The Power of Stories

Novelist Margaret Wilkerson Sexton ’04 finds her creative inspiration close to home.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton remembers being obsessed with Fiddler on the Roof when she was growing up. So she was intrigued when her mother proposed a novel titled The Roof that transposed the musical’s plotline to their native New Orleans. The Tevye figure would be a Black woman with five marriageable daughters. Instead of facing pogroms and expulsion from the shtetl, her community would be displaced by Hurricane Katrina. “The climax,” Sexton says, “would be people standing on the roof with signs saying, ‘Help me.’ 

“I think that’s a brilliant idea, but I didn’t want to write about Katrina again because I had written about that in my first book,” says Sexton, who drew on the distinctive culture of New Orleans in her first two published novels. She now lives with her husband and three children in Oakland, California, and it made sense to set the new book closer to home. Another breakthrough was giving herself license to stray from her mother’s more literal riff on Fiddler’s plot and characters. 

On the Rooftop, published in September by Ecco, takes place in the Fillmore District of San Francisco in the 1950s. With its vibrant jazz scene, the Fillmore was then known as the “Harlem of the West.” Against the backdrop of looming urban redevelopment and gentrification, the novel chronicles the divergent romantic and career paths of three sisters in a singing group, The Salvations. One of the sisters, Chloe, briefly finds unexpected love with a white man. 

Like Tevye, the mother in On the Rooftop, Vivian, must come to terms with her daughter’s choices. Her abandonment of her own vocal ambitions and the energy she pours into her daughters’ show business careers also call to mind the musical Gypsy—a parallel Sexton says was entirely unintentional. “Everyone’s tugging at the same stories,” she says.    

“She’s telling the story of the Black American experience.”

Sexton has been writing since childhood. In a radio interview, she recalled her father applauding a poem of hers when she was 9. “If writing is going to earn this kind of praise,” she remembers thinking, “that’s what I’ll do.” She completed her first novel in high school as an independent study project—she didn’t send it to publishers—and she majored in English and creative writing at Dartmouth. Her influences, she says, include Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat, Antiguan American writer Jamaica Kincaid, Brit Bennett (The Vanishing Half), and Tayari Jones (An American Marriage). 

“It was clear from when I first met her that this was her calling,” says her husband, Tom Sexton ’04, who is senior director for global diversity, inclusion, and belonging at LinkedIn. “I knew that what she really wanted to accomplish in her life was to publish novels and to connect with people through her art.”

“Her talents were so clear even in college,” echoes her longtime friend Jen Levitt ’04, a high school English teacher and poet. Levitt says that Sexton’s forays into poetry have infused her prose with “an effortless lyricism.” 

Sexton’s previous novels—A Kind of Freedom (Counterpoint, 2017) and The Revisioners (Counterpoint, 2019)—explore relationships between Blacks and whites, between women, and across generations through the device of shifting points of view. Her narratives hopscotch through time, tracing historical trajectories, unearthing shocking racial violence, and celebrating the durability and value of family ties. 

“Margaret is reflected in all of the books,” says her husband, a former English major. “She’s telling the story of the Black American experience. She’s also very interested in what we get through our ancestors and how things pass down from generation to generation—how trauma can pass down and how strength can pass down.”

Another Dartmouth friend, Nubia Solomon ’04, a group marketing manager at LinkedIn, says she recognizes Sexton’s voice, spirit, and subtle humor in her work. “She’s also incredibly conscious of the world, and how history has shaped us,” Solomon says. 

Sexton’s goal may have seemed unmistakable to those who knew her best. But her achievements—including the Black Caucus of the American Library Association First Novelist Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction—materialized only after some detours and a return to her roots. 

On her mother’s side, Sexton says, she is partly of Creole descent, not unusual in New Orleans. Her maternal grandmother, to whom she was close, said her grandmother was French. Sexton’s father’s family lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His grandmother, for whom Margaret is named, had a farm in tiny Solitude, outside St. Francisville, Louisiana. (Vivian in On the Rooftop has fled St. Francisville; Josephine, an escapee from slavery and a pivotal figure in The Revisioners, presides over a Louisiana farm.)  

Sexton’s parents split when she was a toddler, but she remained close to both. She lived mostly with her mother, a lawyer and a writer, in a Black middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and attended a Catholic school. Crime, the city’s political cliquishness, and colorism—racism’s pernicious reflection in the Black community—were all troublesome, Sexton says. In New Orleans, she encountered the corrosive message that her dark skin made her inferior to lighter-skinned Black people. (Her short story, “White Girl,” published in the Massachusetts Review in 2017, turns that experience on its head.)  

Even after a summer in Connecticut with her mother and uncle, Sexton never anticipated a permanent move away from New Orleans. “Then one day I walked out of my house,” she says. “There was a U-Haul truck in front. We moved the day before school started in Connecticut. It was extremely disruptive.” She was 11. Sexton now describes that displacement as “the best thing” her mother could have done.

After two years, a public-school teacher urged Sexton’s mother to consider an independent school for her gifted daughter. She ended up as a day student at The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, where her teachers “treated me like I was a writer before I was one,” Sexton says. 

At Dartmouth, Sexton wrote poetry, bonded with friends over old Sex in the City episodes, joined the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, and met her future husband. They were among eight students on a semester-long, junior-year sojourn to Trinidad to study post-colonial literature. Suzanne H. Brown, a now-retired visiting assistant professor who led the trip, remembers Sexton’s impressive independent study project, which compared hip hop and calypso artists and featured her own original calypso.

