Crystal Wilkinson’s fiction explores Black rural life in Kentucky, the fragility of memory, intergenerational legacies, mental illness, and feminism. Her writing is earthy in every sense—tactile, bodily, alive to the spiritual resonances of food and nature. In the preface to her debut story collection, Blackberries, Blackberries, she wrote: “I grew up on a farm in Indian Creek, Kentucky, during the seventies. I swam in creeks and roamed the knobs and hills. We had an outhouse and no inside running water… But it was a place of beauty… Being country is as much a part of me as my full lips, wide hips, dreadlocks and high cheekbones.” Her subsequent books of fiction include Water Street and The Birds of Opulence (selected for 2021 Kentucky Reads), all from University Press of Kentucky; her first collection of poems, Perfect Black, will be out in August 2021. Her awards include the Ernest J. Gaines Prize, a USA Fellowship, and fellowships from Yaddo, Hedgebrook, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Kentucky, and she and her husband, Ron Davis, founded Wild Fig Books and Coffee, a literary landmark in Lexington for many years. In July 2021, she’ll teach fiction writing at Image’s Glen Workshop. She was interviewed by Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
Image: Your books are wonderfully specific about food. The dishes your characters make stand for things like love, pride, control, and more, but they’re also very concretely things we can picture cooking or eating. Are you a cook? And why does food crop up so much in your writing?
Crystal Wilkinson: I am a cook, though I’m certainly not a chef and don’t have any inklings toward gourmet foods. I’m a down-home, old-fashioned cook, but I do try to put a spin on things. My husband and I are vegetarians now, so the classic southern soul food that I grew up on doesn’t really fit into our lifestyle anymore. I take great pride in trying to take old recipes and make them vegetarian and sometimes vegan. How do you make chicken and dumplings without chicken?
I think I put food in my work simply because foodways are an important part of culture—just as important as colloquialisms and language and the deeper keeping of the old ways. I’m from the knobs region of Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Food was part of the rituals that I grew up with, as it often is in a family. I write about food partly to keep those traditions.
In my fiction, even if there’s dysfunction or unease among the characters, a good way for them to make a segue is to break bread with one another, to be involved with food in some way. The tensions, the happiness, the celebrations, are all around food.
Image: What’s the knobs region?
CW: Knobs is an old-fashioned geographical word, but I like to use it still and bring it back into the fold. The knobs are hundreds of isolated foothills, different from the Appalachian Mountains proper. They are spread over several counties, but the county that I grew up in is the only one that’s fully in the knobs.
Image: You’ve written about how important being from the country is to who you are. In your fiction we meet a number of characters who have lived in cities and then come back to the country—with changed speech, hair, attitudes, and politics. But culture doesn’t only flow one way, right? What does a connection to country life have to offer people who live in cities?
CW: One thing that I have wished for and written toward is a reclamation of the land, particularly for Black characters—that is, for Black people. Often Black people aren’t associated with nature. Because of remnants of slavery and the pattyroller days, we are conditioned to think of being out in the woods as not necessarily a good thing. There are things to fear out there. But nature can be very healing for Black people, especially Black women.
Besides connection to nature, the country has what a quiet life can offer you: solitude. I know that people in the city also have those things, but I think being in the country can deepen an appreciation for nature.
In many ways, rural life has affected people in cities already, because there’s such concern now about where our food comes from. People want to meet the farmer, to buy their honey locally. Those are good country values: knowing where your food came from, being able to trace how the meat and vegetables got to your table, having fewer steps between you and your hamburger.
Appreciation for water that’s clean and safe is a human value but also a country value. I’m of the age to remember when water didn’t come in bottles. We know that there are places within the United States where people don’t have untainted water. Michigan still doesn’t. There are still people in the mountains who don’t.
Image: Why is it so important that Black rural life be visible in literature? What are we missing if we don’t read about that world?
CW: That Black rural life is a contemporary phenomenon. I’m always surprised when someone reads my work and says, “I didn’t know that there were Black people living in rural areas.” I’m like, “Where have you been?”
The country is where my haunts are as a writer. I dive into those. You can read Zora Neale Hurston, or Alice Walker, or more recently Ernest Gaines (who has passed away now) and see those rural connections. You can see this in the work of Jesmyn Ward. But we often think of rural Black life as something of the past. It was a lived experience, and it still is. Not all Black people are urban.
That’s a misconception that we still have as a country. We think it’s only the larger cities that represent the mainstream, that have a mixture of cultures and races. And at the extremes, we picture urban African Americans and poor rural whites. The more we chip away at those stereotypes, the better. There are people of color, LGBTQ people, wealthy and middle-class people in Appalachia. There’s no one way to be Appalachian. There’s no one way to be American even, even within racial and cultural boundaries.
