KET
 KET
About KET | TV Schedules | Programs A-Z | Explore by Topic | Support KET  
Arts | Education | Health | Kentucky | Kids & Families | Public Affairs  
Search»
 
 

TV Schedule Book List News by e-Mail About bookclub@ket
Back to bookclub@ket bookclub@ket
September's Book
Blackberries, Blackberries
by Crystal Wilkinson

Bill:
Today we take a look at 18 juicy, delicious short stories from Casey County, Kentucky’s Crystal Wilkinson. Blackberries, Blackberries takes the reader from the rural South to a smoke-filled piano bar in the city and back to the front porch for a tantalizing taste of storytelling you won’t forget. It’s Blackberries, Blackberries. The bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Well, we are talking about Crystal Wilkinson’s Blackberry ... Blackberries, Blackberries—well, plural.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
We are actually talking about the book now, but she is the third of the Affrilachian Poets that we’ve read: Nikky Finney, who is at the University of Kentucky; and Frank X Walker, who is involved in so many things, [like] the Governor’s School for the Arts; and now Crystal Wilkinson, who is in Lexington’s Carnegie Center as an assistant director and also is a writer and a poet. So we were just discussing the cover and the title and all of that—stories that run from A to Z in description and emotion and mood and all of that. What did you think about it?

Gabrielle:
I liked it. Each story was different, and I have a couple of favorites that I really enjoyed and laughed [at]. But when I shared it with other people, there were different reactions, so I am interested in what everyone felt about some of the stories.

Bill:
You have read this before because you have another book club, as a lot of us do.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
Crystal Wilkinson came and did some reading for you.

Gabrielle:
And read to us, yeah.

Bill:
And I also understand—and I sort of found myself doing this, too—that reading the stories aloud, I think, works better in this. Did you read them all silently, Wilma, or did you read some of them aloud to yourself in your room?

Wilma:
[Laughs]

Bill:
I do that sometimes, too.

Wilma:
In the padded cell [laughs]. No, I didn’t read any aloud. But because of the dialect in the books, in the various stories, I could see where they would work; and because of some of the humor, I could see where reading them aloud would work very well. I did read them to myself, however ...

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
... in the sanctity of my own home. But I was interested in knowing what Gabrielle’s favorite story was. Some of the ones I like were from the children’s point of view. One that I liked very much was “Girl Talk.” It had to do with the young boy that is playing with some of his friends, and they come upon a sissy boy. And I even have a little—I am getting right into something here—I even have a little passage from that. It’s a nice little story.

The boy is talking about how he’s not too happy with his little sister and his problems at school, and then he and his buddies walk home from school, and there is on their way home from school a house that has a little boy in it. The boy usually is on the front porch, but this particular day ...

Bill:
Is that John F.?

Wilma:
It’s John F. Kennedy Jackson.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
And our little narrator says—and this is what I like about it: He lives in a home with his mother and grandmother, so he listens to girl talk. It’s ironically called “Girl Talk”; he listens to girl talk all the time. And so anyway, John F. Kennedy Jackson in his little dressed-up suit wants to play ball with them, and our narrator has a problem with that. He says:

“I got nervous. Mama and Ma Mae says that you can’t go messing around with only children had by old women. They say if it’s the only child and the woman’s old then that means it took her whole life to have a baby and that’s probably all she ever wanted in the world. So she is gonna treat that baby like it was gold and keep it by her side always.

“And that John F. sure was Ms. Beulah’s gold piece.

“She always had him shined and polished, decorating something.”

And he says that day he is decorating the front porch, so he knows there is going to be trouble because this child is not just a normal child. He’s the only child of an old woman. And sure enough, they do run into trouble, and at the end he says, as he’s walking his little sister home:

“I am walking her home, waving bye to my boys, thinking they ought to visit their mamas’ kitchens more often. Then they’d know about these things.”

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
So I really liked that.

Bill:
Was that your favorite story?

Wilma:
It might have been one of my favorite stories. And then another one was “Women’s Secrets.” Did you like that one, too?

