Showcasing the Arts

March/April 2018 Featured Artist:
Crystal Wilkinson


Crystal Wilkinson
Crystal Wilkinson is author of three award-winning books, “Blackberries, Blackberries,” “Water Street” and “The Birds of Opulence.”
When I was a young writer, my grandmother watched me from behind our screen door. My body cradled in the overgrown roots of a tree, my body going about writing like killing snakes. Her calls to supper fell on deaf ears. She’d find me down by the creek or up on the knob in a scribbling fury. She respected my shut doors, witnessed my silence. She guarded my creativity.

I grew up in the foothills of Kentucky amidst natural creatives — my mother played piano by ear and painted; my grandmother was a singing, quilting poet; my grandfather, a storyteller who carved wood. As a shy child in a family of artmakers, my compulsion to write gave me a voice. I would often imagine that, somewhere, another black girl prone to silence was bursting with ideas and questions and an unlimited imagination.

I often picture my grandmother at that screen door watching me write myself a future that reached far beyond the bounds of our small house, our gravel roads and our holler.

For 20 years I’ve worked as a professional writer. After leaving home, I studied journalism by day, but wrote short stories at night keeping them in a box under my bed. My new stories were the groundwork for a blossoming aesthetic firmly rooted in the black oral tradition. There was an urgency to tell the stories of characters, who were like the women I had known, to unleash the silenced experiences of rural black women from their own mouths.

After college, I joined the Affrilachian Poets, a black arts collective. We gathered in coffee houses and in each other’s homes for critique. By this time, I was a single parent juggling my day job as a public relations professional, mothering three children and crafting and revising stories at night.

In the late 1990s, I attended the first Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright conference, an event that fueled me, where literary agent Marie Brown took interest. Over the course of the next six months, I wrote new stories and sent them for Marie’s consideration. She quickly sold the first and second books to Toby Press.

“Blackberries, Blackberries” (2000, 2016) won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature for its themes of sexuality, coming of age, violence and mental health. The stories are poetic vignettes and one to nine pages in length.

After that, I earned my MFA and my second book, “Water Street” (2002, 2016) was published. “Water Street” was a finalist for both the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the United Kingdom’s Orange Prize, now the Women’s Prize for Fiction. While this book advances the themes of the rural black experience it also further explores form and relies on the short story cycle as a structure where communal memory is integral.

My third book “The Birds of Opulence” was released in 2016 and received the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, The Weatherford Award and the Judy Gaines Prize. The book examines black women’s connections to the landscape and mental health.

My writing is rooted in the rural experience and all its complexities, anchored in the landscape itself. I write with an eye and ear on the curative powers nature holds in black lives both historical and contemporary. Black Appalachians are invisible to a generation that wrongly sometimes conflates “black” with “urban” and “white” with “Appalachian.” I want readers to see us, hear us and, in the process, learn something about themselves.

Crystal Wilkinson
Lexington, Ky.
Booking agent’s phone: 859-447-0362


Page last updated: February 26, 2018
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