Crystal Wilkinson doesn’t appreciate the term “crazy black woman” because of the negative stereotypes it connotes, and because her mother was institutionalized for mental illness.
In her new book, the Kentucky writer and poet explores this potentially uncomfortable territory. “The Birds of Opulence” follows multiple generations of African American women in a small southern town as they grapple with complex relationships and their own fears about going mad. Wilkinson appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss the novel, her poetry, and owning a Lexington bookstore.
“The legacy of the crazy woman’s daughter, I’ve lived with my whole life,” says Wilkinson.
Two years before she was born, Wilkinson’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Over a 10-year period, she was institutionalized eight different times. When Wilkinson had her own battle with depression when she was a young working mother, she wondered if she too would fall into mental illness.
But as she wrote her novel, Wilkinson says she came to forgive her mother, and recognize that her illness was something that she couldn’t control. And she began to wonder why society treats those with mental health problems differently than it does someone with cancer or diabetes. Wilkinson says she hopes her book will inform readers about mental illness and inspire them to openly discuss the issue with their own family and friends.
“It’s a novel and it’s there for your entertainment, but it’s also there for your edutainment,” Wilkinson says. “I think that it provides a platform in which we can have lots of sister circles and brother circles to talk about this.”
Rooted in a Unique Appalachian Culture
“The Birds of Opulence” is Wilkinson’s third book, and first novel. Her short story collections “Blackberries, Blackberries” and “Water Street” also explore life in small southern towns not unlike the community in Casey County, Ky., where she was raised. Growing up in a predominately white region of western Appalachia meant Wilkinson lived a life that was very different than African Americans raised in the Deep South.
“It’s not the same as the archetype of the southern black experience, and it’s certainly not the same as the archetype of the white Appalachian experience,” Wilkinson says. “It’s sort of a unique culture that’s very much still alive.”
For Wilkinson, it was a culture that was also tinged with racism. In her poem “Dear Johnny P,” Wilkinson describes returning to her hometown and encountering an old classmate who had mocked her Afro, skin color, and black pride when they were children.
You said, Remember me?
Looked me straight in the eye, my children stood behind me waiting,
Extended your hand,
You touched my hand? That same hand you feared would turn you black?
And I laughed,
Wondered if you would run home to wash it clean,
If you would check to make sure you was still white…
I stood rigid, proud, black…
I saw the half-hearted, guilt-ridden apology creeping from your eyes,
Saw some sorrow,
But I wanted to hear it.
Hear from your white mouth to my black ears, but you couldn’t, wouldn’t say it. But I know you remember, Johnny P,
Just like I do.
I know you remember.
Wilkinson says if she were to write about that incident today, she would likely rely more on metaphor to relate the experience rather than describe it like “ripping a scab off” a wound. She says age, maturity, and writing have helped her focus on her love for her hometown family, teachers, and church without letting the racism she encountered color those memories. And Wilkinson says being a poet and a novelist play different roles in that process.
“Fiction allows me a platform in which to tell a particular truth in a particular way,” Wilkinson says. “Poetry for me is that entering [of] the wound… entering the emotion and giving you a slice of it.”
From Writing to Bookselling to Community Engagement
Wilkinson studied journalism at Eastern Kentucky University and got her MFA at Spalding University in Louisville. Along the way, she also joined with other writers of Appalachian descent to form The Affrilachian Poets, a group that celebrates the diverse cultures of the region.
She’s now an Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College and teaches at Spalding, as well as giving workshops around the country. And she and her partner Ron Davis are the proud owners of a bookstore.
“We call it the literary country store,” Wilkinson says of Wild Fig Books & Coffee in the North Limestone Street neighborhood of Lexington called NoLi. She says it’s a place where patrons can spend money, but she also wants the shop to host community discussions about important issues ranging from the state budget to LBGTQ rights.
“We wanted to do something different than other bookstores are doing, so we developed a salon series,” Wilkinson says. “So when people come, we want to have conversation about many of the hard subjects.”