In her new novel, The Revisioners, Oakland writer Margaret Wilkerson Sexton explores the legacy of slavery in a time-hopping tale of ancestral pain and healing.
Set in three time periods — 1855, 1924 and 2017 — the novel recounts the ordeals faced by Josephine as an enslaved child and as a farmer at the end of her life, then leaps nearly a century to focus on her modern-day descendant, a mixed-race, single mother hired to look after her wealthy white grandmother. Each setting is infused with the details of family life, each character delineated with sensitivity and empathy.
Sexton grew up in New Orleans amid a large extended family. "We lived within a five-minute drive of every one of my mother's six siblings and their kids and my grandparents," she said in an interview. "There was always somebody to do something with."
That very stable feeling of being surrounded by loved ones is reflected in The Revisioners. Sexton describes her own years in the South as "stable," but not idyllic.
"The colorism was the most challenging aspect of living in New Orleans and it is one of the reasons I wouldn't want to live there now," she said. "I bet there's been a lot of change in regard to that in the 25 years since I've lived there, but it almost doesn't matter because the memories are so profound. Everything was defined by color, according to my memory, in New Orleans.
"I was a dark-skinned girl, but mom's family all had light skin. My father had dark skin, but all his siblings married light-skinned men and their kids all had light skin. I feel that that was definitely an obstacle, feeling I had value in terms of beauty and appearance. It was certainly a challenge living in New Orleans. The power of beauty was ascribed to lighter skin."
Sexton's family moved to Danville, Connecticut when she was 12. She studied poetry at Dartmouth College, attended law school at UC Berkeley, and practiced law for a while in San Francisco and Palo Alto after graduation.
Law school had not been "a good fit," according to Sexton. Then she entered the legal profession in 2009, nearly the height of the recession. When her struggling firm offered incentives of a year off with partial compensation, she eventually took the deal.
"It just started to became clearer and clearer that the trajectory of this firm was downward."
Urged to use the time to follow her dreams, Sexton rekindled her interest in creative writing.
"Now, if I didn't have kids, I would be writing all day."
Sexton's first novel was the critically acclaimed A Kind of Freedom, published in 2017 by Berkeley's Counterpoint Press. It follows the fortunes of three generations of black residents of the Crescent City and asks why some succeed while others don't prosper.
The book was inspired by one of Sexton's male cousins, raised "like a brother" by her parents.
"When I was appointed to the bar, he was going to jail for the first time," she said. "I always wondered about that discrepancy. We have the same grandparents. You would expect the trajectory to be upward from a grandfather who was in college in the Jim Crow era. Wouldn't you expect for his offspring to do better?
The more research Sexton did, the more she learned that wasn't necessarily the case, thanks to the War on Drugs, institutional racism, and mass incarceration.
"There are these pockets of the black community that are arguably doing worse socioeconomically than their predecessors, and I just wanted to explore what the root of that might be."
A Kind of Freedom was a 2017 National Book Award Nominee, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017 and a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. Sexton said she never expected to be nominated for a National Book Award.
"Honestly, it's one of the best things that has ever happened to me," she said. "I had so much insecurity about how I entered the writing world. I didn't have an MFA, so it was a great way to be validated."
For The Revisioners, her second novel, Sexton took inspiration from a series of dreams about mysterious figures from the past she designated as "revisioners." She said the revisioners seemed to be conducting some sort of lottery.
The Revisioners puts a supernatural spin on its plot, today and in the past. Former slave Josephine, modern-day Ava, and other characters display uncanny abilities, which get passed down through the years to help them survive.
"It was a nice tool to be able to weave the supernatural into the thesis I had for the book, which is we are our ancestors' hope and that we carry on their power."
Judging by the success of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehisi's Coates' The Water Dancer, readers are currently seeking tales of escape from slavery.
"It is definitely a phenomenon and definitely a reason why I (initially) didn't want to write a slave narrative,' she said. "Because I thought, 'What more can I add to this?'" But Sexton eventually found her own fresh angle on the continuing trauma of racism in America.
"That ache is still there," she said. "It hasn't healed. It still causes pain. It's just festering. I think people are trying to get to that root so the healing work can begin."
The Revisioners has its tragic moments, but it also offers a note of optimism.
"I wanted to show not only the intergenerational racism and the intergenerational trauma that happens because of it," Sexton said. "I wanted to show the intergenerational power that's transferred from the ancestors' experience of suffering and trials."
She asked, "What did they gain from that? How is what they gained being conveyed in our time?" Her answer was, "I wanted to end on a note of hope and power."
Sexton's third book, a collection of novellas, is set again in New Orleans. She has yet to use an East Bay setting.
"I think the worst thing is to write about a place you don't have the authority to do justice. I always felt safe writing about New Orleans. I know the area so well."
She hasn't ruled out writing scenes closer to her current home, though.
"Now I'm feeling I've been (in Oakland) enough, my kids are in school here. I feel like I'm getting different layers of context that will help inform whatever I choose to write about next."