Margaret was immediately drawn to Tom Sexton: “He was so funny and very social, and he was always telling these stories. He’s a much better storyteller than I am. And he just seemed like he had such a joyful life.” They quickly became friends, but she was convinced that race would stand in the way of romance. “I thought there was no way he would date a Black girl,” she says, “so I didn’t take it seriously, which is why I think it worked out.” 

Tom patiently pursued her. “He was so persistent,” she says. “And he was very certain. I still to this day defer to him when he has that conviction.” 

The relationship, he says, has been “without a doubt the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. It’s just enriched my perspective on the world in a way that I can’t even describe. I think the experience of being in an interracial relationship is much harder on Margaret than it is on me.” 

Her family was at first skeptical, she says, afraid she would be hurt. But the couple moved to the Bay Area in 2006 and married in 2011. Family resistance crumbled.

Much later, after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Sexton’s anger at racial injustice stirred, the political turning personal. She expressed an ambivalence about her marriage in essays such as “Meeting the Best Person I Know Came with a Price,” at oprah.com, and “Seeing the Country’s Shadows on My White Husband’s Face,” in the Paris Review. “At night, sleeping beside him, I feel the guilt of betraying my people, of betraying myself,” she wrote, describing her husband as “a privileged white man” who nevertheless understood that the country’s “toxic power dynamics…can’t help but affect our power dynamic at home.” 

The challenges and rewards of Sexton’s marriage have influenced her work. Her novelistic canvas is interracial, with Black and white characters connected through friendship, family, love, and enmity. Whipsawed by racism and other pressures, they quarrel, grow estranged, sometimes reach an uneasy truce. In Sexton’s fiction, history is inescapable. But On the Rooftop is dedicated “To Thomas, for everything.”

After Dartmouth, Sexton spent a year in the Dominican Republic working for a nonprofit dedicated to civil rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Tom worked for a health clinic a couple of hours away. There she re-experienced the colorism that had dogged her as a child and began a   (continued on page 86)

novel set in the DR and focused on that theme. But she found writing to be intensely lonely, and, urged on by her lawyer father, Sexton decided to attend Berkeley Law. 

The experience was not wasted. To this day, she says, she writes her book outlines like legal memos. And her brief stint, less than two years, at a law firm hardened her work ethic. But the firm’s environment grew toxic, she says, and Sexton embraced an opportunity to take a paid leave and return to her novel. Six months later, in May 2012, the firm filed for bankruptcy. She and her husband had twins, and she wrote mainly when they were napping. 

Sexton says she queried more than 100 agents before landing one. That agent, after giving her hope, kept demanding revisions. In the end, Sexton fired her. She eventually abandoned the novel, which she had been tinkering with on and off for a decade. 

Then her sister-in-law introduced Sexton to a local writer, Jane Vandenburgh, who ran a seminar called “The Yearlong Novel.” The seminar required starting from scratch with a new novel, which, to Sexton, “almost felt like a betrayal.” Fortunately, she had another idea—one that drew heavily on her family history. “I knew the characters. I knew the city,” she says. “I realized that I had been writing about the wrong thing. I don’t think that DR book was ever my story to tell.”      

A Kind of Freedom, completed in less than six months in 2016, described the downward trajectory of a New Orleans Black family across three generations. It had a clear thesis, she says: “Despite the fact that Jim Crow has been abolished, we still see its substitutes in the forms of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. We still have systemic abuse, even though ostensibly it looks like a major pillar of it has been erased.” 

Her debut was greeted with rapturous reviews—The New York Times called it “luminous and assured”—and long-listed for the National Book Award. “All I wanted was to be published,” Sexton says. 

Her next novel, about Black students at boarding school, was another misfire, slated to join the DR book in her desk drawer. The Revisioners, her next success, was based on another idea that she had nursed for years. Even more structurally complex than A Kind of Freedom, it relies on extensive historical research and embraces magical realism in the form of West African spiritual practices. “What I wanted,” Sexton says, “was for the contemporary figures to be reincarnated versions of the older ones. And I wanted their stories to start to seem very parallel.” Eventually, she made the links generational instead. The story examines the relationship between white women and Black women, “especially in light of the 2016 election,” Sexton says. “I wanted to facilitate conversations that would foster reconciliation. I spend a lot of time focused on generational trauma, and I wanted to introduce the concept of generational hope and generational joy.”

As she sees it, On the Rooftop, though written during the pandemic and the ongoing national racial reckoning, is her most joyous book. It captures the exhilaration of performance, of hearing applause that “roared in like a freight train.” And it treats its characters’ differing aspirations and inevitable stumbles with compassion. An advance review in Publishers Weekly called the novel “an affecting family story” and suggested that “Sexton brings undeniable power to her depiction of dreams fragmented and deferred.”

By its own admission, the publishing industry has struggled to diversify its leadership and its offerings. “As successful as I feel I have been,” Sexton says, “I will never know the ways in which race has blocked these books. The gatekeepers of publishing are stricter with those who are not white male. I think it’s getting better. But I don’t think there’s any dispute that we’re still not where we need to be. I don’t think we’re always moving forward. But I’ve been optimistic that we’re going to end on the most evolved side of things.”                      

 

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.

 

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