A Cultural Critic Publishes Her Second Memoir

In her new book, Professor Margo Jefferson examines her life against a backdrop of American cultural influences.

Eve Glasberg
May 31, 2022

In Constructing a Nervous System, School of the Arts Professor Margo Jefferson, who teaches in the school’s Writing Program, shatters herself into pieces and recombines them. She fuses the criticism that she is known for, fragments of the family members she grieves for, and signal moments from her life, as well as the words of those who have peopled her past and accompanied her in her solitude. Included are Bing Crosby and Ike Turner, the sounds of a jazz record, W.E.B. Du Bois and George Eliot, the muscles and movements of a ballerina and those of an Olympic runner.

The result is a work defined by fractures and dissonance, and a persistent searching. Jefferson interrogates her own self as well as the act of writing memoir, and probes the fissures at the center of American cultural life.

Jefferson discusses her new book with Columbia News, along with how she manages the intersection of writing and teaching, what she’s read recently, and how she plans on spending her summer.

Q. How did this book come about?

A. After I’d finished Negroland, I realized that certain ideas, themes, certain artists, and certain family narratives were still lingering. Some had been left unexplored, some had been hinted at, but not pursued. In my imagination, they started taking different shapes, asking questions. At first, I thought of separating them into a collection of critical essays and a second memoir. Then I realized that I wanted to bring criticism and memoir together. Constructing a Nervous System is cultural memoir, and confessional criticism.

Constructing a Nervous System by Columbia University Professor Margo Jefferson

Q. Do you consider your new memoir a part two to Negroland? Could a reader come to Constructing a Nervous System without having first read your earlier memoir?

A. I don’t consider it a formal part two; it can definitely be read on its own. That being said, it’s in the same family as Negroland. A sibling, maybe? The likenesses are inescapable, but the differences are just as striking. And each insists on its own separate life.

Q. What do you read when you're working on a book, and what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

A. I do research, of course. I read other examples of the kind of writing I’m working with. I do that early in the process though. Once I’m totally immersed, it’s better to read writing that has almost nothing to do with my project. Then I look any and everywhere for prose and poetry that opens up the possibilities of language. The pleasures and surprises.  

Q. How does the intersection of writing and teaching affect you?

A. Students are open to lots of possibilities for form, voice, subject. Their minds are nimble. And since they belong to a different generation, their frame of reference is unpredictable. That keeps my mind and voice on alert.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

A. It’s essential! Whatever your craft or art, it’s your job, and it should be your passion to immerse yourself in its history and its practices.

Q. What have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

A. I’m slowly reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. His prose is as dense and powerful as his subject. And a number of my mother’s relatives left Mississippi and Kentucky to settle in St. Louis.

Q. What's on your night stand now?

A. South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration by Marcia Chatelain, and Yiyun Li’s essay, “’Auld Lang Syne’ in July” from This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson.

Q. What are you working on now? 

A. I’m not telling yet.

Q. Any interesting summer plans?

A. I’m going to Ireland and England for my book. And I’m going to Santa Fe for a vacation.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or writers, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. I’m going to pick two for the sake of the dinner party. I want Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin to have the evening all to themselves, so they can talk nonstop about the demands of culture, art, and politics; likewise, the complexities of race, gender, and sexuality. And prose aesthetics. I’d want to watch them keep surprising each other.