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
I would like to hear what other people felt were favorite stories.

Bill:
Yeah. Dava?

Dava:
I kind of ... I expressed this earlier, but I kind of felt like there was a lot of man-hating going on in this book. Maybe not man-hating, but they were not portrayed in the best of light most of the time—which is OK, you know, for the purpose of the stories. I really liked “Tipping the Scales,” because that is the story about Josephine. She’s dragged through the mud by all these different men, but eventually she ends up with this gentleman, so I just thought it did a little bit of justice.

Wilma:
You know, I thought about that same thing, Dava. There were some very despicable men in this book, but then there were also some very fine men who were supportive of their wives or their girlfriends. So it kind of offset. It’s just that the bad men were so despicable that they kind of offset the other part of the story.

Dava:
Like the old man Wesley and then the rapist in the story—I forget what it’s called.

Bill:
Well, as we talked about in “Girl Talk” and some of the others that were mentioned, there are places for humor and light moments throughout, but there are certainly some tragic characters, too, and that’s why I think I said at the beginning, it really runs the gamut of emotions in tone and mood and all of that. There was something that she said in an article not too long ago about, about females and images and voice and all of that. She said, “I want it to be clear that all black women in the United States aren’t urban women living in cities and large towns.” So I think she takes, as we have heard before—and it’s almost cliche-ish to say that some of the best writing is taken from what the author knows—and so I think it’s this lifetime of experiences that Crystal Wilkinson had in growing up with a mother and a grandmother as the primary caregivers in a rural community. And, of course, she also says that people are still growing up like that—African-American men and women are still growing up in rural America—and that they are not all sometimes what we see in the best-selling novels or on television, that sort of thing.

Wilma:
I’m glad you brought that up, because I think the book is very much about what it means to be female. It’s also about what it means to be black, but I think even above that it’s what it means to be female. And the females are trying to either get a man or hold the family together or overcome abuse or just having time for themselves. So I think it is a female kind of perspective book. Even the stories that come from a male’s perspective tell you something about females.

Gabrielle:
Yeah. I could relate to every story in the book; I knew an aunt or a family member or someone. So every story, I really felt kind of in tune with her writing, and I could visualize it. So, yes, it did run the gamut. But one of my favorite stories was “Mine.” And the male character, Scruggs, is not the best person ...

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
... in it, but I just laughed and laughed. And I shared with some other people, and they thought, “Ohhh ....”

Wilma:
He is so self-centered, Gabrielle.

Gabrielle:
Yes.

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
Just the thought that he thought that her breasts were his. I just thought that was hilarious. I really did.

Bill:
“Mine,” as he said. Jonathan, do you have a favorite story or one or two that you can talk about?

Jonathan:
I’m not sure if there was a favorite. There were several that really stuck out and I thought were particularly good. I liked “Deviled Eggs” because that was told, really, about the perspective of a little girl. It was about being a woman; it was about being black; but it was also about being a little girl, and she was able to really have perceptions and focus on those perceptions that her mother couldn’t. Remember her mother was a cleaning lady in a rich old white lady’s house. And the old lady made disparaging remarks about black people and off-the-cuff racist remarks that the mother kind of chose to ignore. But the little girl, she really smarted with them, and I thought that was very, very good. But it was all about the difference between how the mother responded and how the daughter responded. And then, of course, the climax, if you will, came with the moment when the little girl gets fed. Although she despises the white lady, she wants to use her to get a nice meal. Because the old lady says, “Well, you can eat with me,” she expects she is going to get something really great—a nice hot meal. Then as the old lady tucks into a meal of steak, the girl suddenly looks down and sees she’s got a plate full of hard-boiled eggs, and she feels it like such an insult.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t say, “Ohhh.” There is nothing explicit, but just ... Her feelings are all underground, and yet you know that she is smarting here. I thought that was a very good story. And there are other stories that were much more explicit about racism and about other things; for instance, male and female violence. But the final story, I felt, was very powerful. Maybe it felt so powerful partly because it was the last story in a volume of what were all very strong stories and it had a climactic effect. That story—“No Ugly Ways,” which is really about a mother-daughter relationship again, but here it’s about the daughter killing her abusive husband. And then she gets jailed, and her story about all the abuse that she’s taken from men throughout her life is finally revealed in this heart-rending confession to her mother at the end. I thought that was very powerful, but it’s much more bleak and explicit about violence than many of the other stories. And it lacks the humorous angle that you were talking about.

