Culturephile: Charmaine Wilkerson’s Delectable Debut

Charmaine Wilkerson’s novel, “Black Cake,” launches a pair of O.C. siblings on a journey into their Caribbean-born mother’s secret past.
Photograph by Rochelle Cheever

Wilkerson, a former TV news reporter, is on a remarkable literary voyage of her own with her first novel. Picked as a best book by People, BBC News, and others, “Black Cake” is a New York Times bestseller and is in development as a Hulu series set to star Tony Award-winning actress Adrienne Warren. Wilkerson talked about the novel from Rome, where she’s based.

How do you describe “Black Cake”?

The novel gets its title from a traditional Caribbean fruit cake, which, when it’s made for weddings, is made in layers. I often say the novel is like a layer cake. On the surface, it’s a multigenerational novel that centers on a brother and a sister in present-day California—Orange County born and bred—who grow up and grow apart. They’re forced to come together because their mother has just died and left them an eccentric inheritance: a small black cake sitting in her freezer with instructions that are quite cryptic, and a lengthy voice recording.

The mother’s home is in the Anaheim area. Why did you choose that locale?

The imagination is like a fertile field, seeded by everything that we have lived, that we’ve heard. Ultimately when I write, I just go with a feeling or an idea. It just came to me naturally that the siblings’ parents settled in Orange County in part because they were very strong swimmers and they loved to surf. But also, this is a family of color. They are a Black family and indeed they’re not going to know a lot of people from the West Indies or the Caribbean. Also, I lived in L.A. County for years, and I worked in Orange County. I also have relatives who live in Orange County.

What stands out in your memory about covering O.C. and other parts of the area for KABC-TV in the 1990s?

I loved being able to meet people and travel everywhere and to see what was going on in the community. Sometimes it was tough, but I can’t think of a better way to live in a city or a county. Even though I did not live in Orange County, I developed a sense of what some of the challenges were. I was reporting when the county was bankrupt; they had to reorganize the government. I covered the 1993 Laguna Beach fire. We actually saw the fire crest the hill. You have a lot of memories that are painful, but you see the community, you meet people, see what they’re doing for a living, how they’re raising their families.

What do you think about your novel being adapted for a Hulu series?

I was delighted to think that highly creative, strong women like Oprah Winfrey of Harpo Productions and Marissa Jo Cerar, Emmy Award-winning screenwriter from “The Handmaid’s Tale” team (were interested). I was just thrilled that women whose work I admire, and women of color—they didn’t have to be women of color, but they are—were interested. 

Do you bake a black cake?

I do, and it’s not bad in terms of flavor. I think my mother really did make the best. When the black cake popped up in the story, I thought, “Aha, that’s where it’s coming from.” The idea of attachment to a traditional recipe that has much more to it than meets the eye. What had to happen to go from being an English plum pudding to being a Caribbean traditional cake with rum and sugar? A lot of things happened, including colonialism, the rum and sugar export economies, forced labor, cultural changes. So it’s a wonderful example of how you can love something and say, “This is tradition, but where does the tradition come from?”

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