- Published: 05 May 2016 05 May 2016
History. Community. Family. Place. Memory. The thousand other fragile threads connecting us all.
Each is a strand woven throughout Lexington, Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson's work--both as a writer and as an independent bookstore owner. The striking cover of her latest book, The Birds of Opulence, published by the University Press of Kentucky in March 2016, features an image of the sankofa symbol.
In the Twi language of Ghana, "sankofa" translates to "go back and get it." The Asante Adinkra sankofa symbol of a bird with its head turned to take an egg from its back carries the same meaning, and is often associated with a proverb translated to mean "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." Designed and created by the artist Ron Davis (also Wilkinson's life and business partner) the sankofa bird on the novel's cover is an apt symbol for Wilkinson's creative and connected work as a writer and business owner.
Crystal Wilkinson was born in Ohio, but Kentucky became home when, as an infant, she went to live with her grandparents on their seventy-acre farm in Casey County. Her grandfather, a tobacco farmer, and her grandmother, the first writer she knew, provided the freedom and encouragement to foster her artistic talent. The love and regard she carries for the people as well as the land of Appalachia is evident throughout her work. Her childhood and upbringing pervade her previous story collections, Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and Water Street, a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The Birds of Opulence is her first novel. Wilkinson has served on the faculty of several writing programs, and is on the faculty and was recently the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College. She was the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the recipient of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage, and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women for the promotion of feminist artist expression.
Wilkinson has also joined with fellow regional writers and poets to adopt the term "Affrilachian." Coined by Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker in the early 1990s, the term highlights the prevalent yet under-represented presence of those of African descent throughout the mountain South. The Birds of Opulence focuses on generations of the Goode/Brown family, founders of an African-American community in the Kentucky mountains. As stories of family and community intertwine and connect over decades, Wilkinson presents deeply imagined characters and an expansive, yet intimate setting. Like the sankofa bird on the novel's cover, her characters constantly return to the past to bring meaning to the present and future.
Alongside her work as a writer and teacher, Crystal Wilkinson co-owns and manages Wild Fig Books +Coffee in Lexington, Kentucky with her husband, Ron Davis. After a previous incarnation of the store closed in 2014, Wilkinson and Davis re-tooled their original business model, moved to a bustling, transitional Lexington neighborhood and started afresh. Staffed by family and friends and supported by Lexington's active writing community, the new Wild Fig offers an eclectic, inspired collection of books for sale, as well as boutique items with a literary bent. A cafe serving high-end coffees and teas and fresh, locally-sourced food transforms the space into a warm gathering spot for customers, writers, neighbors, and friends.
In a recent blog post, Wilkinson discusses the challenges of opening a new business in an older neighborhood, and honoring a place's history while also acting as an agent of change. She writes, "I read a New York Times article that declared 'Print is Far From Dead.' It discussed the comeback of the book and then cautiously advised that 'the world is changing too quickly to declare that the digital tide is waning.' That's how I would describe us cautiously optimistic that this new model will work and that we will be planning readings, community discussions, collaborations that will benefit neighbors and community. That people will be gathered around tables in our small cafe for years to come with their eyes glued to a good book. That we can be successful business owners and provide good goods and services around the world of books. This is what we love. We love what's happening here. We hope you will fall in love with our vision too."
Once again, the image of the sankofa bird comes to mind, turning back to find the past and carry it forward. As Wilkinson says, "You have to know where you came from to know where you're going."
Interview with Crystal Wilkinson
How did these characters and story come to you? And how did they lead you to this book?
The characters (Mona and Yolanda) were from a previous book I wrote called Water Street. Those characters grabbed onto me and wouldn't let go. I had been trying to write about my mother, or sort of on the legacy of the crazy woman's daughter, and trying to write a nonfiction book. Meanwhile I was looking into these characters more deeply that were in Water Street. I started exploring their backgrounds and their ancestry, and this book bubbled up from there. This book is not autobiographical in any way, but there is a tiny thread of the legacy of the crazy woman's daughter and how that propels forward in talking about communal memory, ancestral memory.
It's interesting to hear that the story sprang from characters and they led to uncovering the history/community, and not the other way around. And there are so many character strands to follow that could lead to their own stories.
I think this book will be my Yoknapatawpha, or my version of that or Wendell Berry's town of Port William. I told my agent I know what happens a generation before this. I don't know if you remember the section on Old Hezekiah and the founding--I have a whole section of about 40-50 pages on those folks--pre-slavery and post-slavery ancestors too, but my agent said, "No. You're just writing yourself into some more procrastination."
They are still living and I feel I still have a lot to discover in those characters, and I plan to do it. I see a number of those characters having their own individual stories with the communal aspects in the background and then the ancestors coming in and having their own stories too.
That sense of a deep history so tied to a particular place is very powerful.
