Through the Wise Women Collective, we spotlight women whom we admire and who inspire.
Could you tell us how you came to write Black Cake?
I certainly didn’t set out to write a story about cake. I was writing what I thought were different short stories when I realized that a novel was taking shape. The main characters were connected to one another across two generations and most of them were exploring issues of identity and how to make their way in the world, despite the expectations and stereotypes of other people. Then the cake appeared in the novel and I could see where the inspiration had come from. My mother made a legendary black cake--a traditional, Caribbean fruitcake. A few years before I started writing the novel, a younger family member texted me on my cell phone to ask for my mother’s recipe. That episode started me thinking about the power which stories and food-related memories have to shape our identities. Stories have great influence, both when they are told and when they are not told, as we see in the novel.
The mother/daughter friction in this novel is an integral part of the story. What is the genesis of their tension?
The mother, Eleanor, has a vision of how her children should grow up and live. The daughter, Benny, sees her own life differently. Benny’s educational path, her professional decisions, and her love life are not what her parents expected of her. The mother is perplexed and, at times, disappointed in her daughter. The daughter feels betrayed by her mother’s failure to support her without question. Ultimately, they keep their distance because of pride and fear of rejection.
The history of 'black cake' is an important part of your story. Other important aspects are locale and societal expectations of women and how they survive. Can you talk about the themes in your novel?
Black cake is a very popular Caribbean tradition but also, a descendant of the English plum pudding. The story of the cake involves elements of history that we don’t always hear about when we talk about beloved foods—colonialism and forced labor, for instance. The weight of untold stories is an important theme in the novel black cake, and plays itself out in the story of Byron and Benny, the brother and sister who learn about their mother’s hidden past. Another key aspect of the novel is a challenge faced by some of the women, but also other characters, as they struggle to reconcile their aspirations and self-identities with the expectations of others. Characters face these challenges whether they are living in the Caribbean or the UK in the 1960s and 1970s or in the current-day United States. The book also looks at the influence which place has on characters’ identities. The names of the locations do not matter so much as the characters’ experiences of living in certain social and physical environments and what their lives say about the human condition overall.
Mother figures matter as do female friendships. We see this throughout Eleanor Bennett's life. What is your message about female strength?
The women in the novel who are strongest are the ones who manage to hold onto an innate sense of who they are at the core, no matter what happens to them in the external world. In each case, however, they come to learn that how they live their lives and the relationships they form do help to shape their identities, going forward.
Congrats on your debut novel being an instant bestseller! What has the experience been like?
I am still that little girl who loved to read books and wanted to invent stories of her own someday, so it’s lovely to be able to share something I’ve written with other readers.