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Berea College Prof. and writer in residence Crystal Wilkinson, Named 2016 Winner of “Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.”

Berea College Prof. and writer in residence Crystal Wilkinson, Named 2016 Winner of “Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.”

By Derby Chukwudi

Pro. Crystal Wilkinson

           Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Wilkinson was brought up in her grandparents’ farm at Indian Creek, Kentucky. Wilkinson earned a journalism degree from Eastern Kentucky University in 1985. Although “Birds of Opulence” is Wilkinson’s first novel, many of her works have garnered critical acclaim, including but not limited to “Blackberries, Blackberries,” a collection of short stories–a 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and “Water Street,” short-story collection–a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and the U.K.’s Orange Prize for Fiction.

Pinnacle: Prof. Wilkinson, why did you choose to teach in Berea College?

Wilkinson: I have always admired what Berea College stands for from afar. When the opportunity presented itself to work here full-time I couldn’t pass it up.

Pinnacle: What motivated you to become a writer?

Wilkinson: Some writers would say they’ve been writers since the womb. In some ways I’m one of those. I have always loved books and words over most everything else. My grandmother told the story that as a child I read all the stories in the house and then I began to write my own. I have been writing since I was a child. Stories—reading them and writing them—have always captured my attention

Pinnacle: As a previous public information officer and community relations manager for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, how did this position inspire you to continue writing?

Wilkinson: I must say that it didn’t really. I loved my jobs in public relations and it was a way to utilize my journalism degree but I was always exploring creative writing while simultaneously working as a professional writer. The two were parallel in many ways but one never fed the other. Not in any direct way but I did enjoy both.

Pinnacle: What are some challenges you’ve faced as a writer, and how did you overcome them?

Wilkinson: Being a writer is challenging in and of itself—striving to become better—writing in isolation and not knowing whether you are heading in the right direction as you circulate your mind around an idea. I don’t see them as challenging at all but I believe that being Black and being Appalachian has been a challenge to getting my work circulated to a large mainstream audience. There I always a box to be placed in but I hope that my work is able to transcend labels and yet still be solidly Black and Appalachian. I think, particularly with this new book, that this book has been more widely received. But writing Black and rural fiction has been a challenge in the past

Pinnacle: Your latest book, “Birds of Opulence” explores inter-generational threads of mental illness in families. What ignited you to write about this issue?

Wilkinson: Well I believe that every writer has things that haunt them—things they are drawn to write about. Mental illness is one of those tropes for me. Perhaps it’s because it occurred in my own family but I also think it is a societal ill that we refuse to deal with in a direct way and that is something I am drawn to and something that I write about quite frequently.

What themes in your book, “Birds of Opulence” do you think may have stood out to your readers? Love, family, the African concept of Sankofa. These are all topics that I’ve discussed with readers as I’ve toured across the country

Pinnacle: How did it feel to be a recipient of the prestigious “Ernest Gaines award”?

Wilkinson: This is hard to explain. Nearly every way that I would describe it sounds cliché. I was elated not only because Ernest Gaines is so respected but because he is one of my favorite writers. I’ve long admired his work and often teach his books. What a phenomenal experience to spend two days with a writer that I have such profound admiration for and to win a national prize for my novel. Ernest Gaines was one of the first writers who, through his work and his characterization and sense of community and place gave me permission to write my own truth and the truths of my rural black characters because he did it first. He’s always been an inspiration so this award means so very much to me.

Pinnacle: You are a co-founder of “The Wild Fig Books & Coffee,” a well known establishment in the community, what was your inspiration for this business adventure and what do you hope to achieve going forward?

Wilkinson: Ron and I wanted to have a bookstore and coffee house but to also be a gathering place for community conversations and I think we have done that are continuing to do that. I hope that these conversations will make a difference in our community. We want our venture to be profitable yes but we also put our hearts and souls into it and want people to feel as though they are in a safe place when they are there.

Pinnacle: For people interested in reading your book, “Birds of Opulence,“ where can they purchase a copy?

Wilkinson: It can be found every where books are sold. If your local bookstore doesn’t carry it then request it. It can be ordered online through book outlets and through wildfigbooks.net

Pinnacle: What words of advice do you have for individuals and families coping with mental illness?

Wilkinson: Get help. Mental illness is stigmatized in our society and also in the Black community and in rural communities but there is no shame in getting help, getting medication or getting counseling. If a family member developed cancer the expectation to seek medical treatment would be there. Why not with mental illness? Most mental illnesses can be treated with medication and therapy or some combination of both. There is no stigma as great as being healthy feels. And even if you have a family member who refuses treatment then the family member should at least seek counseling so they can deal with the issue. We let too many things just fester. We are told to suck it up, get over it, be strong, etc. There is absolutely no shame in receiving professional help along the way.

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