the time to truly enjoy her successes now.

The pandemic has really disrupted my sense of time, and has liberated my sense of control

“There have been many times in my career when I attained a feat, but I don’t even process it because I’m already onto the next thing,” she says. “That has a lot to do with imposter syndrome, I think. And, for me, that I first came to prominence on the internet, which moves so quickly that once you feel like you’ve written the article and shared it, then you have to move onto the next thing or people will forget about you. It’s hard to break out of that hold. I constantly tell myself, ‘You’re not where you were in 2015, you’re not where you were in 2018’, but it’s a constant internal dialogue that I have to have with myself.”

Jerkins is learning, albeit begrudgingly, to surrender some of the control that she has always wanted to hold on to. “The pandemic has really disrupted my sense of time,” she reflects of the timings of her recent releases, “and has liberated my sense of control.” It has brought her back to what feels most important to her work: “Being a storyteller who, at times, unsettles, and who always shows the complexity and nuance of the human condition, and particularly the human condition for those who weren’t considered human for hundreds of years.”

Jerkins’s gift for storytelling extends beyond the written word, whether in the fictional or non-fiction world, and into other mediums that she is keen to experiment with – from visual and digital art to screenplays. “I want to get my hands dirty a bit, to keep me on my toes,” she says of her ambitions to keep adding strings to her creative bow. “I don’t want to have to settle, I want to keep experimenting.”

Caul Baby: A Novel is out now

Caul Baby: A Novel brings to life a powerful family in a tale rife with secrets, betrayal, intrigue, and magic

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