I think chipping away at stereotypes is one of my main jobs as a writer. Literature opens doors into other worlds. It can hold up those things that mainstream society doesn’t believe: that Black people are there in rural areas. One of my jobs is just holding that up to the light so that everyone can see that they’re there.
Image: Tell us about how you found your vocation as a writer.
CW: I was an only child raised by my grandparents, and I was a very quiet, timid, introverted young person. Reading was a wonderful way for me to reach out to the larger world without having to speak, without having to interact with people. I learned how to read very, very early, and then writing naturally became an extension of that.
My grandparents raised me from the time I was six weeks old, and I was comfortable in their home, but I can remember being so quiet and introverted that many times when I wanted to express myself I would write things down and hand them to my grandmother, and she would read them and then we would have a conversation. It just seemed like a lot of work to talk to adults, and writing was often easier.
I was reminded of this watching Lovecraft Country last night. One of the themes was how children, girls in particular, are often ignored or pushed aside. They’re told: Go on, do your thing, be a child. There are all these things going on in the adult world that I have to take care of. Children are told just to stay in a child’s place—and often they have to figure out where that is.
Image: Do you remember any particular things that you wrote to your grandmother?
CW: Well, I didn’t write just to her; I wrote notes to other adults. Somewhere in my hoard I have a letter to the editor of the local paper that I wrote about racism in my small town. It was just a poem, but everyone was so surprised, because it wasn’t something I would have said out loud. I was probably eleven years old.
Very early on, writing was an outlet for me, a way for my voice to be heard. And I knew early on that in my family writing had a political aspect. My grandfather could not read. He only had a third-grade education. He was an amazing man, a businessman who always helped me do my math homework, but he couldn’t read. So reading and writing well became intentional for me, even political, a way to combat what was going on in my family.
There was nothing like diving into a book and becoming a part of worlds I had never seen, things that I had never experienced. There were no protagonists like me, at least when I was growing up; I didn’t get introduced to those books until after I was in college. But as a girl I read everything I could find, getting weekly reader books as often as I could and borrowing books from my teachers.
My grandmother cleaned houses—she was a domestic worker—and most of the people she worked for were teachers, and every so often one of them would give her a box of books. For me that would be like Christmas. Often they were castoffs that weren’t of much entertainment value for a young girl of nine, ten, or eleven, but I read them anyway. I was reading encyclopedias, geography books, just whatever I could find.
I always loved what Ernest Gaines would say when he was asked what advice he’d give to young writers. He said it often, and I heard it in person once. He’d pause, of course everybody’s got their pen ready, and he’d say, “I have six things for you: Read, read, read, write, write, write.”
That’s it, really. That’s your craft lesson. Do the reading and see what you’re missing. See what you can do. You get under the carriage of it and see how it is that these other writers are able to take you into another world with such ease. And then you pick up your own pen or sit at your own computer and try to replicate that magic, that feeling.
Image: Your first book, Blackberries, Blackberries, is composed of very short stories, often just four pages or fewer. In your second book, Water Street, the stories get longer and intersect more, and then by Birds of Opulence, the chapters are fully interwoven, with story arcs that travel through the whole book. What opportunities has moving into longer and longer pieces offered you? Do you still write short-short pieces between longer projects?
CW: I think I’ve gone through a natural progression or maturation from poet to short-story writer to novelist, but a novelist who redirects traditional forms. I enjoy the fragmented narrative. I really enjoy trying to tell a story using short pieces. I enjoy showing fragments of a life or a town or a family or a set of characters, and how combining their psychological histories can make up a kind of plot, though not necessarily a traditional linear plot. That’s what I’m most attracted to.
The books I love most, my personal classics, are fragmented in some way. Many of Toni Morrison’s novels are fragmented, often by a changing of point of view, very often in the beginning. And there’s Michael Ondaatje, who is also a poet. Louise Erdrich. Almost all of her books are fragmented. I think Water Street was me just testing myself to see if I could write a more traditional, longer kind of short story. You’ll find in The Birds of Opulence that many of the chapters are stories in themselves, fragments that I hope have a cumulative effect.
I gave a reading a couple of days ago and someone asked me about why the chapter “The Crow in the House” in The Birds of Opulence is so short. It’s one of two key chapters before Tookie dies, and the crow is an omen of her death. Someone asked me why I hadn’t unpacked that a little more. As I revised, The Birds of Opulence was more of a traditional novel at one point. It was three hundred pages, maybe a little more. I ended up revising that book the way that I would a poem, striking out things, because a lot of the book is about memory, and I wanted it to have that kind of feel. I ended up feeling like I had forced things into it to give it a more traditional form. So distillation became the key to revision with that book. Maybe with the new book, it’ll be different.