Bill:
Oh, certainly.

Wilma:
I think when the stories are told from a child’s point of view, we get a softer feeling about it. The one “Deviled Eggs” is, and also one I liked was “Women’s Secrets.” I think this had a very real feel to it. The little girl is lying in bed and listening to her mother and her grandmother talk in the kitchen. You know it’s very early in the morning, and I think that has a real feel to it. And she learns a family secret, and so when they all gather around the breakfast table, even though the mother and grandmother do not know it, she holds the secret, too. And I think that’s nice. So I think sometimes when the story is told from a child’s point of view, it softens just a little bit—even though that story did not have abuse in it—but it softens some of the harsher parts of the story.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
I think there was a real surprise in that story, and that was just that she ended up sharing that after eavesdropping and hearing all of that conversation. But back to “Deviled Eggs.” I really for some reason expected that to end differently. I don’t know if you did or not. I mean, I wanted it to sort of unfold and all of that, but I think I was fast-forwarding and thinking all along that maybe the utopian end of that story would have been the little black girl and the old curmudgeonly white female were going to end up being friends and playing badminton out in the back yard.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Oh, gosh. Are you a romantic or what?

Bill:
But when she brought out the deviled eggs ...

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
When she brought out the deviled eggs, it was disturbing.

Gabrielle:
They weren’t really deviled, though.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Didn’t she taste the yolk?

Bill:
I think I remember that they weren’t, yeah.

[Everyone talks at once]

Gabrielle:
... play on words. That’s the devil’s eggs—meaning that lady, really.

Wilma:
Because they were boiled eggs and hadn’t even been boiled.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
They were still runny in the middle.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Soft in the middle.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Which is even more disgusting.

Dava:
I think it’s a lot about difference between age. The mother is older. She knows the evils of society, and ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Dava:
... how people are going to react, and then the child is just naïve—just a child. And even at the end, the mother kind of punishes the child for being so naïve by saying, “We are going home and eat all these deviled eggs.”

Wilma:
[Laughs]

Jonathan:
Hmm ...

Dava:
So I mean it’s sad because you are witnessing a real epiphany in this child’s life. I’m sure you know if this were a real child, she would remember it all of her life as one of the first defining moments when she realized what hate and what racism was.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
And even seeing how her mother coped with it by singing a song and just making it through, because she knew that’s what she had to do to provide for the family and the little girl ... Like you said, so young, thinking, “Oh, no, but this is wrong; you should tell that lady,” and even playing in the yard, and all of her actions, and playing back and forth—I thought it was a very subtle message.

Jonathan:
But it was good. I mean, the mother had an economic relationship with the white lady ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
And so she was willing to endure a certain amount of gentle abuse ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
... for the sake of the economic relationship. She was getting paid, you know, and she wasn’t going to be too picky about what the old lady said because she just wanted to do the work and get the money and get paid and then leave, and she wasn’t expecting the old lady to be any different.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
But the youngster ... It was her first encounter, really, with this kind of racism, and the blow was not softened in any way for her by the fact that it was an economic relationship. For her it wasn’t.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
For her it was just being in the company of a very nasty old lady ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
... and she didn’t see the bigger picture. And it provided two angles on it: having the little girl’s view of it and then the adult, the mother’s view of it. And so I thought that was quite subtle, and that was quite good.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
Quite good.

Jonathan:
The characters generally are very well drawn, I think, in the book.

