ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Morgan Jerkins' new novel, a family of Black women has a gift. They are born with a caul - C-A-U-L - a layer over their skin that protects them from harm. They can share the caul with others and sell it, which brings trouble.
MORGAN JERKINS: What I wanted to do for this novel was to dramatize that gift with a caul-bearing family that actually makes a enterprise out of this gift by giving parts of their caul, pretty much parts of their bodies, to the highest bidder.
SHAPIRO: The family lives in Harlem with a history stretching back to Louisiana. The novel is titled "Caul Baby." And although the story has fantastical elements, Morgan Jerkins told me she used building blocks from her own family history to imagine these women into being.
JERKINS: The women that you will come across in this book, they are an amalgam of women in my life. They may have been an amalgam of the mothers and the aunties that I've heard talk in very intimate spaces in the comfort of their own homes. They could be an amalgam of the Black women that I see passing each other on the street and engaging in such vibrant conversation.
SHAPIRO: So much of this story revolves around motherhood and the challenge that Black women specifically have becoming mothers. Why was that theme important to you?
JERKINS: Oh, it was important to me because I am obsessed with Black motherhood, and I really wanted to emphasize the precarity but also the triumph of Black motherhood in America and the ways in which Black mothers survive. And so I wanted to make these very flawed women who are trying to survive, who are trying to have autonomy over their bodies and to safekeep their families. And sometimes, or perhaps many times, they're going to get it wrong, and it's going to have a rippling effect because the women, especially Black women, are seen as the pillars of their community.
SHAPIRO: The family at the center of this story is controversial, in part because they profit off of selling parts of their body to wealthy white people, but they don't help Black people in their community.
JERKINS: Mmm hmm.
SHAPIRO: What were you thinking about when you wrote that?
JERKINS: Man, I was just thinking about - I was thinking about gentrification. I was thinking about capitalism. The thing is is that I wanted to really underscore the difference between intent versus action. This family didn't mean to just sell to white people. They started to sell to white people because the people that could afford to help them maintain their foothold at this brownstone, albeit a decrepit brownstone, they happen to be white. And then those white people told their white people, and then they got more white patrons. And because they lead into that, those white circles, that money in order to preserve themselves in this Black neighborhood, that put them at odds with the community because the community is like, well, you don't have the same problems we have. First of all, you have the caul. You're selling the caul, and you're not at the threat of being displaced like we are.
SHAPIRO: Do you judge them for that decision? - I mean, these characters that you created.
JERKINS: Yeah (laughter). I mean, I judge them in a sense, but then I - at the same time, I also think about their history. I mean, their community was almost ripped apart entirely in Louisiana because of how special they were. They were targets. That's why they had to leave. So there is this push and pull between looking out for others and also, like, it's everybody for themselves. And you definitely see, particularly with Josephine's character, who is Maman, the matriarch's - her daughter - she's the one that's really feeling the guilt of all of this. And that's part of the reason why I accentuated, you know, the brownstone and its decaying features because somewhere, a reckoning's going to happen. And that's why I wanted to give those subtle elements in the beginning until, you know, it starts to grow larger and larger towards the end.
SHAPIRO: So this family profits off of selling pieces of caul as protection. And on the one hand, it feels like, you know, it's your body. Do with it what works for you.
SHAPIRO: And on the other hand, there is this very dark thread of sort of, like, the commodification of Black bodies...
SHAPIRO: ...And people being viewed as objects rather than humans.
SHAPIRO: I mean, how do you weigh those tensions?
JERKINS: I think the hard part is that - and this is something that I had been thinking about because I started revising this novel during the pandemic last year, and I really started to think about how disposable people are. And I think that the pandemic has really taught me that, unfortunately, or reinforced the point that when it comes to capital, people are disposable. And some people are more disposable than others. And unfortunately, in the history of this country, those people tend to be Black women. And so when I think about Black women and their bodies, I mean, Black women and their bodies and their ability to reproduce was seen as money, was seen as money for other people's profits. And so there's a paradox happening, right? You have this caul-bearing family that's like, we're exerting our autonomies. We're creating the business.
JERKINS: You know, we decide who we decide to give our caul to, and then we would take the money. But then again, who's involved in giving you that money? Who's involved in really not caring about your livelihood based - you know, they're just trying to basically profit - feast off your bodies.
SHAPIRO: Mmm hmm. Ultimately, who's in control here?
JERKINS: Who was in control? And that goes back to capitalism and the ability or the inability to survive.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Just to look at it from a different angle, is there an element of wish fulfillment that, like, there could be a world in which it is possible to have such a thick skin that literally nothing can harm you?
JERKINS: You know what? It's - you are the first person that asked me that because I actually looked at it from the opposite way. When I was writing this book - I'm not even going to lie. I never really considered myself a magical realist person. I love that. I just never thought of myself of doing it. But then I thought to myself, to have Black women be gifted with a extra layer that makes them impervious to physical pain, that everybody wants a piece of it, how is that so out of the ordinary when we already have to deal with these very restricting stereotypes about our strength, about how we support other people, like - you know, whether it's about voting, Black women save us. You know what I'm saying? Whether it was with regard to educating people about racism and sexism, Black women save us. I mean, even in the history of science, I mean, the whole field of modern gynecology would not have been possible without the experimentation on Black women's bodies. You know what I'm saying?
JERKINS: So when I think about the caul in the history of all these other disciplinary fields, I'm like, this isn't out of the ordinary at all. I can see it happening right now (laughter).
SHAPIRO: And so you give your characters this gift, and it turns out to be a double-edged sword.
SHAPIRO: It's protection, and it's income. And it also turns them into a commodity.
JERKINS: Absolutely. Aren't all gifts double-edged swords sometimes? You know, it's like, you have a gift. You decide what you want to do with it, and whatever way you decide to do with it has consequences. And that becomes even more of a higher stake when you are a Black woman because of the fact that you're in a community. You're often considered to be the pillar of said community. And because of that, you have a responsibility. You are seen as having a responsibility to a community.
SHAPIRO: Morgan Jerkins' new novel is called "Caul Baby."
Thank you for talking with us about it.
JERKINS: Thank you so much.
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