Margaret Wilkerson Sexton always knew she wanted to be a writer. But like many of us, the pressures of the real world started to hit in college. So she decided to go to law school at UC Berkeley.
Sexton didn’t return to writing until the Bay Area law firm she worked for started to go bankrupt.
“It wasn’t until I left in that way — which is not something I would have planned — that I had time to think about what I really wanted to do,” she said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
The New Orleans native and Oakland resident has now published her debut novel, “A Kind of Freedom,” which was nominated for a National Book Award. In this poignant tri-generational tale of a Black family living in New Orleans, Sexton weaves between the narratives of Evelyn, the daughter of an affluent doctor during World War II, Jackie, a struggling new mother mired by her drug-addict husband’s fragile presence in her life, and T.C., a young man with good intentions victimized by the prison industrial complex and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Spanning a period of 70 years, the novel delves into the complexities of the characters’ relationships and the systematic racism that takes the family steps back rather than forward.
For the story to unfold effectively, Sexton needed the earlier generations to be more stable than the younger generations. This way, “A Kind of Freedom” serves up jarring proof of the ways in which Jim Crow is still alive and well today. After all, the hopeful note the novel ends on is the storyline that occurs furthest in the past: with Evelyn, T.C.’s grandmother, deliriously happy on her wedding day. But we already know things aren’t exactly looking up for her grandson decades in the future.
“I thought the gravity of the situation would be conveyed by ending with a hope that we all know wasn’t really going to be recognized,” Sexton said.
New Orleans, her home, happened to be one of the only cities in America where this regression from the 1940s to today would realistically have been possible. Despite segregation across the country, in New Orleans, explained Sexton, there were pockets of the Black community that were actually prospering in the ‘40s.
Plus, she added, “New Orleans is just a gift — you have the flavors, you have the food, you have the music, you have the culture, you have the holidays, you have the accent …”
Sexton is grateful to have grown up in a place that so naturally gives texture to a story — and it’s there in the shrimp po’boys, the juice trickling out of mouths as they pick through bags of crawfish, Evelyn’s mother’s fussing in the kitchen in Creole, the crowds congregating at the head of the canal during Mardi Gras festivities.
Because apart from highlighting systemic racial injustice, she just wants to tell a good story.
“I still want people to really resonate with the characters and just be emotionally affected by the weight of the family struggle but also the richness of their relationships with each other,” she said. There are echoes of Zadie Smith, author of the award-winning “White Teeth,” in the way Sexton weaves social commentary into absorbing storylines so naturally it’s almost undetectable.
With the success of “A Kind of Freedom,” Sexton has finally been able to realize a dream she’s been chasing for years. Before this book, she spent four years trying to publish another book, writing and rewriting and being subjected to incessant rounds of rejection. The book was never published.
“There are things you say you want, but you’re not necessarily ready for,” she said. “It’s a good thing that that didn’t happen when I wanted it to happen, even though I so desperately wanted it,” said Sexton. She believes her other novel never would have connected with readers so powerfully.
And even though being a lawyer deferred her dream of being a writer for a while, the lawyerly tendency to trim down anything superfluous has made her writing more succinct and organized. This is why, for its broad scope of three generations, the book is remarkably short. Just as she did as a lawyer, she outlined the novel and set up each chapter like supporting evidence for an argument before she began writing.
“You can get caught up in the complexity of writing,” Sexton explained. “But it really just boils down to ‘does anybody wanna hear this story?’”