Author interview: Margaret Sexton’s ‘Kind of Freedom’ is rooted in hope
By Lou Fancher
Author Margaret Wilkerson Sexton writes not only what she knows but what her ancestors knew. The New Orleans-born, Oakland-based writer tells tales filled with confounding truths about race and class.
An accomplished short story writer at 34, she has a debut novel — “A Kind of Freedom” (Counterpoint, $26, 228 pages), a multigenerational story about a New Orleans family. The book stretches across 70 years, from the lives of a well-off Creole family in the 1940s to T.C., a young man whose life and the city he loves are devastated by self-destruction, racism, drugs, economic decline and Hurricane Katrina. Encompassing themes of damage, attachment, violence, colorism and systemic bias, Sexton’s impressive, character-driven story nonetheless holds out hope in love, family and the characters’ dreams of a better tomorrow that represent freedom.
“The story had to be New Orleans,” Sexton says in an interview. “You won’t find many other cities where black people were doing so well in the ’30s and ’40s. I wanted to show the decline in successful black America that was disproportional — to show that, in some ways, we’re not doing better than in the ’40s, even though Jim Crow has been abolished, and you’d assume there’d be marked progress. In some areas, we’ve regressed. The prison system is one, and it’s maddening. The war on drugs, the criminalization of sickness were my main areas of focus.”
After studying creative writing at Dartmouth, completing a one-year Lombard Fellowship in the Dominican Republic and working for a year as an ad words coordinator at Google, Sexton earned a law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law. Employed by a Bay Area law firm, she found the environment critical, not instructive, racist.
“You’d get penalized for a mistake but not told how to prevent it. It was like a pressure cooker. I didn’t realize at the time how much pressure is put on a person who’s the only black person. It was a set up to feel — to be — perceived according to stereotypes.”
Even so, she’s grateful for the education prior to practicing law. “I’m so glad I went to law school. I learned structure. That’s maybe why the book is so trim. I knew each chapter, like the body of evidence. There are some surprises, but for me every chapter is doing something.”
Sexton writes most often while sitting on her bed, her children — 3½-year-old twins and a 4-month-old infant — nearby or in the care of an occasional sitter or her husband, Thomas Sexton. Writing, she says, is channeling. “It’s like I’m creating my own company. I’m just hanging out with these people.”
She is two-thirds of the way through her next novel, about class within the black community. One boy in a group of three students at a boarding school is expelled, and meets up years later with his two counterparts during the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s the fun part, the climax where I see what happens. I’m not really the one who’s in control. This is crazy talk …, but the characters are living things.”
What seems effortless — shaping compelling stories and characters so irresistible that a reader wants to find a real-life T.C. to love — are actually struggles. “I have the most impressive themes,” Sexton says. “I tell them to my husband, and he says, ‘I don’t think they’re stories.’ He asks, ‘What happens?’ My mother used to say about my stories (written in adolescence and after), ‘What’s it about?’ ”
Sexton’s handling of switchbacks between chapters featuring the different generations and characters is deft, swift and seamless, indicative of a more seasoned novelist. Nevertheless, “Freedom” went through incarnations in which the two sisters at the novel’s start remained centerpieces, and one woman’s husband was a scoundrel. “One generation wasn’t a good story line, and also, I felt I had to have a decent male in the book — a clean character, or I’d be stereotyping,” she says.
Due to her tendency to have theme in mind before story, Sexton has trained herself to never begin a book without a clear sense of plot and a commitment to meet publishers’ and readers’ expectations. She has mixed feelings about the deliberation behind “Freedom.” Although she says, “I wrote it because it’s my story to tell,” she also knew a story about race would be easier to sell. “America loves to read slave narratives. My book addresses historic racial issues. If as a black author, I told a story about going to college, people might not relate, because that’s so often a white story. The only story some publishers might receive from a black author is a story about blackness. That’s a problem.”
Injustice, as a societal issue, leaves Sexton motivated to turn words into advocacy, presented in consumable, convincing narratives. Her novels and short stories, therefore, will likely remain rooted in family, history and relationships — universal human themes which will resonate with people of any age, ethnicity or gender.