Margaret Wilkerson Sexton On 'The Revisioners'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"The Revisioners" is a story that ties together women of different generations in a family line of different races that spans more than a century. It opens with Ava, mixed-race, single mother who moves in with Martha, her declining white grandmother and is brought closure to the story and spirit of Josephine, her other grandmother's great grandmother who escaped from slavery as a child to become a landowner and a matriarch. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's new book is "The Revisioners." And she joins us from the studios of Youth Radio in Oakland. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARGARET WILKERSON SEXTON: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure.
SIMON: Tell us about Ms. Josephine, the overwhelming major character.
SEXTON: So Josephine is a former enslaved woman and a former sharecropper. And though she has that very haunting history, she's flourishing in 1924. She's in our '70s. She's widowed. But she has huge family support. She's lucked upon owning a 300-acre farm. So she has resources that she never would have imagined having. And she's doing well when we meet her. However, this is the year that a white woman next door. And Josephine is reticent at first. But soon, they do form this cautious relationship that grows until Josephine discovers that the neighbor is a member of the women's branch of the KKK. And then many, many, many generations later, we have Ava, who is a biracial woman, as you said, and who is financially strapped and is - and decides to move in with her white grandmother. But soon, her grandmother's behavior becomes erratic and even racist. And the two storylines - Josephine's and Ava's - threaten to converge.
SIMON: Yeah. I love reading about Ms. Josephine who creates a real community, doesn't she?
SEXTON: She does. It's amazing. I have a great grandmother, Margaret Ellen Radford Miller (ph). And my father would always talk about her as ahead of her time. And she would give these great speeches at our church. And she was instrumental in her own community. And I didn't think about it consciously. But in retrospect, reading from Josephine's section, I'm starting to imagine a connection between those two women, though I've never even met my great grandmother. The community she built and the power that she held even in such a limited period of time for her - it reminds me of the character.
SIMON: And Josephine has, what I'll call, special powers, too.
SEXTON: She does. She - well, she's a healer. She's - she has some psychic gifts. We have two periods in the book. We have 1924 when we meet her. And she's in her 70s. And then she's consistently flashing back to her time as an enslaved little girl when she and her family are planning this escape. And the community that's planning this escape in 1855 is a group called the revisioners. And they come together. And they perform these very supernatural, spiritual rituals where they're attempting to get themselves out of slavery. But it's not through necessarily traditional or logistical means, you know? There are examples of them, you know, hobbling horses and diverting the master's attention to help the other enslaved people escape. But mostly, it's through the power of their minds and their imaginations and their spiritual force that they're - that they're conducting these plans. And so Josephine is from that tradition. And that tradition carries her into the rest of her life.
SIMON: Is this mind magic based on a history you've discovered or your literary imagination?
SEXTON: You know, it's interesting. It's not based on history. But at least most of it, I could imagine happening in my own family because I've seen elements of it there, not necessarily exact examples listed here - but just the same kind of realm of the spiritual world very easily melding into the natural one.
SIMON: Like what?
SEXTON: Well, so that's a good question (laughter).
SIMON: If it's not too personal.
SEXTON: No, it's not. I mean, I grew up - my mom's best friend did readings all the time, you know? And it's not like the traditional readings you would think of, like, you know, someone on the corner turning cards or anything. She just - she had this way of of imagining what would happen and informing people of what would happen. Whether that was true or not, I grew up thinking that was a legitimate way to be in the world. And, you know, the significance of dreams in my family is very important. People are - people take it very seriously if you have a dream about something. There are different variations in the interpretations. But I think most people in my family agree that they're significant. And they're to be relied upon for guidance.
SIMON: And I - I'm sorry if this is too personal. But you kind of opened...
SIMON: ...The door. Do you...
SIMON: Do your dreams speak to you? I mean, do you work things out in your dreams?
SEXTON: That's a good question. My dreams do speak to me but not - so far, not in terms of the books - maybe one day.
SIMON: Well, I think Philip Roth said he would - whenever he was stuck, he would take a nap. And he would work things out in a dream.
SEXTON: Maybe I need to try that (laughter).
SIMON: It sounds awfully convenient, doesn't it (laughter)?
SEXTON: Doesn't it? Yeah. It's definitely a win-win (laughter). win.
SIMON: I think I would just wake up and go, oh, same old problem.
SIMON: But I am - I do feel a little refreshed.
SIMON: I turned the last page. And I thought the real arc of this story is that Ava and Josephine find each other.
SEXTON: I think so. I mean, one of the main messages that I wanted the readers to get from the book was that there is intergenerational trauma. Yes. But there's also intergenerational strength and wisdom and power that's passed along from our ancestors' struggles. And in this story, the more Ava connects with that ancestral history and base of knowledge the stronger she becomes.
SIMON: Margaret Wilkerson Sexton - her novel, "The Revisioners." Thank you so much for being with us.
SEXTON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.