Reading the breakout New York Times bestseller by Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, I thought: It’s like hanging out with a friend. The book, a compilation of essays, flows naturally throughout. It feels surprisingly conversational, making each page turn an easy choice.
Jerkins’ seemingly quick ascent started like most “overnight” successes – she has been honing her craft for years, since her days as an undergrad at Princeton. She has had bylines in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and others. Her commitment to her writing is evident in the quality of it found on the page—and her smart, quick wit can also be consumed via her daily musings on Twitter. (If you don’t already follow her, I recommend it.)
I was delighted to speak with Jerkins, who lives in New York City, about her feminism, her faith and the advice she would give to other writers and her younger self.
What would you say to readers who thought: “Oh, she’s like me”?
I’m glad that I found people who identify with the book. On the flip side, I’m glad there may have been people who didn’t identify with the book, but kept reading anyway. I came from a discipline of: the way to be a great writer was to be as abstract as possible. At first, I wasn’t using my voice, and I had to be more confident in that and strengthen it. I’m thankful for readers like yourself who pick up on how natural was. I can’t talk about difficult aspects of my personal life and sound like a professor, because it would create this type of barrier and distance.
I was interested in the sections in which you talk about hair. As you’ve gotten older, how has your relationship with your hair evolved?
When I was a child, I thought that having long, straight hair was the pinnacle of beauty. My hair was being permed starting when I was three years old. For a lot of people who are not Black, they think: “Oh my god, that’s terrible.” But when you are conditioned to be “respectable”—unfortunately due to white supremacy—you are taught that you have to look different than yourself, in order to make others comfortable.
Once I got to college, I just got tired. I was tired of hiding my hair under a wig or weave, tired of the upkeep. And I started experimenting with natural hair. And I like it. A vast majority of the book is about trying to hide and be white, or hide under my weaves. I’m trying to do all these different things. And now I think: What would it be like to be a revelation to myself?
I liked how openly you wrote about watching porn. What was its effect on you?
I got into porn watching because it was a way for me to connect with a guy I thought I was in love with. Like any industry, it has a lot of problems. Porn is basically made for the male gaze. I’m a naturally nosey person, so I like watching it, but there’s always a little shame when you’re done, because there’s a lot of issues with the porn industry and I think: Am I part of the problem? And is it adverse to me being a feminist?
How do your religious beliefs influence how you approach life?
I consider myself a Christian and my faith is very important to me, but it’s difficult because I live in New York City, and I am in very progressive, liberal circles. Being in this metropolis, having faith in the Divine helps to keep me with a type of peace amidst this chaos. It reminds me, even when I feel alone, that someone is looking out for me. Even when I’m going through tough times, I remind myself that everything has its season. It’s a guiding force.
Why is identifying yourself as a feminist important to you?
I grew up in a community where “feminist” was seen as a pejorative term, and it signified that you wanted to take the place of the man, or you were a “ball-buster” or “combative.” It’s important for me to identify as a feminist to leave a mark in my personal life; so people know I can be assertive. For me, being called a “feminist” is a symbol, and it’s very empowering for me.
Who are some of your feminist heroes?
It’s interesting because some of my feminist heroes—I’m not sure if they identify as feminists. My mother, for example, I don’t know that she identifies as a feminist, but she’s a feminist hero for me. A lot of my feminist heroes are just the women in my life.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers, or anyone chasing their career goals?
I would say: if you’re ever afraid of writing something, then that may be a good place to start. In terms of careers, I’d say—particularly for women of color—do not ask for permission; don’t wait for that train to come. Make your move. Don’t worry about the rejection.
What would you say to your younger self?
Be more confident! Be more confident in who you are. You are talented. Don’t think that you’re not going to be where you want to be, because you will. Stay focused, and don’t be dismayed by the many closed doors you’re getting.
In this day in age, what gives you hope?
The Black people I know who are making great art, teenagers who are changing their country with their fearlessness, or, it could be something as simple as a funny video online. There’s still community, and people are still laughing. Those things give me hope.