“There’s always something you don’t know about the way in which your family was formed,” says Charmaine Wilkerson, author of the new book “Black Cake,” about the universal appeal of her book’s subjects. Not everyone’s family secrets are worthy of the novel treatment — or attention-grabbing enough to draw the bid of Oprah — but early fervor for Wilkerson’s book indicates the concept is hitting home.
“Black Cake” is about what happens when two long-lost siblings learn the truth of their mother’s life story upon death — and embark to piece together the rest. The book, out now, has been named “The Today Show”’s “Read With Jenna” pick for the month of February and, way before even being published, was picked up by Hulu for a TV adaptation by none other than Oprah’s production company after a bidding war.
It’s Wilkerson’s first novel, after a career in journalism and news and communications. Born in New York, Wilkerson moved to Jamaica as a child, which influenced the book (the story follows a Caribbean family) and has lived in Rome for the past 20 years. (“I like to joke that people go to Italy to study art history or they go for love. So for me it was love,” she says.)
Her nomadic life has impacted the way she writes fiction, she says, noting her interest in multicultural families like her own.
“I’m always thinking about things like identity and family and shifting concepts of home,” she says. “And yes, I’ve moved around quite a bit, lived in three countries, but also I’ve come from a multicultural family where few of us have had quite the same upbringing or even look alike. So all of these things together have always had me thinking about family, identity, home. But I didn’t set out to write a book about these things. It’s just that there are things that interest us, and they stay in the back of our minds.”
While writing a novel was always on the bucket list for the journalist, she didn’t sit down to write a book; rather, her writing process appears in the form of writing small pieces at various intervals, of scenes she’s inspired by or ideas she has. With “Black Cake,” suddenly those things started to take shape into something more cohesive.
“The first thing that I can remember writing from this book was I just had this image of these teenage girls in the past, in the 1960s, on a Caribbean island, who were obsessed with swimming,” she says. “And that grew into a story about these young girls. These girls on the cusp of womanhood, young women, and how this physical strength and the ways in which they were different from other girls of their time would change their lives. And then I had been writing some other things, other bits and pieces that I didn’t think were connected. And the next thing I knew I had this multigenerational story.”
The story is fiction, but her mother’s Jamaican heritage often comes into play, particularly with the cake theme.
“She made a legendary rum cake or plum pudding, and that’s what a lot of people call black cake in the Caribbean,” Wilkerson says. “A younger member of my family asked for the recipe several years ago and I thought, ‘Well, I’m surprised that he would care, that he would think of it.’ And that started me thinking about the ways in which we inherit family identity through food. And it also had me thinking about the power of stories to shape our identities. Not only the stories that are told, but the stories that are not told.”
As for the early interest in a screen adaptation, Wilkerson says she was pleasantly surprised and is eager to witness how the filmmakers interpret her world.
“I think it was a kind affirmation for the story. I thought, ‘Well, isn’t that nice?’” Wilkerson says. “But it’s really exciting to think of the people — these are people I admire. And so it’s very exciting to think that they’re interested. They’re involved. They’ll have their own interpretation of this story.”