Interview: Crystal Wilkinson

In the introduction to her debut short story collection Blackberries, Blackberries, celebrated fiction writer Crystal Wilkinson drew a strong connection between two parts of her identity. “Being country,” she wrote, “is as much a part of me as my full lips, wide hips, dreadlocks and high cheekbones. There are many black country folks who have lived and are living in small towns, up hollers and across knobs. They are all over the South—scattered like milk-thistle seeds in the wind.”

It’s been sixteen years since those powerful words first appeared in print, and in that time Wilkinson has crafted an influential, genre-spanning body of work that further reinforces her observation. Water Street, her second collection, was a 2003 Long-List Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction—one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent book awards—and a Short-List Finalist for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Her work has been widely anthologized and published in respected literary magazines including the Indiana Review, Slice, and Pluck!. In March, her highly anticipated novel The Birds of Opulence—a lyrical exploration of how several generations of small-town black women deal with mental illness—was published by the University of Kentucky and excerpted in the Oxford American.

Wilkinson recently sat down with her longtime friend and colleague Silas House and discussed her new novel, craft techniques, talking country, and how owning an independent bookshop has influenced her literary life.

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SH: What do you want readers to know about The Birds of Opulence?

CW: Well, I see this book as a sort of a meditation. It’s not written linearly. A lot of people would describe it as a story written in vignettes, and I did that intentionally to replicate memory. It’s about the things that we carry forward. On the cover of the book Ron [Davis, Wilkinson’s partner, who is a poet and visual artist] did this wonderful design of the Sankofa bird, which comes from Africa. And it’s about what we carry forward and what we pick up from our past, like remembering where you come from. So I think that the book is about those things, sometimes hurtful things, that are passed down from generation to generation—some of them things that we can do something about, like abuse in families, and some of it you can’t do anything about, like what’s inherited, like mental illness.

SH: That’s one thing I definitely wanted to talk about—the theme of mental illness that runs throughout. Was that difficult for you to tackle, or was it cathartic to write about that?

CW: I think it’s always been something difficult for me to write about. And I write about it from a personal standpoint because it’s something that has been prevalent in my family, and something that is prevalent I think throughout Appalachia and up hollers and across knobs that people just don’t talk about directly. And I think that’s why I wrote it in the vignettes.

SH: One thing I loved about the book is the way you play with point of view. For example, the book opens with the narrator describing the day of her birth while still in the womb. And then throughout the book you use the omniscient voice, which is notoriously hard to pull off, and you do it just beautifully. I think it’s one of the best things about the book. Can you talk a bit about that process, and why you chose those approaches?

CW: From a craft aspect it was hard to wrangle the omniscient point of view, and I couldn’t really get a hold on it until I used my own metaphor and my own theme to kind of grapple it, which was the idea of a bird. And so I decided that in my narration that the omniscient point of view wouldn’t go all the way up to the heavens—that it would only go up as far as a bird could fly over this community, and…I imagined that the bird would come down and light next to a character or sometimes sort of metaphorically be inside the character. And that’s the tool that I used to try to control it…And then the idea of the character narrating from the womb came about in thinking about ancestral memory—and not just the memories that we have in the known world from the time of birth, but the idea that from a spiritual realm perhaps there are memories that are embedded inside us as a spirit even before we’re born.

SH: [The] idea of collective memory?

CW: Yeah.

SH: It seems to me that there is also a lot about shame throughout the book. Would you say this is a profound issue for you as a writer because you come from two very distinct cultures—rural culture and black culture—both of which are cultures that are taught by larger society to be ashamed of being who you are, of…being seen as throwaway people or people who are inferior? Or am I just reaching here?

CW: No…I think you’re right. I think that idea of shame is something that, again, [is] prevalent in Appalachian communities, either from the inside point of view, or particularly from the outside point of view—you need to get that out of you, you don’t need to talk that way, you don’t want people to think this about you. And I think that having children out of wedlock—there’s a particular shame that comes with religion. There’s a particular shame that comes from a small town mentality of being that girl in town that has a reputation or…putting shame on your family and those kind of things. And those were all issues that I wanted to write about collectively. So yeah, absolutely shame is a big part of the book. And I think it’s a big part of community, so I sort of stuffed all of that together and tried to write about it.

