Author Morgan Jerkins Explores her Family History in “Wandering in Strange Lands”

In Wandering in Strange Lands, author Morgan Jerkins is debuting her sophomore album, so to speak—or, her second book. In the music industry, the curse of the “sophomore slump” refers to a breakout artist’s second effort failing to live up to the high standards of the first.

ID: a photo of author Morgan Jerkins
Author Morgan Jerkins.

Jerkins evades this slump with the release of her second book, penning beautiful prose that is engaging, thought-provoking, and authentic. Following the release of her 2018 New York Times bestseller, This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins hits another home run and leaves her readers asking new questions about the world in which we live.  

Jerkins spoke to Ms. from her apartment in Harlem. 

Anne McCarthy: Where are you right now and how has your lockdown been?

Morgan Jerkins: I’m in New York, in Harlem. It’s going. I would’ve had a completely different answer for you at the end of March or early April. It was rough in the beginning. I’m glad that New York has flattened the curve. I’ve established a new rhythm, so I’m definitely feeling better now.

AM: What’s it like having a book published during a pandemic?

MJ: Back in April, my editor asked me if it’d be okay if they pushed the book to August. I was happy about it because it was still early in the pandemic and I was dealing emotionally with how much things have changed; I didn’t think I’d be ready to talk about my book. Then the protests happened, and there’s been a resurgence of interest in Black books. And with all that’s going on—there’s COVID, the protests, the imminent election—you wonder if your book is going to have a place. 

AM: How would you describe Wandering in Strange Lands?

MJ: It’s different from my first book, This Will Be My Undoingwhich was 90 percent personal. This book was about using my family history and traveling across the country to find my roots. Forging conversations with those who stayed on their ancestral land or did forced or voluntary migration. And then synthesizing to create a cohesive narrative, by combining that reportage from conversations I’ve had with scholars and historians and activists. So there were a lot more voices to pull together. It was definitely an ambitious undertaking. This book pushed me as a writer and a researcher, and also it was very healing [to write]. I can only speak for myself as an African-American: because of the Transatlantic slave trade, so much has been taken from us – not just our freedom, but our name; so much of our identity. 


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AM: Where did you travel to while researching this book?

MJ: I traveled to Georgia and South Carolina, and then to Louisiana. Then across Mississippi to Oklahoma. And then my final part of the journey was in California. South Carolina was one of my favorites. It’s so beautiful – everything from the heat to the history to the magic – literal and figurative – of Black people [there], to the water. South Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in the country, hands down.

AM: How did the idea for this book come about?

MJ: It’s a roundabout. It actually came from the movie Get OutI was watching Get Out at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, and there’s the climactic scene where a Black character has his hands around a white woman’s throat and the police pull up. And, I kid you not, everybody in that theater gasped. Because we thought: He’s about to die. 

And I thought that was so fascinating; we all had this collective fear of the State. We had the collective fear of what it means to be Black in America. Why is that? I wanted to find out about these connections; how, in spite of time and distance, we deal with this fear, this instinctual response. So that’s where the spark began. I actually tweeted about that after the movie; I tweeted about how I felt so viscerally Black when that scene happened. And Jordan Peele retweeted it and followed me. That’s my bragging moment [laughs].

AM: What was your research process like for this book?

MJ: I did a mix of archival and oral research. The thing about it is, a lot of stuff that Black people talk about, it’s not always written down. That’s not always our tradition. So I would take what people would say about, “This is what’s going on in our communities…” And I also had to do research. I had to try to find other sources that gave context to explain why these beliefs would arise in the first place. I think what’s so important when you’re documenting Black history is that there has been a rupture between what has been passed down and what has been written. Oftentimes, our narratives were not our own; they’ve been written by those outside of the community.

AM: I found it interesting was when you wrote about the roots of certain tendencies in your family, like staying away from water. Where do you think that inclination came from?

MJ: When it came to water, I found in my family there are so many contradictions. And that was a point of intrigue. My mother grew up on a barrier island, but did not know how to swim. I’m like, but how is that possible? Then I think about all the jokes that get made about water, like “You don’t wanna get your hair wet,” or “Black people don’t swim.” Think about the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. Could it be because of that? Could it be because of the segregated pools that happened when Black people fled to the North? We were making fun of things, but it was also a source of pain, too.

AM: This book feels especially timely, as the U.S. continues to confront its racism problem. What were your feelings seeing the George Floyd protests?

MJ: So, I’ll just start with what happened when I went to California. With regard to migration, a lot of Black people fled to California, making stops in the South and the Midwest. And they ended up in California because they thought it would be different, and it wasn’t. Everything they fled from – it still showed up there, it was just in a different area code.

When I went there, I met a guy, an underground rapper who witnessed the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This was in 2018, and he told me: “If we don’t reckon with this history, it’s gonna happen again.” And almost two years to the day that’s when the George Floyd protests happened. What we’re seeing right now is the cyclical nature of brutality, violence, and displacement. A lot of that has to do with white people having an issue with Black people exercising their autonomy through movement. There has been white backlash to curtail Black movement; even if it’s just through erasure, like vacation tourism like how it is in Hilton Head. What we’re seeing right now is how much white people have an issue with Black people moving.

AM: What new projects are on the horizon for you?

MJ: I have a novel coming out next year titled Caul Baby. In African-American folklore, there’s a belief that if you’re born in the amniotic sac, en “caul,” you’re said to have gifts. I wanted to look at what it would be like to have women who posses the caul and sell parts of it for survival, to help other people, and what are the consequences of that? And these themes play out against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrified Harlem. I’m really excited about it.

AM: 2020 has been a difficult year. What gives you hope and what are you looking forward to?

MJ: What gives me hope is people creating. Everybody is trying to deal with their productivity or lack thereof, but I will say this: finding people who are still creating, who are still taking risks, who are still asking questions, and forging a connection with people – these are things that give me hope. I’m really looking forward to the type of art and the type of dialogue that will come out of this for a while. 

What also gives me hope is working with other writers; I thought I would be that type of writer who could just write and that’s it, but I can’t do it.  I get joy from molding other people’s writing. I’m all about creating connections. That gives me hope and keeps me afloat. Not only artistically, but also mentally, asking: How can I forge a connection with someone? Whether it’s a simple email or just conversation or taking a class. And just trying a little bit harder. Because we really are all we’ve got.


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About

Anne McCarthy is a writer and editor based in Manhattan. She’s a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, IndieWire, and more. She is a graduate of the Yale Writers Workshop and she has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London.