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In 'Caul Baby,' A Rare Gift Becomes A Double-Edged Sword

In Morgan Jerkins' new novel Caul Baby, a family of Black women has a gift; they're born with a caul, a layer over their skin that protects them from harm. They can share the caul with others — and sell it "to the highest bidder" — which brings trouble. After all, "aren't all gifts double edged swords?" says Jerkins.

The family lives in Harlem, with a history stretching back to Louisiana. Although the story has fantastical elements, Jerkins used building blocks from her own family history to imagine these women into being.

"The women that you will come across in this book, they are an amalgam of women in my life," she says. "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."

Interview Highlights

On the story centering around Black motherhood

I am obsessed with Black motherhood. ... 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.

On objectification and commodification of Black bodies

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. ... 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 had this caul-bearing family that's like, we're exerting our autonomies. We're creating the business. You know, we decide ... who to give our caul to and then we take the money. But then again, who's involved in giving you that money? Who's involved in really not caring about your livelihood? ... They're just trying to basically profit based off your bodies. ... Who was in control? And that goes back to capitalism and the ability or the inability to survive.

On the way the family profits off selling parts of their bodies to wealthy white people without helping other Black people in their community

I was thinking about gentrification. I was thinking about capitalism. ... 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 lean 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 had. First of all, you had the caul, you're selling the caul, and you're not at the threat of being displaced like we are.

On whether she judges her own characters

Yeah, I mean, I judge them in a sense. But 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.

On whether there was an element of wish fulfillment in imagining a world where it's possible to have such thick skin that nothing can harm you

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 [magical realism] ... I just never thought of myself doing it. But then I thought to myself, to have Black women be gifted with an extra layer that makes them impervious to physical pain, that everybody wants a piece of it. How was that so out of the ordinary when we already had to deal with these very restricting stereotypes about our strength, about how we support other people?

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. ... So, when I think about the caul in the history of all these other disciplinary fields, I'm like, this is not out of the ordinary at all. I can see it happening right now.

Noah Caldwell and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.