Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is the author of the Summer/Fall 2017 Indies Introduce adult debut selection A Kind of Freedom (Counterpoint), the story of a family at the upper echelon of African American society in New Orleans during World War II that follows three generations through crumbling fortunes, racial disparity and tensions of the South, and Hurricane Katrina.
“I loved the different generations in A Kind of Freedom, beginning with the parents of Evelyn and Ruby to present-generation TC, a very likable, hopeful character, but one whose circumstances involve him in drugs and prison,” said Margot Farris of pages: a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, California, who served on the bookseller panel that selected Sexton’s debut. “I found the evolution of the family to present day sad but fascinating, and I couldn’t help but root for every single character. In the end, you still feel hopeful despite it all.”
Sexton is a New Orleans native who earned her undergraduate degree in creative writing from Dartmouth and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked for a civil rights organization in the Dominican Republic, received a Lombard Fellowship, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize; her manuscript for A Kind of Freedom won honorable mention in the Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest.
Farris recently had the opportunity speak with Sexton about her inspiration for the book and the issues she hoped to shine a light on.
Margot Farris: What inspired you to write A Kind of Freedom?
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: I noticed a trend of socioeconomic regression in my own family that seemed to also extend to other pockets of the African American community. I have family members in my generation who seem to have fewer opportunities than their grandparents. That struck me as odd. You would think there would be major progression from one generation to the next considering Jim Crow legally enforced separate, underfunded, and inferior public facilities, including schools. I wondered what systems took the place of Jim Crow in my generation and how exactly these systems stripped young African Americans of their rights in a modern setting.
MF: Are any of the characters based on people you know personally?
MWS: I wouldn’t say the characters are based on people I know as much as they are based on circumstances or qualities that I’ve observed in my own family and in the country at large, namely the ambition and drive of my grandparents and their contemporaries in the face of segregation, and the disenfranchisement of some of my younger family members and their peers.
MF: I love the way you integrated the different time periods throughout the novel, right up to the challenges and difficulties of the modern day. What gave you the idea for this?
MWS: I wanted to demonstrate the extent to which the current laws surrounding housing, drugs, and sentencing were as powerful as laws enforcing racial segregation in the 1940s. In that way, the restrictions on the African American community are, in many ways, as stifling now as they were decades ago. And the results are seen in the disproportional rates of imprisonment of African Americans in this country. Yes, we’ve made strides, we have had a black president and a host of other notable markers of progression, but there’s still significant work to do.
MF: Are there any authors or specific novels that have influenced your work?
MWS: Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, and Toni Morrison weave such brilliant yet subtle social insight into their fiction. I love the lyricism of Jean Rhys, Edwidge Danticat, and Jamaica Kincaid. Dana Johnson and Victoria Patterson tell captivating and compelling stories. Elizabeth Strout can delve into the depths of human suffering like no one else I’ve read.
MF: What do you hope the reader’s big takeaway is at the end of the book?
MWS: I want the reader to enjoy the story and relate to the characters, of course, but I also want the reader to consider that the problems plaguing certain communities are not just results of individual choices but are, in many cases, inevitable responses to systemic barriers that are as destructive as Jim Crow was in its time.
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint, Hardcover, $26, 9781619029224) On Sale Date: August 8, 2017.
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