Zibby Owens: Welcome, Morgan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Wandering in Strange Lands. I’m so excited to talk to you.

Morgan Jerkins: Thank you. Likewise.

Zibby: Wow. This was a labor of love. This is a lot of travel and research. Oh, my gosh. First of all, tell me about when you decided to write this book and why. Then I want to hear about the journey to getting all the information.

Morgan: It’s going to be weird of how I got the inspiration for this book because the book went through many different iterations of what the scope was to be. I will say that the impetus for the book began with a movie. It was Get Out. I was watching it in Magic Johnson Theater, Harlem. There’s a climactic scene where Daniel Kaluuya’s character, the black male protagonist, has his hand around his white girlfriend’s throat. She and his family has been trying to basically steal his body for the majority of the movie. As soon as the police car pulls up, everybody gasps. Now, in a regular society, police would mean safety. Yay, he’s coming to arrest the white girl. But we as black Americans know that the police often does not mean safety. I was fascinated that when we were in this theater, for example, we all had the same instinctual fear. I’m not a native Harlem. I’ve been living here for five years. I had a feeling that other people in this theater were not all natives to this neighborhood. That really fascinated me, this idea of fear of state violence, fear of the state, and our precarious position on any type of American soil. I wanted to first investigate that intergenerational fear and trauma. When I spoke about that to friends of mine who were actually professors who were based in the Boston area — this is after the book was sold. They told me, “This sounds like a migratory story.” That’s how the book started to develop. Not into just fear; that fear is a subcomponent. These migratory patterns and how we are connected and also disconnected because of the violence of the state, that’s how the scope grew.

Zibby: Wow. I actually thought what you just said was one of the most memorable parts of the book and has applications for really everything in life, was how you can really pass down trauma from generation to generation even if you haven’t lived it yourself, which I didn’t even realize could happen. If I had a traumatic experience, have I now doomed all my — . When does it have to have happen? It must have to happen before you have kids. Or is it just a societal thing? What do you think?

Morgan: I don’t know. Late last year, I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a guest professor at Leipzig University in Germany. When I was there, one of the classes I taught was a literature seminar, Black Women’s Interiorities Across the Diaspora. I had one student there — I still think about him to do this day. He was from Israel. We were talking about the intergenerational trauma of slavery. He was likening it to intergenerational trauma if those were the descendants of Holocaust survivors. As I mention in my book, this research has already been investigated by those such Dr. Rachel Yehuda where she studied epigenetics and how trauma affects gene mechanisms through Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Then there was also Dr. Joy DeGruy who coined the term posttraumatic slave disorder. It made me think about it.

If you have a whole generation of people who have undergone just unspeakable stress to their psyches and their bodies, how could they not pass that down to children? It’s hard because you think, I’m my own person, and also because America’s very individualistic in a way, for better or for worse, because of how we’re dealing with or not dealing with the pandemic. That really got me to thinking about certain things, certain fears that I have, certain trepidations. If I just listen to a conversation happening with my mother and her siblings or even my grandparents, I’m like, now I see the echoes and the rippling effects. That’s something that I really wanted to demonstrate in Wandering in Strange Lands, is just that echo that happens from coast to coast, region to region despite the fact that black Americans are distinct, but also overlapping in terms of the disenfranchisement that we face.

Zibby: Wow. I thought maybe, for instance with the Holocaust, it was more environmental, that if you’re born into a family where the parents had experienced a trauma, it was the environment, all that energy that just transmits when you’re around people who have gone through something awful, versus, does it actually shape your DNA? I don’t know. It’s so fascinating. Although then, it’s also discouraging in a way. Hopefully, with all the progress that gets made, then the future generations can have that sort of lifted.

Morgan: Yeah, or just don’t forget the history. That’s another thing. I remember I read this — I don’t know if you saw this article. I think it was published last week where it said twenty-three percent of Americans, young adults, didn’t think that the Holocaust happened or don’t know about the Holocaust. I’m like, are you kidding me right now? There are people alive today whose parents were Holocaust survivors. What is going on with the public education system or just the American education system that we have forgotten?

Zibby: Don’t even depress me any more. I can’t even go there. It’s like people who think the pandemic is a hoax. There are some people out there who just don’t respond to facts and science or reality. You can’t really do much, right? I don’t know.