I have a collection of poetry coming out in August of 2021. I love poetry, I’ve always been influenced by it, and I’ve published poems here and there, but this is my first attempt at writing a full volume of poetry. My husband, Ron Davis, has done illustrations for the book. I’m really excited about it and a little nervous. For the longest time as I worked on it, I said, “I’m working on these short pieces,” but I was reluctant to call them poems.
Image: Your story “Water Street, 1979” portrays relationships between Black and white people in a small town across several generations. It’s told from the point of view of a single character, a schoolteacher who is sifting through a lot of images and impressions that don’t all sit comfortably together. As he remembers conversations and incidents from the past, the story becomes a complex mosaic of incidents and feelings. How did that story find its form?
CW: I think it all came from exploration of character. When I’m teaching, I give students a lot of exercises, and I do a lot of exercises myself. If I have an idea for a story, it’s not until the character goes from an idea to someone I can see as a living, breathing, human being moving around their environment with their past, their present, that I can begin writing. I think some of the exercises I did as a way of understanding that character ended up in that story.
In some ways, this is my natural form. A story comes to me most often in this way. And in some ways I have to fight against it. I have to ask myself whether the form needs to be more traditional—or even more experimental.
I’m very interested in memory, both how fallible memory is and how permanent memories are. They’re constantly with us. As we act and react to things, they’re always there. I know “triggering” is sort of a buzzword, but memories are always triggered, right? We’re cooking breakfast and we remember some Saturday morning in our childhood when our mother scrambled eggs over easy while light was filtering in the window. And that was the morning our menses started, or when we got the phone call that our uncle had died.
As a writer, that’s kind of how I walk around in the world, looking for things to pull into my fiction and even my nonfiction. I think memory is very important, both individual and ancestral memories. I’m working on a piece about Aggy, who was my sixth great-grandmother. Since she was an enslaved woman, she’s often listed in documents, including deeds, as “Aggy of Color.” My grandmother never spoke about her. My grandparents both grew up in the same area and lived there all their lives, and their families intertwined. So they both would have known of her and maybe knew stories of her, but they never really talked about her. Maybe they didn’t know about her. She was born in 1795.
When I’m writing about her, I try to imagine what her life would have been like, and part of that’s just imagination. It’s about curiosity. It’s about what I already know about slavery from what I’ve read, and this desire to tell a different story. I don’t want to tell the story that I already know, but I want to tell Aggy’s story as truthfully as I can. What did she think about on a daily basis? What was she remembering? That’s how my process works for anything I’m writing.
Image: You write with such beauty, nuance, and frankness about women’s desire. In your fictional world, conventional wisdom says a girl’s emerging sexuality is a dangerous force that needs to be tamped down—especially from the point of view of older women who’ve lived long enough to see its consequences. But you also show us plenty of moments where desire leads a character towards freedom, joy, even healing and salvation. What draws some characters (say, Yolanda and Lucy) to relationships that make life stable, and others (say, Mona and Tookie) to relationships that make life chaotic?
CW: I think there’s a continuum. I think about that when I’m writing those characters. What does it mean in a woman or girl’s life to have desires fulfilled or not fulfilled? And what makes the difference? What if something is fractured? Or what if you end up in a relationship unlike anything you saw mirrored in your childhood, if you never saw a heterosexual relationship that was solid and foundational and seemed to be satisfying? What do you do with that as an adult woman? Does having that solve all your problems? Of course we know that in Lucy’s case, in Birds of Opulence, it doesn’t. She has other things to deal with.
I like to write about that continuum of desire and satisfaction with women and girls. I think probably the elder woman who wags her finger is an amalgamation of all the women I grew up with. So many of their beliefs were steeped in religion and politics of women doing the right thing, whatever the right thing was. And they thought any kind of desire a woman had should be tamped down in some way.
Image: The church is the social and spiritual backdrop of the world you write about. It’s a source of comfort for many, and some of its members are genuinely charitable, but it can also be narrow and hypocritical, especially in its judgment of women who seem too sexual. What role did the church play in your world, growing up? Have you known church communities that have been nurturing without being gossipy or repressive, or is it always kind of a mix?
CW: I’ve known lots of religious communities that were open and spiritual and respectful of the whole woman, the whole human being. Again, you’re talking about a continuum. In the church I grew up in, there was definitely a respectability politics underlying this idea of the girls being good. And “good” meant a combination of what a certain interpretation of the Bible meant by it and what each individual set of parents thought it meant. That’s a writing exercise that I often give students: What does being good mean in your family?
