Two Women Navigate Racism, A Hundred Years Apart
In Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's "The Revisioners," a woman and her great-great-great-granddaughter navigate family and racial dynamics
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is no stranger to intergenerational family stories. Her first novel, A Kind of Freedom, which was nominated for the National Book Award, followed a New Orleans family over the course of 70 years, skillfully depicting the broader history of the city within the struggles and triumphs of one family lineage. In her new book, The Revisioners, Wilkerson builds her already expansive narrative skills.
Covering several generations of a family from 1855 to 2017, this sweeping novel focuses on two Black women, one in the present day and her great-great-great grandmother, whose stories converge in unexpected ways as they navigate their familial relationships, their relationships with white women, and trying to raise their sons safely in America. Braiding the parallel stories and complex interpersonal dynamics of a family and their communities, The Revisioners is a story that’s both timely and timeless.
I sat down with Margaret Wilkerson Sexton to talk about Black women’s power, white women voters, who decides what it means to be realistic, the subtleties of physical vs. psychological danger, and writing about really good food.
Sarah Neilson: In a recent interview with The Millions, you said that you’re “really interested in the disparity between white women voters and black women voters in the recent election, and the history of black women and white women.” This history is something you explore in The Revisioners through interpersonal relationships between white and Black women, especially in terms of what those friendships can look like in a white supremacist society in which the legacy of the enslavement of Black people plays out in everyday interactions. Can you talk about the process of writing these relationships, what you feel you got from it, and what you hope readers will take away from that particular aspect of the novel?
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Writing the relationship between Josephine and her neighbor, Charlotte, in 1924, conjured all sorts of emotions for me. To frame a relationship like that—one that had a foundation in such tragic history: the history of lynching, of the Klan, of white women having chosen to side with patriarchy over the rights of black women, and even over their own rights—it was definitely triggering to delve into that history and the emotions that go along with it. But I’ve learned about all of the historical factors for so many years, and they weren’t new to me. I think I had more of a personal connection, more of a cathartic reaction, to the contemporary relationship between Ava and her grandmother. I was really trying to work through how it feels to be around well-intentioned white women, who think of themselves as progressive, and who check many of the boxes in that area, but who aren’t asking themselves the hard questions, aren’t really in deep relationships with people who aren’t white, and aren’t holding themselves accountable for the condition of the country we’re in right now.
So that was the more cathartic section for me, because I come into contact with white women like that every day. I think it’s interesting to shed light on this very particular type of reaction to the world’s woes, because it’s something you see a lot, especially now, because there’s so many exaggerated examples of racism in this country. And there are so many people who aren’t anywhere near that level, who are very quick to shine attention on the more exaggerated examples, and who aren’t holding themselves accountable for the “minor ways” in which they’re contributing to the same problem.
SN: Much of the experience of the characters is felt and expressed through their bodies—birth is a big one, but there’s a lot of intentional physical grounding that the characters practice, including within the spiritual practice of the Revisioners. The intergenerational connections between characters are also very physical. Can you talk about the importance of the corporeal in the book, and how that ties in with the broader story of this family?
MWS: I thought a lot about how I wanted to showcase danger in this book, particularly in King’s section. I had drafts of this book that went to my publisher, even late in the process, where I had King being physically endangered by the house that he’s living in with his mom, and by the grandmother indirectly. The idea was that across the three narratives, there would have been three examples of physical danger, of the danger that black bodies are under. But I was never quite comfortable with the King section in that way. It became clear to me that it was a little bit repetitive to have the body be the most threatened part of each section. I thought it might be really interesting to play around with the psychological damage that racism can do. It would have been easy to have him be injured by the police. That was a draft. That’s obviously happening, and it’s not cliché, it’s just what’s happening right now.
But I thought, “Well, you know, we [already] have the other examples of that that are not as subtle,” and in that last section I wanted to look at what’s happening psychologically because of what Black people are up against every day.
SN: Nourishment is another major theme in the book. There’s a lot of food in it, which is closely tied to spiritual and familial nourishment. It’s mostly the women who prepare it, and it’s a kind of power they have. Can you talk a little about the use and presence of food in the book?