SH: I’ve always been a big fan of your writing, as you know, but I think this new book takes your work to a whole new level. You really do seem to be at the height of your powers in the novel. It’s so lyrical. Would you say that that lyricism is something that was just organic in writing this book, or [did] you spend a lot of time worrying over each sentence? Or [was it] a combination?

CW: I think it’s a combination…Once I made the decision to fully be a fiction writer I fought against the poet in me all [the] time, and this is the first time where I allowed her to be fully herself, even to the point where—at one point this book, which is a very small novel, was much larger. And so I spent about a year condensing it back down, actually worrying over the language and distilling it, and distilling it, and distilling it down and revising it in the way that I would a poem, sometimes trying to read a line to see about the syllables before a comma, what should go there, how many words [could] I take out. I did a lot of work around word choice and around sentence structure, syntax, and diction.

SH: It sure does show—it just has such a wonderful flow about it that often it just feels like it’s, it’s just coming out of you, that lyricism and that natural poetry that you have about yourself. But at the same time, I’m always trying to teach my students that, even if it comes out and it feels so like you’ve got it in that organic sense, you still have to go back in and worry over it. And I—the longer I’m a writer, the more I love revision. I used to fight against revising so much. Would you agree with that?

CW: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think that’s the best part, you know I talk about that in my classes, too—you’ve made this thing, and there it is. And I think that’s the hard part—it’s like giving birth, and then you get to play with it and…make these either small decisions or grand decisions. I always say you have to either apply a bulldozer, or you have to know when you need brushstrokes, and getting in there line by line, sentence by sentence, and doing that is the fun work. That’s the hard work, but I also get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

SH: Would talk about the symbolism of the birds [that] show up in many ways throughout the novel? I know you said that it was in some ways a device that you used, but there’s just so much bird symbolism. You mentioned that the book cover is a nod to…African [symbolism].

CW: It’s an African Adinkra symbol that shows up actually in a written language in some African tribes, particularly the Akan tribe. And the bird actually has a seed in its mouth and it’s looking over its shoulder…It goes along with the saying, you have to know where you’re coming from in order to know where you’re going…And I tried to mimic that larger theme in the book, and it was just amazing the way that I started out with a metaphorical bird, and then all of a sudden all of these literal birds showed up in the book, which I think was a big nod to Casey County and…to the way that I grew up, the way that the birds kept coming…I grew up in a household that definitely believed in granny knowledge, and what the symbols of birds were—like if a bird gets in the house then somebody’s in danger, and a lot of those things. And so even my grandmother would call somebody a bird—she would say, “That Chrissy sure is a bird.” So I became obsessed with it, and I think birds show up just about every way that they can in the book, as a metaphor and literal birds as well.

SH: I’ve heard you say in the past that you have felt that those who write about the black rural experience are often particularly ignored in New York literary circles. Can you expand on that?

CW: [It] was that way when my first books came out. There was—I literally still have those letters, those early rejection letters, that actually say “When she’s ready to write something more contemporary, let us know. We like her characters, we like her language, but we want something more contemporary.” Which at the time I think was the beginning of urban fiction, and that’s basically how a lot of African-American writers were being pigeonholed into that genre of writing—urbanized fiction. I think it has unloosened a little bit, particularly with smaller presses. I’ve seen a lot more books with small presses that give a nod to the African-American experience in rural areas. But I’m not so sure New York still is printing those [kinds] of books—the large presses I don’t think are paying attention.

SH: One thing that you and I have always had in common is a history of being judged based on the way we talk. Can you talk a little bit about the way people have reacted to your accent throughout your life?

CW: I’ve written an essay about this in Back Talk from Appalachia [a 2000 anthology edited by Dwight Billings, Gurney Norman and Katherine Ledford] that gets discussed a lot…Ever since I was a little girl it’s been an issue, and I’ve become a code-switcher at times. I love the magic in your voice and how you stick to it no matter what you are, but I find myself being a chameleon—like I always am willing to change it depending on who I’m talking to because it’s always been an issue. And sometimes I get tired of talking about it. So it’s much easier for me to curve everything out and say “Well hellooo!” than it is for me to say “Hi” [pronounces it “haa”] or “Night” [pronounces it “naht”] or whatever and then have people gather around like I’m a bird in a zoo or something. But I also think that what comes with that is that it’s even more hurtful than making fun. Making fun is one thing, but when that extends to how knowledgeable you are, or whether or not you’re intelligent, that’s when it becomes an issue for me, a huge issue for me. And over the years, particularly when I taught in [Kentucky] Governor’s School for the Arts, I would have students come in who had been trained and I would think, “Well, this kid can’t possibly be from Appalachia, speaking like this.” And then after two or three days they would go [she sighs deeply], “Well, finally I can refine my tongue, it’s okay.” But they thought that since they were coming down to Lexington or going to Louisville that they were gong to get made fun of if they didn’t speak the Queen’s English…Kids are always made fun of for something, which is horrible, but there’s always something that kids find to make fun of each other about. But when you become an adult—or even when you become a young adult—it becomes associated with your level of intelligence.

