What Was Haunting Me Was Not Myself: A Conversation with Morgan Parker

By Tiffany TroyMay 11, 2024

What Was Haunting Me Was Not Myself: A Conversation with Morgan Parker

You Get What You Pay For by Morgan Parker

MORGAN PARKER IS a poet, essayist, and novelist. She is the author of the young adult novel Who Put This Song On? (2019) and the poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me up at Night (2021), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (2017), and Magical Negro (2019), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and “a dynamic craftsperson” of “considerable consequence [to] American poetry,” according to The New York Times.

I first met Morgan when I was a sophomore undergraduate at Columbia University, around 2017. I was chosen to introduce Morgan as part of Art + Life, a conversation series that, in short, looked at how writers made a living. There was just one hitch to this gig: at the time, Morgan had recently published There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and I had no idea who Beyoncé was! Coming as I did from a household that largely eschewed television, the pop culture references in her collection seemed to come from a different planet. My actual introduction to Morgan was a blur, but I remember the takeaway: first and foremost, we must take care to take care of ourselves, and that includes finding full-time jobs that sustain us, whether or not they are writing-related. I carried Morgan’s words with me because implicit in that advice was the understanding that our writing selves are not extricable from our living, breathing selves.

Several years later, my mentor Dorla McIntosh texted me a photo of You Get What You Pay For (2024), and I was immediately intrigued. Over the years, my understanding of the world has morphed from a rosy-hued waltz into a gnarl shaped by distraction and shame. But articulating why I felt this way was never really acceptable. It is a damning admission that, in my pledge of allegiance, I sometimes wonder if I really believe that the law can ever be more than a substitute for justice.

When I opened You Get What You Pay For, I began to understand the complexity of African American identity and to appreciate Morgan’s project of insisting on—and celebrating—the necessary multifariousness of Black womanhood, even if it is defined, shaped, and ruptured by white supremacy, misogyny, or the implication that “Black people don’t need therapy.” And Morgan’s essays invite us to laugh as we learn.


TIFFANY TROY: The first essay in your collection, “Start at the Beginning,” both follows and defies expectations for self-introduction; it portrays a milieu while eschewing stereotypes. How does this essay set the book up for the readers?

MORGAN PARKER: I really resist chronology, and I didn’t want this to be a traditional or straightforward memoir where it’s like, First I was born, then this and that, because first of all, that’s not how I experience time or narrative. Another thread throughout the book is that there’s no way to tell things in order because we’re always having to look back. In the end, it was helpful to open up that question of Where is the beginning? with a mixture of the personal present and past, giving a bit of myself as a child, my understanding of myself back then, and a hint toward how that has changed.

I didn’t write that thinking it would be the first piece. I didn’t write the book in order; even in the writing of all the other essays, I wasn’t sure where to include that sort of biographical self-introduction stuff, which feels important to nonfiction and specifically what we call “memoir.” I expected it would come later in the book and in that way be a tongue-in-cheek play on it. But it’s getting at something I’m trying to do throughout the entire book, which is to give a context not just for my adulthood but also for my psychology. The whole book is trying to do that, explaining not necessarily why I’m like this but why I think the way I do in lots of cases. I wanted it to come through by asking: What do we expect when we’re asking people to introduce themselves? Why are we doing that? What are we trying to gather about people in that introduction?

I wanted to use it as a chance to bring in different ideas about where I “begin.” What is my beginning as an African American person? Where does my story begin? Above all, that is this idea of storytelling, telling one’s story in a particular way for various reasons, often safety or performance reasons. Needing to have a narrative for oneself is a larger theme throughout the book.

How do you avoid having “facts but not information,” as when you describe going on the plantation tour? How do you persevere in getting past the voice that says, “I think I’m gonna stop writing this”?

It’s two things. First, there’s the research. It was a lot of trying to immerse myself in folks who have said what I’m thinking about before. I read pieces by Black psychologists going back into the ’40s, from 1968 and 1969, the Black power movement, and Black liberation theology. I’ve also read a lot about slave ships. I spent a lot of time reading, underlining, and digesting to the point where I wasn’t just dealing with facts anymore. I started to see the issues coming up not only in my writing but also in my life. I saw real-time examples and applications. It’s one thing to quote someone else’s essay and another thing to think about what it meant in the past and what it could mean now.

Honestly, how do you persevere? I got a new psychiatrist altogether. I changed my meds during the process. It wasn’t an easy thing. I’m writing about my depression, but I was still battling it while I was writing. The writing process was so intertwined with my living. There was stuff I didn’t even really know how to write because I was not necessarily through it. At many points, I felt I didn’t have the right perspective.

It was at times really discouraging. That excitement of when you find something that’s perfect for your piece—Oh my God! This is exactly what I’m talking about!—was undercut by this deep devastation that it’s been there since way before I was born, but no one knows this. The information has been there, and yet I still feel like I have to say it. It becomes, What’s the point? Thinking about my white therapist in that essay, there was a lot of information available to her about the nuances of psychiatry with Black people, and yet she acted as if it wasn’t an issue.

I spent a lot of time looking at lists. I spent a whole day looking at a list of all the Black people with mental illness who were killed by police in 2014. That’s just a day in my life and that’s not healthy, especially if you’re already a depressed Black person. There are a lot of breaks I had to take because the information is not just facts.

