Margo Jefferson on her new memoir Constructing a Nervous System

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

6:30 pm

1201: Elebash Recital Hall

Open to the Public

In conversation with Elizabeth Kendall

Headshots of Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendall with the book cover for "Constructing a Nervous System"
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Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson has lived in the thrall of a cast of others—her parents and maternal grandmother, jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. These are the figures who thrill and trouble her, and who have made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer. In her much-anticipated follow-up to Negroland, Jefferson brings these figures to life in a memoir of stunning originality, a performance of the elements that comprise and occupy the mind of one of our foremost critics. 

In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson shatters her self into pieces and recombines them into a new and vital apparatus on the page, fusing 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, dramatized here like never before. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are among the author’s alter egos. The sounds of a jazz LP emerge as the intimate and instructive sounds of a parent’s voice. W. E. B. Du Bois and George Eliot meet illicitly. The muscles and movements of a ballerina are spliced with those of an Olympic runner, becoming a template for what a black female body can be. 

Margo Jefferson has been a staff book, theater and arts critic for The New York Times and Newsweek. She has written for The Washington Post, New York Magazine, VOGUE, O, The Believer, Guernica, Bookforum, The Washington Post and The Nation. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best American Essays; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; The Best African American Essays; The Jazz Cadence of American Culture; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader and elsewhere. She has written three books: On Michael Jackson (2005), Negroland (2015), and Constructing a Nervous System. (2022). Negroland received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, The Heartland Prize and The Bridge International Prize. Recently, she received the 2022 Windham Campbell Prize for Nonfiction. She lives in New York and teaches writing at Columbia University. 

Former Leon Levy Fellow Elizabeth Kendall is a dance and culture critic/historian and a Literary Studies professor at Lang College and NSSR, both of New School.  Her book Balanchine and the Lost Muse:  Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer was published in July, 2013, by Oxford U. Press; paperback 2015.  She has also written Where She Danced, (Knopf & U. of California Press); The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the l930’s (Knopf & Cooper Square Press), two memoirs, American Daughter (Random House), Autobiography of a Wardrobe (Pantheon and Anchor/Doubleday), and numerous articles about dance, fashion and movies.  She has received fellowships from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, Guggenheim Foundation, Cullman Center, Fond Likhacheva, and Leon Levy Center for Biography.  Forthcoming is an experimental narrative of choreographer George Balanchine’s early years in the U.S. (1933-1946), Balanchine Finds his America:  a Tale of Dance, Sex, Solitude, and Longing.