Morgan: Just to bring it back around to the book —

Zibby: — Yes, please.

Morgan: I’ll try to bring it back around to the book. You see, that is something that I also wanted to elucidate in Wandering in Strange Lands, is the different realities that we inhabit. A lot of times in African American communities, there can be a collision course between oral history, stuff that’s passed around in communities, and what is actually documented. Sometimes for people who are from communities that are disenfranchised, communities that have been violated, they don’t always take the documentation at face value because they often know who has the power of this documentation: those who are generally white, privileged, with a lot of networks. They’re not. They’re the complete opposite. They have this suspicion. That was something that I learned early on. Something that I always did before I traveled anywhere was that I got in touch with people from that area. I wanted them to know who I was, what publisher I had to deal with, my website, just so they knew that I was a real person, but also because — for example, when I went down to the low country, Georgia, and I was doing research on the Gullah/Geechee communities, doing field research, one of the women there, she told me, “We’ve had people come down here, interview us without our consent, turn our stories into scholarship without proper acknowledgment.” They’ve already been violated. Even though I was black like them, I was coming from New York City. I was already a New York Times best-selling author. I taught at an Ivy League institution. I was the institution. I had to really tread lightly. That’s something I didn’t lose sight of.

Zibby: Morgan, tell me more about your story. Tell me how you got started writing, how you became a best-selling — give the CliffsNotes and all that stuff because it’s so impressive, just awesome.

Morgan: Thank you. I thought that I wanted to be a doctor. My father was a doctor. Every time you ask a child what they want to be, doctor, lawyer, whatever. I thought I wanted to be a doctor.

Zibby: I never wanted to be a doctor.

Morgan: That’s great.

Zibby: Just throwing that out there. Science is not my thing. I have so much respect for you and doctors and everything.

Morgan: Science wasn’t even my thing either. I just loved the narrative of people’s lives and their bodies. Anyway, when I was in high school, I was bullied a lot. I’m not a confrontational person. I internalized a lot of that low self-esteem. I wanted to escape. Because I didn’t have a passport at the time, plus I was a minor, the only way I could escape was through fiction. Every day when I’d get home, I hurry through my homework and I’d start writing fictious stories as a way to cope. I continued to do that well into college when I matriculated at Princeton. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I had a lot of colleagues who were applying to med school, applying to law school, going into banking. It was like, oh, my god, am I going to waste my degree and I should maybe try to get a job at Goldman Sachs or something like that? When I graduated from college, I didn’t get a job anywhere. I didn’t get a job. I was applying for entry-level positions at publishing houses and literary agencies assuming that that would be my way in. Granted, I had already done unpaid internships like I was told. I was told you had to do unpaid internships in order to get a foothold. As you know, that puts a lot of economically disadvantaged people with the short end of the stick. I did all of that. Graduated from the number-one university in the country. Still couldn’t get a job. I returned home jobless, heartbroken.

The only thing that I had as an anchor was that I was in an MFA program at Bennington, which is a low-residency program. I had some insecurities there because I was the youngest and I was the only black person in my cohort. I was like, oh, my gosh, am I the token? even though I had a wonderful experience there. When I was online, I was spending just an extraordinarily large amount of hours online, particularly on Twitter. I’d see people my age exchanging content. I was like, oh, you can exchange content and you can get paid for it? Then I’m going to do that. Because I had so much time on my hands, I was able to amass a large amount of bylines in a short amount of time. Then everything just started to take off like a rocket. In 2015, I moved to New York. I also got an agent. I also met the woman who would become the acquiring editor for my first book through Twitter as well. The week that I was graduating from my MFA program, I was fielding calls from editors interested in acquiring my first book. That was in June 2016. January 2018 is when This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America was released. It debuted on the New York Times best-seller list. Then from there, I taught at Bennington as a teaching fellow. I taught at Columbia University, Leipzig University. I’ve done speaking engagements. Of course, I just released my sophomore book in August of this year.

Zibby: Wow, that is exciting. Wait, can you tell me, please, what it’s like to write a book and have it come out and be an instant best seller? Tell me about the call you got or when you found out.

