Dark Pasts and Memories

Each of us has our own skeleton in our closets, some even have several. These are secrets that we badly want to keep buried in the past. It may be an event or an experience with dire consequences should it be unearthed. It can also be a person, a name who has affected our lives, but not in the way we wanted them to. We want them to stay in the back of our memories but try as we might, bits and pieces keep manifesting. We press them further back but the more we push them back, the more they keep surfacing, threatening to destroy the safety net we have built. This leaves us with no choice but to confront them. In order for us to move forward, we must learn to make peace and reckon with our past, lest the consequences become even more irreversible.

In Charmain Wilkerson’s novel, Black Cake, the past is part of our blueprint. There is no escaping from it. This was something that Eleanor Bennett, the book’s primary driver, realized. The time was 2018 and the setting was California where Eleanor passed away. But even before passing away, Eleanor knew that death was knocking, that her time on this earth was approaching its final stretch. This growing consciousness of her mortality pushed her to set into motion a chain of events that she knew would shock, and consequently, alter the lives of her two children, Byron and Benny. There was an urgency to her message. With the assistance of her lawyer, she recorded her final message to her children while on her deathbed.

With her husband, Bert, passing away ac couple of years ahead of her, the recording could have not come at a more crucial time. Both her children were already in their mid to late thirties but a chasm divided the family into two sides, with Eleanor, Byron, and Bert on one side and Benny on the other side. While both Byron and Benny excelled academically, Benny possessed a rebellious spirit that made her stand out in the family of four. Their estrangement pushed Benny to sever communications with her family. What ensued was a life that drifted from one place to another. Both sides of the family wanted to mend the wounds but they didn’t know how to express it. It was only until Eleanor’s death that the communication lines between her two children were reestablished. Death can have that effect.

“What you need to do is know who you are, and where you are at all times. This is about you finding and keeping your center. This is how you can take on a wave. Then you might find that you need to practice more, or there’s a storm swell coming in, or the wave is simply too much for you. You might even decide that you’re just not cut out for the surfing and that’s all right, too. But you cannot know which of these is true unless you go out there with your head in the right place.”

~ Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake

Now, to the crux of the story. The recording, saved in a memory stick, required that the sibling sit down for approximately eight hours for it to be completed. It started with the typical preamble: a mother acknowledging her children and what endeared her to them. “You are stubborn children, but you are good children,” she told them. “B and B, promise you’ll try to get along. You can’t afford to lose each other.” These lines were only the beginning of what would unfold before Byron and Benny (B and B). What they witnessed, rather heard, was beyond their imagination. It unearthed secrets long buried and made the siblings question their knowledge and understanding of their mother, their father, and, perhaps most importantly, their own identities.

The recording contained a detailed account of their parent’s provenance. From the present, the narrative traveled back to the 1960s, to an unnamed Caribbean nation, or perhaps territory. The story of Eleanor’s youth was juxtaposed with some historical contexts. One such historical detail subtly mentioned the Chinese diaspora to the Caribbean. The Chinese migration began in the mid-19th century when the British Caribbean contracted and imported laborers to assist in the sugar plantations, by then a lucrative enterprise. Some of the Chinese migrants eventually settled down in the Caribbean islands. In the Author’s Notes, Wilkerson wrote: “I did not realize, however, that despite representing only a tiny fraction of the population in Jamaica in the mid-1960s, Chinese or Chinese-Jamaican businesspeople had come to own a majority of the shops and other businesses in that country.” Wilkerson was referring to Jamaica, home of the biggest Chinese Caribbean population.

With Chinese Caribbean migrants facing discrimination, some subtle while some explicit, their experience reflects the universal migrant experience. The migrant experience was rife in Wilkerson’s novel, which was integrated with the discourse on race, underlining the unmistakable link between these two subjects. In contemporary America, Wilkerson vividly depicted the anxiety Byron feels whenever he encounters a police car while driving his own. Byron was afraid to drive at night and even declined invitations from friends living in “certain neighborhoods after a certain hour, not out of a fear of crime but out of fear of being stopped by police.” It has gotten to a point where he bought a less ostentatious car model, “one that wouldn’t catch the eye of someone who didn’t think a black man should own a certain kind of vehicle.” His anxiety underscored how racial profiling and discrimination against persons of color have adversely impacted their psyche. The advent of social media exposed several instances of racism but it also reminded us that real equality is still far from our reach.

The novel’s exploration of family dynamics was one of its finer elements. Wilkerson subtly captured different family setups. In one family, we read of how the matriarch abandoned her husband and daughter. One character was orphaned while one couple had challenges having a child before eventually adopting a child they raised as their own. The Bennetts, meanwhile, had several skeletons in their closet. In all of these, we see that not one family is perfect. Wilkerson also underlined the complications and the values that exist in family relationships. Differences in perspectives are inherent in spaces where individuality thrives, thus, resulting in misunderstandings. But despite the differences, families forgive and learn how to adapt to the changing times. In a world of uncertainties, their presence is reassuring.

“This is what I would like to say to you folks, that in life, you should just catch the wave and ride it. But what of you don’t see any good waves coming your way? You need to go looking. Don’t stop looking, all right? And one of the ways to do that looking is to keep studying. Do not underestimate the value of applying yourselves in school. Because you cannot win if you don’t play.”

~ Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake

The recording was also accompanied by an unusual request from their mother. Before passing away, she baked a black cake – from which the book derived its title – based on a recipe passed on to her. Part of her final request was for her children to partake of the cake “when the time is right.” Eleanor further stated that they will know when the right time comes. The black cake, however, was no mere literary device. The black cake is an integral part of the Caribbean tradition. While each Caribbean island had its own unique version of the black cake, its significance can not be downplayed. For Caribbean immigrants, the black cake represents more than just a tradition; it is a reminder of where they came from. It symbolizes heritage, memories, and family bonds and history, elements that are also essential in the story of the Bennett family.

History hovered above the narrative. Under Wilkerson’s dexterous writing, history took more shape; it was not limited to a country or to a family. With the book’s title being the biggest allusion, food history was carefully woven into the tapestry of the novel. The smell of food that permeated the story seduced the olfactory senses. A part of the book explored culinary culture, particularly how a single cuisine is comprised of different components taken from different parts of the world. Coffee was provided as an example. An even more explicit example was cane sugar. The discourse on the origin of cane sugar was relevant, as it also relates to colonialism, a subject that reverberated throughout the narrative. Cane sugar was a crop that was not indigenous in the Caribbean and yet the colonized Caribbean islands were turned into massive sugarcane plantations. It made its way to the Caribbean all the way from Asia, where it originated.

History, family dynamics, and the migrant experience formed the mantle upon which the story was woven. It made for a multifaceted experience. On top of this mantle, layers of several timely and seminal subjects were woven. Death, loss, and survivalism were woven into the lush tapestry of the novel. Sexuality, identity, and self-expression were also captured by the story of the Bennetts. Power dynamics and their connection with sexual and workplace abuse were highlighted in the story. It was also captured through toxic relationships. On the brighter side, forgiveness and redemption provided a cathartic moment towards the end of the story. With its several layers astutely woven together by Wilkerson, Black Cake is a literary feast.

The story was also suffused with powerful images. The most powerful of these images was the sea. The sea played a seminal role in the advent of colonialism. Sugarcane and indentured Chinese laborers traveled to the Caribbean through the sea. The sea was ubiquitous. For the Caribbean nations, the cerulean sea was an antithesis to the tumult that existed on land. In the contemporary, it is one of the primary tourist drawers for the region. For the young Eleanor and her friend Etta Pringle, who were both strong swimmers, the sea was a respite from the stresses of island life. It was also through the sea, particularly surfing, that Byron imparted some of his wisdom.

“Of course, I wish that you had been more patient with us, but you were hurt and you were willing to walk away in order to protect yourself. I was deeply disappointed but over time, I realized I could identify with what you’d done. I hope that you won’t be afraid to make the same kind of choice again, if you feel that this is what you need to do to survive. Question yourself, yes, but don’t doubt yourself. There’s a difference.”

~ Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake

Charmaine Wilkerson has enjoyed success as a short story writer before finally publishing her debut novel, Black Cake. Her transition was smooth as she was able to weave all the novel’s elements together with acuity. Her writing made the story flow while, at the same time, providing the readers with vivid images. She propped the story with interesting characters who contrasted each other, hence, providing it distinct textures. The female voice, however, was the most prominent as the story was populated with strong and capable women in the person of Eleanor, Benny, Marble, Pearl, and Etta Pringle. This is a stark dichotomy to the male voice. The men were passive presences, except perhaps for Byron, who was the most realized male character in the narrative.

For a debut novel, Black Cake stands out. Parts-family saga, parts-historical fiction, parts-literary fiction, it is a multilayered and multifaceted literary piece that reels the reader in. Eleanor’s intimate and clear voice steered the novel that delved into a plethora of subjects such as the migrant experience, family dynamics, history, identity, homosexuality, memory, and even culinary culture. The smell of food simply seduces the readers’ senses, taking them to the heart of a story that was rife with incidents that remind us that not all things are not what they seem to be, and that the people around us are not always who they purport themselves to be. Albeit the complications, forgiveness and acceptance have the power to topple these barriers. But at its heart, Black Cake is about our families and the love that reigns despite the complexities and the differences.

“Just don’t go thinking that this is all there is to succeeding in life, this picking up and walking away from people. It should never be an easy answer to your troubles. I have lived long enough to see that my life has been determined not only by the meanness of others but also by the kindness of others, and their willingness to listen.”

~ Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake
Ratings

74%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
21%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

It was while researching for books to include in my 2022 Books I Look Forward To List that I first came across Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake. At first, I was reluctant to include the book on my list but I finally relented after my repeated encounter with the book in similar 2022 most anticipated releases lists. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait for a long time to obtain a copy of the book. When I had my copy, I didn’t hesitate immediately delving into it. After Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage and Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, Black Cake is the third book from the aforementioned list that I have read. Wilkerson, like Gonzalez, also had Caribbean roots, hence the book’s Caribbean elements. I do admit that it did take me some time to warm up to the story but once I did, the story began to unfold before my very eyes. The exploration of history, which included food, traditions, family, and immigration, was, for me, the book’s strongest facet, the one that I enjoyed the most. I also liked that Wilkerson was able to glue them together although I am not a fan of how the conclusion was executed, and how Wilkerson endeavored to neatly tie every loose end. Some did not require elucidation and better left to the reader’s imagination. Overall, it was a great debut novel and I can’t wait to read more of her works.

Book Specs

Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 382
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?

In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.

Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.

About the Author

Charmaine Wilkerson was born and raised in New York. She graduated from Barnard College and Stanford University. Post-university, Wilkerson worked as a journalist. She also used to be an active marathon runner. As a writer, her short stories have appeared in various American and British anthologies and prominent publications. Her short stories have also copped her several awards. In 2022, her long-awaited debut novel, Black Cake, was published.

Before settling in Italy, Wilkerson lived in the Caribbean.