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01May

Constructing a Nervous System review – a deeply personal account of black female identity

Margo Jefferson’s follow-up to her acclaimed Negroland is another intimate and intelligent memoir that asks searching questions about her heritage and a privileged US society

Margo Jefferson is the rare memoirist who is always daring the reader to keep up. She’d rather recall her fleeting impressions instead of recounting a scene and the sheer volume of her allusions to 20th-century Americana – she worked for years on the culture desk of the New York Times – casts an instant spell. In her 2015 book, Negroland, she found a form that held together a portrait of her childhood in a rarefied black enclave in 1950s Chicago, and her early encounters with feminism as a young woman in New York, interspersed with musings on Little Women, James Baldwin and The Ed Sullivan Show. The book was alternately categorised as social history and memoir. The typical Jefferson paragraph, zigzagging through different perspectives, freely borrowing and repurposing other writers’ sentences and song lyrics, invariably reminds me of something one character tells another in Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities: “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

Constructing a Nervous System begins with Jefferson reporting a bad dream: she is alone on a stage and “I extended my arm – no, flung, hurled it out – pointed an accusatory finger” at herself. You sense straight away that Jefferson’s intention is not to tell a story, but to relay an inner tempest on the page. In the next few pages, she quotes from a letter she wrote in 2018 to her dead mother, rewrites lines from an Ethel Waters song and confesses to secretly idolising mid-century black male singers because of their “immersive lure of danger and dominance”. She bristles at classifying these mental leaps as either criticism (“too graciously incantatory”) or memoir (“commemoratively grand”): “Call it temperamental autobiography.”

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