Bill:
I think that’s the other thing about this first publication of Crystal Wilkinson’s and the writing. At first you might just read them as on the surface. I’ve overhead you say that you reread some of them, and the subtleties and the message and some of those emotions really do come out. What about in the story “Humming Back Yesterday,” which doesn’t necessarily—I don’t think—speak to any sort of black experience of any sort. I mean, that could happen to anyone. That has a lot of depth to it and gives you sort of pause to think about what she was going through in her own mind—the woman pregnant, expecting a child, not completely sharing with her husband. Give me some thoughts about “Humming Back Yesterday.” Do you remember that one well enough to talk about it?

Wilma:
I remember it well enough to talk about it [laughs]. I mean, I remember it completely. And I know what you are saying, because it’s about sexual abuse that the woman had been through before.

Bill:
With her stepfather.

Wilma:
With her stepfather, that’s right. And so now that she’s having a baby of her own, it’s all sort of coming back to her.

Bill:
Uh huh, uh huh.

Wilma:
I read someplace, old memories are like something rising up in the water. You just can’t always know when it’s going to pop to the surface.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And I think that’s what’s happening in that story. She has these memories, and I’m sure has tried to get over them. She appears to have, and her husband seems to be very supportive.

Bill:
Yes, he does.

Wilma:
And she seems to have a very good marriage and a good life at this time.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
But her ... The sexual abuse when she was a child still pops up in her mind and haunts her, and she can’t do anything about that. I think that’s real. I think there are things that do pop to the surface for all of us, and it’s like, “I wish I could just get rid of that tape,” you know [laughs]—get rid of that memory, even if it’s something as trite as a song or something. But things do pop into our memories, and I think especially because she is going to have a child of her own, this has brought it all up again.

Bill:
Well, I think that one reason it had such an impact is because, once again, maybe I was looking for a nice happy ending to it. And really she’s disturbed by the past, as of course anyone would be, and she’s trying so hard; yet at the same time she is sort of shutting out any communication that she might try to have with her husband about it. There’s, again, a lot of emotion there, a lot of strain on her. I mean, she is going through a tough time. Anyway, it was again well drawn. I thought she did a really good job of having the reader sort of relate to the problems she is going through.

Dava:
She does such a good job of just drawing how a woman thinks. And it can be very different from how a man thinks—obviously we are different in some ways—but also I liked these interactions between mothers and daughters, which are so, so true. In the story “Need” ... It’s about a woman who is confronting the wife of the man she had an affair with. At the time she had an affair, the man had led her to believe he was divorced from his wife when actually they were separated, and they are still married. I mean, even in such a—what some might call a strange situation, an odd situation that someone might not choose to write about, she does such a good job at portraying this tension in the air and the hurt that both of the women feel. Because you know one time the lady who had an affair with him did love him, and this, this lady who is his wife still does love him.

Gabrielle:
You could really feel it.

Dava:
You could really feel it.

Jonathan:
Also, I liked the way it was orchestrated, because it took place in a restaurant, this conversation, and so the conversation—particularly the angry wife’s questions—she’d pose the question, and then the waiter would intervene, and then there would be a whole rigmarole between the mistress and the waiter; and it was suspense, because you didn’t know how it was going to end up. The waiter kept getting in the way. And so the immediacy of the encounter was kind of diluted by the fact that it was in public and it was in the restaurant where the woman—Florine, was it?—it was her regular place. And she knew the waiter and so on and so forth, and there was a lot of business where the waiter was behind the wife mouthing at her and stuff like that. It was very well dramatized. I mean you could sit on the stage, you know.

Wilma:
There was something else in the story, also, that I had marked, and I think this is very true sometimes when you are in a very emotional situation. In order to get your mind past that so you are not bursting into tears, you deal with the physical details of your surroundings. And this is when the wife asks Florine about her relationship with the husband, and Florine says:

“Joan still focused down on the rim of her water glass, drawing circles around and around the edge like a mad woman. All I can see is the orange, yellow, and green patterns of the hat on her head. I look from the yellow bird poised to scream to the top of Joan’s head. Back and forth, dizzy with the question and the twirling colors. We are two miserable mirror images, us women, mothers, strong black women, reduced to shambles and gone stark raving mad over a situation with a man.”