I was thinking of Berry and Faulkner and other writers who have set their stories about characters in the same community. Even some of the secondary characters have their own stories which I know glimpses of.
I know exploring the "Appalachian voice"--in all its complexity and diversity--is important to you, and I wondered if that was an intent while you were writing the novel: to expand what people think of as a typical Appalachian voice.
The Appalachian writer Linda Scott DeRosier who wrote the book Creeker said in a lecture that she had never seen anyone fuse Appalachian dialect and African-American dialect like I had, and I mean that's just where I'm from. I didn't consider myself expanding on that--just exposing another layer of Appalachia that might continue to be invisible. I have, and I think I'll continue to do that because that is a part of my own story, my own heritage.
The Birds of Opulence refers to the women, and bird imagery is everywhere in the book--you just never knew when something was going to pop off the page. But in the midst of all the bird imagery, there's the intense scene of Lucy when she almost drowns, and after she's rescued people call her "Little Fish." Did you want to contrast that with the bird imagery?
Well, I know that I wanted to contrast Lucy and it was a conscious choice to make her stand out from the other characters.
And to continue with talking about birds--one of the aspects of the bird is the point of view. I really worked on controlling the omniscient point of view--was it God?--but then I realized even the point of view is a bird. The point of view can fly over the town, or then fly down close to or inside a character. And then fly back up to give some overall commentary.
My husband designed the cover for the book. The sankofa bird is an Adinkra symbol that means you have to know where you came from to know where you're going. Which is also a theme throughout the book, so that's another use of birds. The literal birds and the metaphorical birds played a big role and when it came to Lucy, I wanted something to be different about her. She almost drowned, and with her fixation on breathing and not breathing, life and death were all mixed in with her. I had to fight the urge to make her a primary character. As I did a lot of them! There were so many of them! I had to fight for a while for it not to be Minnie Mae's story.
In a story about primarily women characters, the men characters were also so well-drawn. And it was such a strong choice that in the end the standard-bearer for the family and all these powerful women was Joe.
I thought the only way for things to be carried forward with a dying community, as a lot of these Appalachian communities are, that it would be an outsider who would carry on the tradition and their names, and have their names on his tongue.
This seems like the place to turn to your store, Wild Fig Books + Coffee in Lexington. When you say you have to know where you've been to know where you're going, that makes me think of your business and its connection to its community.You sound like such a busy writer and teacher, how do you integrate that with being a busy, connected business owner?
It's really difficult, but I do it for now! I'm juggling all these things and trying to keep up with it all. Ron is really the one who runs the store, and I'm there a lot there too. My daughter is the cafe manager, and we have two other people who work for us, primarily in the kitchen. We have lots of help from the writing community, and the reading community and that's how we keep that going. A writing friend of mine, Savannah Sipple, helps with events and we have some great volunteer people to help us with things, and it's been pretty amazing.
Wild Fig is located in a neighborhood that is the site of a lot of renewed interest and gentrification, and in a house with its own history. You wrote in a blog post about the inherent tension in that process--in wanting to bring a place back to life, but also realizing that it's complicated. The post is from several months ago--is it an evolving process?
It continues to be a struggle for us. There is the duality of gentrification and being trying to be more and more a part of the neighborhood. So we try to balance it. There are some people in the neighborhood who are leery of us, but a lot of the other people in the neighborhood have said that they're glad we're there so that's been good and special, and we've enjoyed getting to know some of the neighbors.
I think a bookstore has a special role in the way it connects in the community. Do you think that because you're a bookstore that's made a difference to your neighbors?
One of the things that is hard for us is that we have so many events--because we're writers and not a business conglomerate, or we're not a public library--everything from social justice discussion to classes and lots of other things that may not have a book or product attached to it, we have to remind ourselves we need to pay rent! So we'll have a reading or whatever with a book to sell. We have to go back and forth on that, but we love having the events and will continue to do that. Savannah teaches too, which has put me more in charge of events as Ron tends to the rest of the store, so we hope to get a couple people--maybe interns and someone else who's going to take more of that on. It takes a lot to get the public informed about an event.
But the social aspect of it has been great, and we love it. We are a meeting place. We host some meetings for the Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice at the store, we've gone in with several area universities and had all their creative writers read at the store. The University of Kentucky's MFA program has sort of adopted us as their store, and they have all of their thesis readings at the store. But we've also had a knitting club, and a lot of variety. We're going to go in with some farming co-ops to get our kitchen supplies, and we have had talks about sustainability. So, we're really a community-driven place and it's been pretty amazing.
Author photo courtesy of The University Press of Kentucky. Bookstore images courtesy of Wild Fig Books + Coffee.
SP Rankin is North Carolina writer and graphic designer. In a bygone era, she received a BA from the University of North Carolina, and more recently a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte. SP loves talking and writing about books and the reading life, and a number of other things you’re probably not all that interested in and who could blame you? Her most recent book, Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, was published in 2014.