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Encore: Margo Jefferson's new memoir is like a kaleidoscope into someone's life


Who made you the person you are - parents, friends? Sure. But what about people you've never met - musicians, writers, characters in TV and movies? Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic, and she's also a celebrated memoirist. Her recently published book combines the two forms. It's called "Constructing A Nervous System." She tells her own story through the creators and works of art that shaped her. The critic often writes from a place of power and the memoirist from vulnerability. I spoke with Margo Jefferson earlier this year when the book was first published, and I asked her, what happens when you mix criticism and memoir in one book?

MARGO JEFFERSON: What I wanted to do was reverse that dynamic or at least give it much more texture. I've been very interested, the more years I get into criticism, in how vulnerability in fact can be a kind of critical authority. It probes. It exposes. It allows more, you know, imaginative access to the work. And memoir is always, it seems to me, a mix of power and vulnerability. You have the power of claiming the story and of claiming your interpretation of every part of it. And yet you are exposing. You're exposing yourself to all kinds of judgments.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's take a specific example. You write about the influence that many different artists and musicians have had on you in your life, and one of them is Ella Fitzgerald. And you write specifically about her sweat. When you were a child, what did Ella Fitzgerald's sweat represent to you?

JEFFERSON: It represented to me - when I saw her on television, it represented a kind of declasse vision of labor.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) It's too darn hot. It's too darn hot.

JEFFERSON: Working-class women, you know, sweating.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) ...With my baby tonight and pitch the woo with my baby tonight.

JEFFERSON: Low-level work and...

SHAPIRO: And particularly working-class Black women sweating.

JEFFERSON: Oh, exactly - working-class Black women. One of the things you always noticed watching Ella on TV was that she seemed to be the only woman, including even other Black women who were more glamorous - let's say, like Lena Horne - but she was the only woman among a population largely of white women on television who ever seemed to sweat. Perspiration is a genteel word for sweat - tiny, little feminine drops. It was like, these white women didn't even perspire, it appeared. Oh, that was very unsettling to me. I was very engaged in, as a little Black bourgeois girl, what appeared to be impeccable standards of class, gender, respectability.

SHAPIRO: You write that her sweat and her size, quote, "give me intimations of a Black female destiny she has thwarted. It's a destiny that every hour, day and year of my young life is plotted to prevent." And so if that's what Ella Fitzgerald's sweat and size meant to you as a young person, what does it mean to you today?

JEFFERSON: Well, it means I was able to leave that set of confines and stereotypes and constrictions up behind. It means the world. It means that I can bring to her - looking at her as well as listening to her - the same ebullient sense of freedom that she brought to her music. It also means that the world has changed enormously, you know? It means very everyday things, like I've been taken by history through race consciousness, class consciousness, feminist consciousness. You know, that's the hard work that gives you what you talk about as the freedom, the pleasure, the ebullience.

SHAPIRO: You make a point in the book that I have thought about often since I read this line, which is that a writer works with what she lacks as well as what she has. Will you read this section of the book?

JEFFERSON: (Reading) A writer works with what she lacks as well as what she has. Watch a dancer adapt a movement to the constraints, the particular length and flexibility of her limbs. Listen to an actor or singer shift the line's rhythms to fit their range and timbre. Assess your lacks to see what use they might be put to. Develop other sources of plenty.

Ask, what do I want desperately to write, and how shall I write it? What am I trying not to write? When do my fluencies become clever distractions from what needs writing? How often have I watched with acute irritation at performance distractions, hissing silently? Why don't you stop making that step, that melody, easier than it is? Why don't you find another way, another technique to get at it? Take the risk that it won't have the same effect you so admire and covet in some other artist. The supple arabesque, that quietly sustained high note - all right. You can't get that longed-for effect by the same means. Have at it another way. Can an unexpected tension in the line, a surreptitious harshness in that note, make it work?

SHAPIRO: I just love that instruction. Assess your lacks to see what use they might be put to. What a brilliant way of thinking about a lack.

JEFFERSON: Well (laughter), hard-won, I might say. You know, there you are, faced with it, you know, and so you must find your way through and around. You must get resourceful. And in that way, I would say performers in every field - theater, dance, whatever, music - have been especially useful to me because you can watch and see and hear them making those adjustments.

SHAPIRO: How important do you think it is that readers are familiar with the many different creators who you reference over the course of this book? It's a staggering range.

JEFFERSON: I hope that I contextualized. I gave each of them a setting, whether it was a scene or whether it was a sentence, that in some way, even if the reader didn't know this writer or singer exactly, it brought something to life. It gave - got your senses going.

SHAPIRO: Because there is so much music in this, do you want to give us a track to go out on, a song that you think would make a fitting conclusion?

JEFFERSON: How about Ella doing "How High The Moon"?


FITZGERALD: (Singing) How high the moon. Does it reach out to Mars? Though the words may be wrong to the song, we're asking, how high, high, high, high, high is the moon?

SHAPIRO: Give us a little insight into this that we might glean from the book.

JEFFERSON: There is a great performance that she did at a Berlin festival in the '60s. When you're listening, you don't see her sweat. But, you know, she just goes chorus after chorus. You know, she goes up. She goes down. She scats. She hums. She even moans a little. And she ends triumphantly, for my purposes, by taking a line from a Jerome Kern love song and changing it around. The song is "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." And she turns it.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Sweat gets in my eyes.

JEFFERSON: Sweat gets in your eyes.



JEFFERSON: There it is - the moon and sweat and this voice, fearless and joyous.

SHAPIRO: Margo Jefferson. Her new book is "Constructing A Nervous System." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

JEFFERSON: It was a pleasure. Thank you.


Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kathryn Fox