“I never intended to write a story with a cake in it,” says Charmaine Wilkerson, former broadcast journalist and, with Black Cake, first-time novelist. “It just sort of walked into the story.”
And what a remarkable story it is. Wilkerson's exquisitely written novel is a globe-trotting, multigenerational family saga set in the Caribbean, California, London, Scotland and Rome. Its rich plot—which includes a suspected murder—unfolds at an enthralling pace.
The novel begins with a short, enigmatic prologue set in 1965, then jumps ahead to 2018, when an attorney summons Byron Bennett and his estranged sister, Benny, to listen to a lengthy recording made by their late mother, Eleanor, who divulges startling secrets about her life. “Please forgive me for not telling you any of this before,” she says.
When Benny was growing up, her mother taught her to make the special titular black cake, saying, “This is island food. This is your heritage.” Wilkerson, who grew up in Jamaica and New York and now lives in Rome, explains during a video call that the Caribbean fruitcake known as black cake has long been a family favorite, a descendant of “the good old-fashioned English plum pudding . . . transformed, over time, by tropical ingredients.”
Long ago, Wilkerson's mother mailed her a copy of her recipe, filled with comments and instructions. Later, after Wilkerson’s mother died, a younger relative asked her for a copy. “I don't think I'd looked at it for years,” Wilkerson recalls, “but I knew exactly where to find it. I've moved a number of times in my life. I am not the neatest person in the world, but I have always kept that recipe in a place where I keep precious things.”
Don't expect to find the recipe within the pages of this novel, however. Wilkerson didn't want readers to presume that this is simply a culinary tale. “It's about the idea that there's the story you tell about your life, about your family history, about your culture. And then there are the stories that are not told, or concealed, or not fully revealed,” she says. “The cake symbolizes the history of this family, in which the children, who are now grown, really don't know the half of what their parents went through. Their journey of discovery is going to actually change the way in which they see not only their parents, their family history, but their own relationships.”
Warm, engaging and thoughtful, Wilkerson speaks precisely and with a hint of a lilt in her voice, a remnant from her childhood in Jamaica. Although she repeatedly states that she’s a private person, the handful of memories that she shares are reminiscent of her prose—sensory-filled, memorable and layered with meaning. She recalls her first taste of sugar cane during a school field trip, when the bus broke down next to a sugar cane farm and someone chopped up pieces for the children to taste. She also offers a tantalizing clue to how she ended up living in Rome: “Most people who end up moving to Italy and staying there move for two reasons: It’s either art history, or it’s a love story. You can guess which one.”
Prior to writing this novel, Wilkerson spent several years working in short fiction—notably, flash fiction. The crafting of Black Cake first began when she wrote a short scene about two teenage girls swimming in Caribbean waters in the 1960s. “They were driven by this visceral ambition and connection with nature and this determination to swim, despite the fact that they were afraid,” she says. Next, she wrote some seemingly unrelated scenes set in contemporary times. “At a certain point,” she says, “I realized they were all the same story. And that’s when I knew I had a novel, you know—that I wasn’t just all over the place. I was circling an idea.”
Like a shark, perhaps?
Wilkerson laughs, saying, “That’s me, a shark. I don't always manage to get a bite of food, but I did this time.”
She certainly has. Black Cake is slated to become a Hulu series with Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films and creator Marissa Jo Cerar (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) at the helm—not too shabby for someone who has long dreamed of telling stories. “I’ve always dabbled and written and read,” Wilkerson says, “but the act of writing regularly and making sure that you don’t lose the thread when you have all these different voices is something that takes consistent work. I came to that fairly recently.”
While Wilkerson’s mother gifted her with her prized recipe, her father’s work as a textile artist helped her zero in on her writerly goal. She remembers loving the smell of the dyes in his studio, and admired how he “was able to take art and turn it into a discipline.” After his death in 2013, she took one of his flannel shirts (which she still wears regularly) and finally began to write fiction. “I realized I had to stop thinking that I was being frivolous and recognize that it was work. So, I made some changes in my life.”
As a child, Wilkerson watched her father swim in the ocean toward the horizon until he disappeared, and similar imagery figures prominently in Black Cake. (Byron is a renowned oceanographer whose mother taught him to surf, and who encourages young people to “catch the wave and ride with it.”) “I think that's what we do in life,” Wilkerson says. “We try to make a plan, but then life happens, and we try to use everything we've brought with us.”
Undoubtedly, she has ridden her own wave like a pro. “This is what I have wanted to do for a long time,” she says.
Photo of Charmaine Wilkerson by Rochelle Cheever