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Estranged siblings learn the secrets and truth of their late mother in 'Black Cake'


Eleanor Bennett, a widow and mother, concealed a life of heartache with half-truths and lies of omission, but she did not want to take her secrets to the grave. Instead, she left behind a recording for her son, Byron, a famous oceanographer, and her estranged and struggling daughter, Benny.

CHARMAINE WILKERSON: You children need to know about your family, about where we come from, about how I really met your father. You two need to know about your sister. Byron and Benny look at each other, mouths open. B and B, I know this is a shock. Just bear with me for a moment, and let me explain.

SNELL: In Charmaine Wilkerson's swirling new novel "Black Cake," that explanation upends everything Byron and Benny thought they knew about their mother, their family and themselves. Charmaine Wilkerson joins us now. Thank you and welcome.

WILKERSON: Thank you, Kelsey. It's wonderful to be here.

SNELL: I want to get this out of the way first. For those who don't know, what is black cake?

WILKERSON: Black cake is a traditional Caribbean fruitcake, and it's essentially an evolved version of the good old-fashioned English plum pudding. So it's different. It has fruit that's been soaked in rum. Dark brown cane sugar is used. So it speaks to the agriculture and tradition of the Caribbean island while it's really been, you know, taken from the English tradition. And that's part of the untold story of the black cake in the novel "Black Cake."

SNELL: You know, it's that evolution and those relationships that I think really are part of, you know, the propeller of this book. You know, Eleanor Bennett's revelations just move the book along, moving us from the islands to the U.K. to California. So let's start with Byron and Benny and what they thought they knew about their mother. What did they think they knew before they heard the recording?

WILKERSON: Well, they knew that their mother and father had come from a Caribbean island, which is not named in the book. They understood that their parents had both met in the United Kingdom and then moved to the United States. Byron and Benny were born and raised in California. They were once inseparable. At the time that their mother dies, they hadn't seen each other for years. There's been a huge rift in their family. But what they both have is a love for their mother and a memory of this rambunctious, athletic woman who was very smart, but she also had these quirks. She loved to surf. She loved MTV music videos. So, you know, she was just this unusual, energetic, charismatic woman, and she loved to bake cakes.

SNELL: And they're deeply estranged at this point. But they do have that - you know, that shared memory, that shared feeling. But then they learn about betrayal, about trauma and love, as Eleanor's voice tells them about her life. What made you want to tell this specific story?

WILKERSON: Well, you know, when I write, I tend to just start with a scene, and this story came to me first. There was this idea of these two teenage girls who were different from others, who kind of were running up against the expectations and stereotypes of other people. And I think that feeling that first came to me was the idea of, who do you believe yourself to be? What's at your core, and how do you navigate the world around you?

SNELL: You know, secrets evolve from some of that. The way that people hide parts of their identity becomes very important and is at the root of some of the biggest misunderstandings between Byron and Benny, in particular. You know, there's a moment early on when they're taking a break from their mother's recording and they get into this fight. And Benny says - and I'm going to quote from the book here - she says, "We had to be perfect to make up for the fact that our family was built on a colossal lie." What's going on in that moment for Byron and for Benny?

WILKERSON: Well, Byron and Benny both identify as African Americans. And Benny always thought that she was expected to be, you know, the high achiever, the perfect daughter because they are a Black family in America. And she is beginning to find out that maybe her parents were so insistent on a certain level of achievement, and also keeping some things, you know, out of the public eye in terms of your identity and your lifestyle, because they were afraid. You know, they had something to hide, but their children didn't know it. And so she's feeling a lot of anger because she felt held to very high standards. She felt that she was always disappointing her parents. And then she starts to think, maybe this wasn't about me. Maybe this was about them.

SNELL: This story has so many kind of earth-shattering revelations and changes to the way that, you know, Benny and Byron relate to their own identities, to who they are. But near the end, Eleanor says to her children, you know, at some point in the recording, after all of these revelations about her past, you do know who I am. What point is she making about identity there?

WILKERSON: What she's trying to say is that even if the stories she told about herself originally in raising her children were not quite true, even if they've learned things about where she's been, one thing hasn't changed - she is their mother. And she's trying to say something about the importance of love and the importance of relationships, that those also form part of your identity. She's trying to say that some part of that never changes. And what she's trying to say is that they have not changed. Her children are still her children.

SNELL: You know, I walked away from "Black Cake" thinking about the hidden choices women are forced to make when the world fails them. I've also been thinking about all I don't know about the choices people I love have had to make. How do you think about the secrets that kept your characters from really knowing one another?

WILKERSON: Well, I think one of the things that - and, certainly, this - in my family, I think about this. Sometimes, since when I was a little girl, I'd hear stories. Then when I became older, old enough to hear certain things, maybe I heard a slightly different version. And that kind of makes me think, yes, you know, there's so much we don't know about our parents and the people who came before. And often we think, oh, our parents, they don't understand me. They've never been in love. They've never gone through this. They don't know what's happening. But what's really happening is the child is not necessarily understanding the parents. And, you know, maybe sometimes we don't know because, well, it's just not something they share. Our lives are built on stories. Our identities, our family histories, are shaped by the stories that we are told from one generation to another. And they're also shaped by the stories that are not told.

SNELL: That's Charmaine Wilkerson. Her new novel is "Black Cake." Thanks so much for talking with us.

WILKERSON: Thanks so much for having me, Kelsey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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