Cultural critic Margo Jefferson expands the bounds of possibility in memoir.
On this week’s episode, Margo Jefferson discusses Constructing a Nervous System (Pantheon, April 12), a spirited, inventive new memoir exploring the development of a critical sensibility.
Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and author (Negroland, On Michael Jackson), examines how she became who she is through her relationships to artists, icons, family, and friends including her parents, her sister, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, Bobby Short, Andy Bey, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Ike Turner, Willa Cather,and Dorothy Parker. This electrifying, discursive project ultimately offers “a dynamic, unflinchingly candid examination of the impacts of race and class on culture and the author’s own life” (Kirkus).
Here’s a bit more from Kirkus’ starred review of Constructing a Nervous System:
“Jefferson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, Negroland, moves beyond autobiography into a deeper excavation of music, literature, and personal memory, examining her role in American culture as both the influenced and the influencer. In Negroland, the author revealed the burdens of membership in a class of ambitious Black Americans, and she further details the impact on their children: ‘You were always calculating—not always well—how to achieve; succeed as a symbol and a self.’ Jefferson escaped into music and literature, finding artists who helped her move beyond rigid family expectations.…[Her] unique perspective and relentless honesty and self-examination ensure that there’s something worthwhile on every page. Devotees of Negroland will want to continue the dialogue with this top-notch writer.”
Jefferson and host Megan Labrise discuss the visual metaphor on the cover of Building a Nervous System; differences between memoir and cultural criticism, and how she merges the two; the career she considered before journalism; the difference between autobiography and memoir; critical style, range, and register; the origins, meanings, and histories of words—and choosing them carefully;Ella Fitzgerald; and much more.
Then editors Laura Simeon and Mahnaz Dar share their top picks in books for the week.
Breathe and Count Back From Ten by Natalia Sylvester (Clarion/HarperCollins)
Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley (Random House Graphic)
Also mentioned on this episode:
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erica L. Sánchez (Knopf)
Twin Cities by Jose Pimienta (Random House Graphic)
Thanks to our advertisers:
The Ferryman’s Toll by Daniel James
Fully Booked is produced by Cabel Adkins Audio and Megan Labrise.