Margo Jefferson: ‘Criticism has taught me to be braver’

Award-winning author on Ella Fitzgerald, criticism and the public events that affected her most

Congratulations, Margo, on winning the Rathbones Folio Prize for Constructing a Nervous System. What does it mean to you?

It’s thrilling to have my writing recognised by writers I read and admire. And the prize is awfully generous. I benefit from the founders and academy members and supporters’ belief that writing deserves literal as well as figurative support. And I love that the prize honours non-fiction alongside fiction and poetry.

A highlight is your homage to Ella Fitzgerald: “From her mother’s love untimely ripped, she tucks an elegy into a nursery rhyme.” What made her so special?

She had a marvellous and sustained capacity to give acute pleasure in ways both direct and subtle. To grow, technically and emotionally as a singer over decades. To fuse “entertainment” and “art”. To be a genius without a monster’s ego.


Our critic called your extended essay On Michael Jackson “a frightening journey into the dark heart of American pop”. How would you sum up this abused and abusive star?

A kinetic utterly magnetic performer who embodied every conflict and complication, every temptation and torment of American mass culture and history: race; gender; sexuality; celebrity; the contentious traditions of popular music.

In your memoir Negroland, about growing up middle-class and black in Chicago, you call your younger self an “ingratiating little integrationist”. A critic referred to the psychic burden of being “an exemplar of black excellence”. Have you made peace with your past?

One way of making peace with painful or shameful parts of your past is to examine them in every way you can find: sociological, historical, emotional. Sombrely. Comically. I write in Constructing a Nervous System: “Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.”

You also ask: How do you adapt your singular, wilful self to so much history and myth? What is your answer?

Do I have a single answer? No. You immerse yourself in that history, those myths: you analyse them, you question them, you try to re-experience them. You make a case study of your singular wilful self. Why did you make certain choices? Why did you feel as you did then? What’s different now? You treat yourself as a work in progress.

You won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for your work at the New York Times and have written for many other publications. You are also a professor of writing at Columbia University. How has this influenced your own writing?

I love the intellectual and emotional challenges of being a critic. Criticism has taught me to be braver about venturing into a wide range of art forms and cultural debates. Criticism also makes one very aware of one’s audience. How do you mediate their relations to the art you’re writing about? How does your prose describe and analyse, judge, and speculate? How do you speak to an audience of readers and to artists, without speaking for them?

What projects are you working on?

A collaborative book about friendship.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Not yet.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“Tell the truth but tell it slant” – Emily Dickinson.

Who do you admire the most?

People insistently demonstrating against autocracies worldwide. Against economic, racial, and gender injustices, also known as barbarities.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would abolish every law banning or limiting abortion, and every law limiting women’s access to healthcare.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

Film: Drive My Car. TV show: All the seasons of Atlanta. Book: Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green.

Which public event affected you most?

My memories go back decades. There’s the assassination of Martin Luther King; there’s the ongoing horror of the Vietnam War, there’s the passage of Roe. Wade, then the rescinding of Roe v Wade; there are the ongoing murders of blacks (mostly but not only men) by policemen who rarely get punished. I feel like I’m just getting started.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Bamako, Mali.

Your most treasured possession?

My mother’s jewellery. She died in 2014. I experience her aura every time I wear her wristwatch, her earrings, her bracelets.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

Black Dolls, published by Radius Books. Delight and heartbreak conjoin in each image.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

This particular one is small and intimate: Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Italo Calvino.

The best and worst things about where you live?

New York still makes you feel you have access to everything culturally, but you (we) don’t any more. We’re not the sole centre of postmodern urban culture as we once thought we were.

What is your favourite quotation?

The same as my favourite piece of writing advice from Dickinson: “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” And there’s also Ralph Ellison’s succinct call and response: “Who wills to be a Negro? I do!”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

The doubled characters of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith.

A book to make me laugh?

Oscar Wilde’s plays still make me laugh.

A book that might move me to tears?

Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

Margo Jefferson is the winner of the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize for Constructing a Nervous System (Granta)

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times