Morgan: It was funny. I was on my book tour. I remember what it was like. I was in Atlanta. It was about an hour or so before I was going to get picked up to go to the bookstore, Charis Bookstore, or Charis. I’m pronouncing it wrong. C-H-A-R-I-S Bookstore, I think that was the one. I was interviewing people for my second book. I knew I had a deadline. I wanted to hit the ground running. I was literally on the call with a scholar from UCLA. Somebody is calling my other line. I’m like, who is calling me at this hour? Why is my editor calling me at this hour? All of a sudden, I click over. I’m like, “I’m sorry. I got to take this because somebody is frantically calling my other line.” I click over. Then they tell me the news. I click back over, mental/emotional whiplash. I tried to get through the interview, but a part of me wanted to scream at this lady who didn’t know me from a can of paint, as my folks would say. That’s how it happened. Then on the way to the bookstore, I cried. I was in the car with my mom. Had the book event. Family members showed up that lived in Atlanta. Friends of mine from college showed up. Then when I came back to the hotel, my publisher sent me flowers. Then I ordered room service with my mom. Then I passed out. It was the best. My experience as a debut author was incredible because I could not have asked for better blowout. I knew that it was picking up steam because of the amount of anticipated lists that it was on. In terms of just the book tour, the people that came out during my book tour, and the reception, I would want that for any debut author. I was very lucky or very blessed.

Zibby: That’s amazing. After that big tour with so much emotion and success and everything, now you have a book coming out into this much quieter time in life. How are you handling that transition?

Morgan: It doesn’t feel quiet. I think it’s been hard for everyone. I know that I am surrounded by a lot of literary citizens who, we could be a bit self-deprecating when we’re promoting our work. When it’s huge professional news, we often lament online about how weird we feel about promoting our stuff because we live in a society that often devalues art or devalues writing, and especially devalues it as something that should be a monetary pursuit as well as a self-motivated, passionate one. It’s a tricky balance. It’s definitely a tricky balance when millions of people file for unemployment. Stimulus checks that were sent months ago was only $1,200. It feels decadent to be like, I wrote this book. Here, I’d like you to read it. My book was originally slated to come out May of this year. I live in New York City. New York was the epicenter of the virus. I always tell people that it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before because I couldn’t hear a thing. What I mean by that is that — I live near Central Park. I couldn’t hear a dog bark. I didn’t hear a bus approaching its stop. I didn’t hear people arguing on the street. The only thing I heard every single day or night was the ambulance sirens and me just praying that I didn’t know anybody in those vehicles. I was surrounded by death.

When the city went into lockdown mode, I’m just trying to get my head together. When my editors emailed me at the top of April and asked if we could push to August, I was happy about it. Usually, I’m an impatient person. I’m like, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Because I was trying to get myself just emotionally prepared to reset for this different routine that I was going to have do, I liked the extra time. Then as we know, as time went on, then George Floyd’s murder happened. Then the protests happened. All of a sudden, my book took on this different kind of urgency that none of us could’ve predicted, obviously. In the beginning, I was happy because I thought, August is great because I thought, silly me, that everything would be opened again. Also because there’s so much traveling, August is time for vacation, I thought we could pitch it that way. Because of the protests, then things started to . Then things just started to move really quickly. When you say that it takes on a quiet form, it didn’t feel that way at all, at all.

Zibby: I take it back. I shouldn’t have said quiet.

Morgan: I’ll say this. It definitely felt quiet in the sense that — I’m a Gemini. I pride myself for being able to work a room anywhere I go. I know that I could command attention. I project my voice in a way. Maybe it’s because of the insecurity complex of being short. I’m very short, so I try to project as much as I can.

Zibby: How short? I’m very short too.

Morgan: I’m five feet tall.

Zibby: I’m 5’2″.

Morgan: Every time people meet me, they’re always like, I thought you were taller than what you were. Not every time they say this. A lot of times when people meet me, they’re like, I thought you were taller than what you were. I take that as a compliment because I guess my personality’s large, but also because I know how easy it is to be invisible, not only because of my height, but because I’m also a black woman. I guess that has something to do with it. I love going on book tours and going into bookstores because I can project. You can see people’s gestures, their faces, the different comments they make as you’re telling your story. You get energy from them. When you’re doing a Zoom call, you don’t get that same interaction even though you do feel tuned in because people do Q&A stuff. It’s different because now you have to deliver twice as much energy. You’re not going to get that back. As I was doing these book tours in August and even though they were only an hour long, I would be wiped out after them.