SH: And it’s so acceptable—

CW: Yes!

SH: — to blatantly make fun of somebody about that. Yeah. I do code switch to some degree when I’m speaking in particular places, but the thing is I’m just so bad at it nobody can tell any difference.

[Both laugh]

SH: I can’t make my mouth move [that] way. Speaking of dialect, you handle that in a really masterful way in The Birds of Opulence—so masterful in fact that I don’t think most readers would even notice that you’re doing it…You are completely showing the dialect, but you do it in a very subtle way—mostly by syntax and by the use of an occasional colloquialism. We usually see dialect more done with phonetic spellings. Did you think a lot about that while you were writing, or is that something that comes pretty natural to you?

CW: I thought a lot about that. I don’t have to think about it as much as I used to, but if you look at my early books, I wrote phonetically. I always tell my students if you want to learn from a writer, read their first books—read their books in order and you can see what they were trying to do, and then you gradually see them doing it a little bit better. And I have to even say that for myself. I think I’ve worked hard—this book is not perfect, but there’s a…big difference between the way that I used dialect in Blackberries, Blackberries and the way that I used dialect [in The Birds of Opulence]. a lot of that I learned from…James Still, Ernest Gaines, Lee Smith, Gayl Jones—they’re writers that I love and went back to time and time again to say to myself, “Well I’m doing this, and what I’m trying to do is this. Let me see how they’ve done it. And then how would my characters do this, how can I better pull this off?” So it’s been a study over the years.

SH: Are you revealing what you’re working on right now, or are you one of those writers that don’t talk about that?

CW: I probably am one of those writers that talk about it too much.

SH: Me too.

CW: But I’m still working on a memoir about my mother and this continuation of black women and mental illness, but no longer cloaked in fiction—telling the truth of the legacy of mental illness in my family. And I’m even talking about—this is new, I haven’t really told anybody about this—but I’m talking about my own depression and anxiety in this book. For the longest I thought that it was just about my mother and her sort of severe mental illness, but it’s become more of a trilogy of talking about my own bouts of mental illness, with depression and anxiety, and talking about my daughter—she knows about this so I’m not outing her in any way—and also talking about my mother and this legacy…It’s also sort of a meditative book. My agent wanted a full-on traditional memoir, and I’ve come to accept that I don’t write that way anymore—I’m not really a linear writer…I love the fragmentation in writing sort of a hybrid piece.

SH: Has owning a bookstore changed you as a writer or as a reader?

CW: I think it’s changed me as a reader. Ron [who manages the bookshop] actually curates most of the books based on what’s popular and then what’s kind of eclectic. So it’s nice to be…at the bookstore and pick up something that I wouldn’t ordinarily read and be captivated by something new that I hadn’t given a chance before.

SH: And you all are having so many events—you’re bringing in a lot of great writers…in your bookstore, so you’re certainly hearing even more readings and talking to writers even more, so that must have an impact too.

CW: Yeah, absolutely it does. The idea of community—you know, everybody talks about the writer writes by themselves and you know you have this sort of romantic vision of the writer in their corner with their computer or their typewriter or their pen and their journal. And that’s true, but you’ve got to live, you’ve got to have a lived existence. And I think if you’re not out living and you’re just in isolation writing, then you’re not writing the truth…And I’m still a very shy person, a very reserved person, so it’s…not easy for me to be in a room full of people, but I think it’s essential and I love it.

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels, most recently Same Sun Here (with Neela Vaswani), as well as three plays and one book of creative nonfiction. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his writing has appeared in Newsday, Oxford American, Narrative, and many others. House serves as the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in creative writing.

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