I was not just looking at the facts as a journalist. Instead, I was looking at these things as a person who was taking these cultural, political facts and applying them to my daily life, even down to my love life. The information was heavier for that reason.

You also help us see clearly where “Morgan” stands, in a society that trains us through propaganda so completely that breaking social norms also means fracturing oneself.

Yeah! And that’s happening not just to me but to children as well. We’re taking in language—how other people are being talked about, who’s being feared, all of that. And it’s something that you don’t necessarily notice. My friends are like, Why do you think that? That’s so irrational.

This book is the answer. These are all the seeds that were planted that led to all my irrational thoughts. They didn’t come from me but came together out of this cacophony of propaganda, as you said. And propaganda is very intentional. This is like kids saying, “I don’t see color.” That is part of it, that’s the information versus the facts.

Another thing that made this book particularly hard to write was that we’re in this time where people are saying mental health matters or #whatever. Some people say, “There’s another Black person who died,” but they don’t actually understand the humanity of the victim. That’s the worst-case scenario. It’s also smaller things, like, I didn’t get killed by the cops today. But how did someone else getting killed by the cops yesterday or the day before affect my day today? Even when we’re not getting killed, we’re experiencing these reverberations, and that sometimes gets lost. It’s easy to look at a dead person and fight for them. But how do we fight for people who are in pain, and being affected daily by white supremacy?

I don’t know if you’d call it an essay, but you quote Toni Morrison saying that “[t]he function, the very serious function of racism, […] is distraction. […] It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” How do you sequence your pieces so as to avoid redundancy?

I do consider the pieces individual essays, though some of them were written for magazines and stood alone before the book came together. Then I adapted them so they were more in conversation. I knew that everything was gonna be part of the same collection. But I didn’t necessarily want it to be a chaptered, chronological narrative.

In writing a poetry book, repetition is helpful and useful. But giving an image in an individual poem is not the same as giving information, such as I went to a Christian school, in an essay. So wherever I put that in an essay, the reader will have to know that, first, I went to the school. I didn’t want to sequence it before I had written everything, so it was a bit of a catch-22. Because everything was so interconnected, picking which essay to give that information in was the hardest part. There are some lines and even paragraphs that floated from essay to essay within the book. In fact, most of the time that I was working on this book, I was moving things around, cutting things, and adding rather than creating entire essays.

Order is really important to me because for certain arguments to land, it was important to think about the order in which the reader is being introduced to me, the speaker. I knew early on what the last essay was going to be, but I didn’t know much else. It was a matter of, How do I earn the ending? What is the sequence that makes that last essay feel inevitable?

In thinking about your father’s rejoinder that “Black people don’t go to therapy” (also the title of one of the essays), I was moved by your description of possibility. You write, “Liberated from the pervasiveness of evangelical definitions of right and wrong, I could reframe my anxieties as more than an inability to ‘feel the spirit’ and ‘be joyful always.’” What compelled you to write about your intimate journey and struggles with therapy?

I wanted me in therapy to be a central image. I’ve been telling folks that the most memoiry parts of the book are me on various therapists’ couches through the ages. My psychological development through therapy felt necessary to setting up and making the claim at the end that we should utilize therapy for Black liberation. It was important for me to show all the ways that therapy can go wrong as well as all the things that I’ve been able to learn, not only about myself through the years but also about America and our society.

It felt powerful to understand in a therapeutic session that what was haunting me was not myself. I can say that, but it’s better to show it, obviously. Writing this book felt less like writing a memoir and more like writing an argumentative paper, though all the source evidence is me and my life. I have talked about my struggle before, but the nonfiction form allows for and sometimes demands an even more intimate look. Since I wanted this book not just to be about myself and my life, it’s more a memoir of my mind. I had to really turn my mind inside out for everyone to look at it, which was not easy.

In terms of what compelled me, from the first time I shared my writing with friends in middle school, and they were like, “Wow, this is exactly how I feel. You put it into words, and I could never do that,” I’ve felt compelled to write and reflect on what that compulsion is. It comes from, well, if I can say something that someone else is feeling but can’t say, then what business do I have not saying it?

In one of your essays, you point out:

In Laughing Fit to Kill, Glenda Carpio writes that “Black American humor began as a wrested freedom.” Laughing at and in the midst of slavery’s injustices, and “despite the life-threatening injunctions against black laughter,” was a profound form of “affirming their humanity in the face of its violent denial.”

How do you approach humor in You Get What You Pay For?

Humor is just important to me. That idea of laughing to keep from crying is very Black. Depression is funny. It’s gotta be. Humor is also a part of self-preservation. Ask any funny person who hurt them. Humor has always been important to me publicly or externally, in terms of performance, and making myself and other people feel safe.

I also wanted the book to feel like how my mind works. I wanted it to sound like me. That requires moving in and out of seriousness and comedy. There was no way that I was gonna be like, Well, this is serious so I just gotta keep it right there. Yes, a lot of it was intentional in terms of I need to make a joke right now. Other times, it’s how my voice would deliver it.

Because I’m a poet, and an anthropologist, I observe. That’s comedy because often things are funny because they’re weird. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from, just the humor of humanity.

LARB Contributor

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books], 2023) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert/El próximo desierto (forthcoming from Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!