MWS: First I’ll just answer it in a very basic way. I just love food. Every time I write a book, I’m going to talk about food. It’s my favorite way to express one of the senses, and it’s an easy way for me to do it, because I’m genuinely interested in it.
It’s interesting that you identify their ability to prepare food in that way, as a power. That is such a good way to say it. I grew up with women who had that power, and it’s such a power, such a gift, that not everyone has. My maternal grandmother was the most amazing cook, and everyone would come to her house and just be transported into another world because her food was that good. These are people who don’t use recipes. There’s such a power in that, the confidence of knowing that they can wield that power whenever they want to. Especially because we’re dealing with, in the book, women who really were limited in terms of their power and freedom. So, that ability to create in that way, to provide in that way, would have been one of the most fulfilling things they could do, because of how limited they were.
SN: The term “magical realism” is used to describe a lot of stories that don’t fit rigid Western standards of what reality is. Do you see the seemingly otherworldly abilities of Josephine, her mother, and Jupiter as magical realism? What brought about that aspect of the story?
MWS: I never thought about magical realism, I always thought about speculative fiction. Once I started doing interviews, the term magical realism kept coming up. I wasn’t surprised by it. I had this really interesting conversation with someone where we were talking about who gets to decide what’s standard and what’s realistic. In so many cultures, these elements are realistic, and they are such inherent parts of the story. Obviously, it is supernatural and it is spiritual, but when I was writing it, I didn’t think of it as far-fetched. To me, it’s just a fundamental part of the way these families work, and it’s also a fundamental part of the way my families have worked. It is spiritual and that is supernatural. But to me, it’s also realistic.
SN: The Revisioners’ protagonists are mainly women, but a vital pillar of this story is women raising sons, specifically Black women raising Black boys in America. The parallels drawn between Josephine’s childhood and King’s childhood, for example, point out how the targeting of Black boys and men has changed only enough to remain the same. Can you talk about writing the relationships between mothers and sons, about writing the Black men in the book, and about how you approach character development in general?
MWS: I consciously lined up Josephine and Major’s section with Ava’s and King’s, including in the naming of the characters—the fact that Major is named Major, and King is named King, is a method of protection, an attempt these mothers made to protect their children. Inevitably, the children won’t be safe. But I feel like it was a good way to introduce a very high-stakes vulnerability for the characters, because the thing they care about most, and the thing that they have no control over, even in contemporary time, is the thing that’s most precious to them. It was a good way to get that tension in there immediately. We have this very vulnerable position, and how is that going to be tracked? How is that precious commodity going to be kept safe, if it can be?
I have two Black sons, so I didn’t have to develop that part of the story, really. I didn’t have to think about it when I was writing it, because I just know. I have a daughter and I have two sons, and I don’t worry as much about the baby, because he’s a baby, but my six-year-old son, I worry about him so much. And it’s not that I worry about his physical safety, because I don’t yet, but I worry about how he’s going to be treated by people at school. I don’t worry about that as much with my daughter, and part of that is because of the way society treats Black boys versus Black girls. My six-year-olds are twins, a boy and a girl. I’ve already seen the discrepancy in how they’re treated. So, I didn’t even have to think about writing the emotions of those two relationships between the mothers and the sons in that book, I just know. I know that vulnerability. It’s a chronic, very high-pitched vulnerability.
SN: The Revisioners reads like a suspense novel, a family epic, and historical fiction at once. How do you go about structuring a book like this, with so many characters and taking place over several generations, and from where do you draw inspiration?
MWS: I’m so glad. That’s always my goal, to pace it well and have it feel like a page-turner, because that’s what I like to read. I feel like I don’t have to work on the themes. The heavy themes come naturally to me. I just read The Other Americans, for instance, by Laila Lalami, which was very similar. When I read it, I thought, “Oh, this reminds me of my book.” It’s a totally different subject matter, but the themes are very similar, the heavy-handedness of them. It also reads like a thriller, even though it’s literary. And that’s always my goal, is to just have the reader enjoying learning about whatever I’m trying to teach.