September 12, 2017
I lived in New Orleans until I was 12. Then my mom and I moved to Connecticut, but because my dad and most of my family were still in New Orleans, we went back all the time, and it’s truly the only place I think of as home. So the rhythm of the city always lived in me. I lost my accent, but the voices of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, are the earliest ones I remember. I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans East. She taught me what to put in the beans, and that you make them on Monday. At elementary school, we wore K-Swiss tennis shoes with our uniform skirts, ribbed each other at recess, and danced to Jubilee All at assembly. The praline man waited for the end-of-day bell to ring so we kids could charge across the street and buy candy, pickles and potato chips from him. I say all this to say that New Orleans is such a special place, and my memories of it are so vivid. The language, food, music, and demeanor of the city are so rich I felt it would have disadvantaged me to write about anywhere else. More than that, no other place moved me to write about it as solidly as if it were a character itself.
I understand that you are a lawyer. In what way did attending law school and practicing affect the way you write?
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but after college I wanted something stable to rely on so I went to law school, then practiced law for two years. After I left my law firm job and was just starting out as a writer, I used to wonder how much further I’d be if I had foregone law school and had become a writer immediately. But the truth is, I don’t think that would have worked for me. I think I needed the training that law school and lawyering provided. In many ways the work of reading cases and writing briefs prepared me for the mental precision writing stories and books required. Learning how to root an argument in evidence prepared me to think of chapters as mini-arguments and scenes as tools for pushing forth my agenda. Thinking of the book that way helped me to edit better, to get rid of superfluous material. And when I wrote my book, I worked on it every day for many hours a day, and I never let up though I received hundreds of rejections over the course of five years. I didn’t have that discipline and that perseverance before I became a lawyer.
Do you think you’ll always write about social issues affecting marginalized communities?
As far as I can foresee, yes. I have a list of ideas for future books, and though they come in different forms ranging from speculative fiction to playwriting to young adult novels, they all tackle issues of social inequity. I don’t think it’s the writing that satisfies me. I enjoy that, but the fulfillment I get from creating comes from my use of the storytelling as a forum for exploring injustice, particularly as it relates to race.
What is your favorite part about A KIND OF FREEDOM? Who is your favorite character?
The aspect of the book that I talk most about is its social justice slant, the way that it parallels the systemic oppression of today with the oppression experienced in the Jim Crow South. And that’s important, but my favorite thing about the book is something quieter, softer. I like the way A KIND OF FREEDOM depicts relationships inside families, particularly between sisters. I never had a sister, but I always wanted one, and I think the book does a good job showing the benefits and downsides of that thick relationship between women. Ruby and Evelyn are practically inseparable especially as they age, and they bicker constantly, but they depend on each other and lean on each other. I imagine it would give someone a great deal of confidence to have a relationship like that, one that you’ve always known, that you know everything about, and that you know is not going anywhere. Even Sybil and Jackie, whose relationship is not as steady, can depend on each other in hard times. One of my favorite scenes in the book is at the end of Jackie’s section when she doesn’t find Terry at home when she returns, but her sister is there and her sister knows that he’s left again, but she doesn’t mention it. Sybil grants Jackie that kindness. As charged as their relationship is, she can be a friend, she can be a sister, when it’s necessary.
My favorite character is Ruby because she’s ostensibly fearless and she says what she’s thinking and she doesn’t worry about how other people will react. She’s the character in the book who is least like myself, and I love her for embodying the qualities I wish I had sometimes.
Is there a skill you want to refine in your next project? Are there authors helping you to do so?
Yes, I have been reading a lot of Elizabeth Strout lately, and she makes me want to sharpen the interior lives of my characters, to get more specific and thorough about what they might be thinking and feeling, and to allow the narrator to express universal truths and wisdom through the characters’ experiences.
Born and raised in New Orleans, MARGARET WILKERSON SEXTON studied creative writing at Dartmouth and law at UC Berkeley. A recipient of the Lombard fellowship, she spent a year in the Dominican Republic working for a civil rights organization and writing. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Limestone Journal, and Broad! Magazine. She lives in the Bay Area, California. A Kind of Freedom is her debut novel.