Zibby: I can relate to that. It’s also the contrast of, you’re sitting in one place doing your normal life and then all of a sudden, your space has to completely transition. Usually, you go somewhere. I’ll go somewhere and have to perform or be on or whatever. Here, I can just be my focused self and then next thing you know, it’s like — .

Morgan: Yeah, exactly. When I was in Atlanta when it was announced that I — I told the crowd that I just got the best-seller list. I was with them. Twenty minutes before it was go time, you meet the booksellers. They’re so nice. They show you around the store. They say, “Here’s where your book is. Let us know if you want any water.” You could say . Also, sometimes they have a pet, a resident dog or a resident cat. That bookstore had a resident wiener dog. You saw the dog move in and out of the crowds as people were enjoying themselves. It accounts for so much. Even when you’re signing books, that accounts for so much. I’m not going to say I took it for granted, but man, I would’ve loved to have gotten my wardrobe together and picked out the finest makeup palettes, go to the bookstore, and especially in August, and go and have a nice wine spritzer with friends or family afterwards. There’s so much that could’ve been done, but you know what, I’m lucky with podcasts like this one. Also, independent bookstores and booksellers, we’ve really got ourself into shape. The thing about this whole time is it’s unprecedented. It’s not like you can go to somebody and be like, what did you do during this time when it happened twelve years ago? None of us knows. Despite the fact that we don’t know, we have been able to reorient, I’m sure with difficulty, but we’re doing it. I think that that’s pretty inspiring.

Zibby: I agree. I think there’s some things that came out of it that will make regular life better going forward.

Morgan: I sure hope so.

Zibby: I feel like so much of life was running around, getting places.

Morgan: The pandemic has made me prioritize rest a whole lot more. Again, I live in New York. New York is very fitness heavy. I was really focusing on, I want to lose this much weight by the time my book comes out, May 12th. I had it all planned out with a personal trainer. Then of course, the lockdown happened. I was getting so upset. I was like, man, if the lockdown didn’t happen, I would be able to bench press my weight by now. I would be able to do this. I realized, but you’re alive, though. Your body has kept you alive. Okay, you had junk food two days in a row. So what? You’re working under stress. This pandemic has really forced me to do a whole reset and to shift my thinking about my body and stuff like that.

Zibby: I’ve never even tried to bench press my own weight. The fact that that was a goal of yours, I applaud.

Morgan: I was getting close. It wasn’t a goal. I was just getting there. It wasn’t a goal. When I started bench pressing 110 pounds, I was like, I could get here. I’m almost there.

Zibby: I am beyond impressed. That is up there with the instant New York Times best seller.

Morgan: I don’t know if I could bench press that now, though. Not anymore.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Morgan: Oh, man. This is going to sound really weird. If you have an idea in your mind that kind of makes you afraid, that’s probably the one that you should investigate, I would say. If you have an idea in your mind, that it comes to you in flashes — I know a story is important when I can see certain scenes visually or certain lines come to me. If you don’t write it down, it’s going to keep pestering you. It’s going to haunt you in a sense. I would always tell writers that. Also, don’t ask for permission. I say this especially for female writers or writers of color or female writers of color. Don’t ask for permission. That’s the way that I had to be with my career. When I didn’t get those jobs that I told you about, I definitely sulked, but I also was like, listen, I may not be the best writer out there, but I’m going to work harder than the best writer out there. That involved me pitching relentlessly, getting rejected a lot, and doing it all over again and just trying every single angle I could to shoot my shot, basically. Don’t ask for permission. Don’t wait for somebody to say, yeah, it sounds like a good idea, go for it. Just start writing. Don’t worry about it being perfect the first time. First drafts are supposed to be bad. That’s why it’s a first draft. You can revise in layers. I try to encourage writers to do the same.

Zibby: I love that. Morgan, thank you. I feel like we didn’t talk too much even about your book which I felt like was so awesome. I learned so much about your family and your background and all your amazing research skills and all this. Readers will just have to get the book and find out the backstory, so to speak, Wandering in Strange Lands. Thank you, Morgan. This was such a nice chat.

Morgan: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Zibby: You too.

Morgan: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Morgan: Bye.