And then she brings up this bird imagery again at the end, because she is looking again at the wallpaper and she says:

“I breathe deep through my nose, try to sort out the patchouli from the jerked seasoning, her musk from the greens. I look up for that little yellow bird on the wall. [It’s the wallpaper.] I imagine her a mama bird screaming out a woman’s pain. I focus on the bright redness of her opened mouth.”

... which is a very good image for the end of that story.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
But it’s the idea that in order to keep from losing her mind in this situation, too, she has to focus on the details, the smells and the sights and so on of what’s going on around her. And I thought that was very well done in that story.

Jonathan:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Well, obviously, as we said—and I think Ms. Wilkinson has also said that she spent a great deal of time writing and rewriting and working on these, you know, as a member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group that’s started to really support each other—that this book couldn’t have come about without the Affrilachian Poets—and, I am sure, critiquing and reading aloud and going over these. You know, there are only 18 stories, some very short, yet they’re very memorable in the way we have talked about them today and the way they sort of stay with you. Now I read this some time ago, as you did, Gabrielle, and went back and reread some. And Wilma, I would advise you to read them aloud.

Wilma:
Oh, OK.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
Right in front of the window.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Read them aloud tonight. I can’t wait.

Bill:
If you were going to tell somebody about Blackberries, Blackberries, what would you say about it?

Wilma:
Well, it’s the experience of a woman, and particularly a black woman. It goes back to what I said before: It’s really the female experience in all of its aspects, and then the black experience on top of that. Did you feel that the black experience was stronger in this than the female aspect as a theme?

Gabrielle:
I saw them both equally.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Especially in the last story. I remember my grandmother and mother always saying, “God don’t like ugly, and he don’t like pretty neither.” So I felt like there was a lot of tradition and kind of black heritage woven throughout here, but also from a black woman’s perspective—I saw that, too. So I would say it was a collection of short stories, but I don’t know if I would put more weight on the woman perspective.

Wilma:
You know, one thing that was very enlightening to me, and I thought it was good, and it’s a very, very small story in here. It’s called “The Wanderer.” It’s about a black little girl, and she sees a friend, a white girl with straight hair, and she wishes she had the straight hair. And then she realizes that if she did, she wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time with her mother and grandmother while they were working on her hair.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
And I think that probably is very true. It has a closeness there.

Gabrielle:
And I remember sitting between my mom’s knees and she’s combing my hair. So like I said, all the stories—I just, I really could relate to.

Bill:
So, Gabrielle, is there a certain rural underlying feeling?

Gabrielle:
I think it’s just the experience, though—the black experience.

Bill:
It doesn’t make any difference if it’s rural or urban?

Gabrielle:
I don’t know. I grew up mostly in urban and city areas.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
But yet I found myself—maybe because my grandmother was more kind of out in the country, so maybe that’s where they intertwined—but I just really enjoyed it. Every story I could visually see myself or see a family member or something in that situation.

Bill:
What an appropriate time for me to say, did you see yourself in “Music for Meriah”?

Gabrielle:
[Laughs] No.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
Now that’s—with such a short time we can’t mention all of them, of course, but—that was the first.

Gabrielle:
First story.

Bill:
What did you think about that one?

Wilma:
I liked it, but I thought it was very true of any woman. You didn’t have to be a black woman to go lusting after a man and kind of following around like a groupie and thinking he is interested in you when he isn’t. That was a white experience, too [laughs].

Gabrielle:
Just a life experience.

Wilma:
Yeah, it’s a life experience. I thought that was a lovely story because she learned something at the end. She kind of followed him home and realized he had a wife. She had not had a relationship with him; she was just a groupie while he was playing the piano. And I liked that story.

bookclub@ket | TV Schedule | Book List | News by e-Mail | About bookclub | Contact Us


KET Home | About KET | Contact Us | Search | Terms of Use
Jobs/Internships | PressRoom | Privacy Policy |
600 Cooper Drive | Lexington, KY 40502 | (859) 258-7000 | (800) 432-0951 | © Copyright 2011 KET

Privacy Policy Copyright © 2008 KET Webmaster