The church I grew up in was Free Will Baptist, which is a really hardcore religion. There were other sects with much healthier attitudes, with much more freedom. We shared a minister with another church, and we had church on first and third Sundays, and second and fourth Sundays he went to another church. Then there would be revivals and dinner on the grounds, and special groups or preachers would come in, and we had Sunday school and Bible studies and Bible school.
So we were in church a lot. Sometimes on those Sundays we didn’t have church, we would go to a neighboring church. Sometimes we’d go to one of the white churches just up the road, because it took a little bit for us to get to our church, the Black Baptist church. When I was young, I often went to the white Bible schools, and I made all my cottonball lambs and said my verses. George Ella Lyon has a wonderful poem, “Where I’m From,” where she says, “I’m from He restoreth my soul with cottonball lamb and ten verses I can say myself.” And that’s sort of my amen corner. I’m from that, too.
Image: We often hear your older characters draw on hymns and psalms as sources of strength and deliverance, but at times they have to face the problem of God’s silence in the face of suffering. Is there a tradition of theodicy that’s particular to rural Black Kentucky? Or is that just a mystery that’s beyond words?
CW: I think that it is a mystery beyond words and probably not something definitive. I think perhaps there’s some reflection of my grandmother in those characters, because I watched her struggle. She never said she was struggling, but as a child and young woman who observed more than I spoke, I saw how much pain and turmoil she was often in between her prayers. She wrote religious poems on the backs of envelopes or on her stationery, and when major things would happen, like when her youngest daughter died, I could see her struggle within her religion.
My grandmother got married very early. She was fourteen, and my grandfather was almost twenty, I believe, much older, which was the tradition back then. She often told me about her best friend dying in childbirth. Even all those years later, she would get very quiet and upset and sometimes cry about it. They both had gotten married at fourteen or fifteen. Again, memory’s a frail thing, but my grandmother would say she died because she was too small to give birth to the child.
When she talked about it, I could see her struggling. It was nothing she ever said. Maybe in some ways, because I was a writer, it was all happening in my imagination. But I saw her go through that several times. Sometimes it wasn’t over anything huge. I remember when a storm blew over the smokehouse that had been sitting on their property for most of my grandmother’s marriage, I could see her struggle: If I am such a woman of faith, and I pray so much and so hard, and I’m always doing the right thing, why do these things happen? Why did this smokehouse blow over? I have work to do there. The smokehouse was where she would place her canned vegetables and hams. It had always been there. Her father-in-law helped build it. I could see her questioning.
I just watched the pain in her face when these things would happen. I think she really struggled with my aunt’s death. My aunt died in her thirties from an aneurysm, just sort of out of the blue. My grandmother would say things like, “A child is not supposed to go before the mother.” And she’d lost three children by that point. She’d lost her oldest daughter, her youngest daughter, and one child shortly after it was born. And she had seven children.
Church, going to worship in the building itself, was just one part of the rural Black religious experience that I grew up with. The other part was the daily walk with God. And when these things shook your faith, what happened after that? Sometimes it meant the preacher would come. He lived probably forty-five minutes away, and he would have to come if someone had died, or if my grandparents were shook in faith somehow and it wasn’t time to go to church.
I remember a lot of moments like that: an elder would be speaking about something, and my job was to be quiet in the other room. Of course if the preacher was there, it was a big deal. The house was spotless, and my grandmother was running around trying to give food out. I always knew something had happened for him to be there.
Image: Mothers are ambivalent figures in your work—tenacious, protective, comforting, but also sometimes smothering and even terrifying. In Birds of Opulence, we see that a loving, wise, and beloved matriarch is also capable of violence against her child. What is the source of that fit of violence in Minnie Mae? Why is mother love so fierce and so extreme sometimes? And what makes a good mother?
CW: As a matter of fact, I’m writing an essay now about corporal punishment in Black families, and in my family. I don’t often talk about this, but when I was writing Minnie Mae, I was trying to think of her as a woman of a particular time period. I think this idea of whipping a child into submission is steeped in religion. What is the proverb? “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” But I also think that in African American families, this idea of beating someone into submission, or into good, or into doing the right thing, comes from slavery. It has to do with ownership. I think a lot of parents think of themselves as not only the protectors but the owners of their children.
There are two sides of being a parent: I need you to do this because I am your parent and you need to respect me. But also, I am your parent, and I’m trying to protect you from the world, and I need you to fear this from me, because that’s better than fearing it from whatever might happen out in the larger world, if you get there. I think part of that is underneath that moment when Minnie Mae beats Tookie.
Image: Even after that happens, Tookie doesn’t leave home, like some of your other daughters do. As these two women age, Minnie Mae and Tookie are partners in caring for a daughter, for grandchildren, and for a whole web of lives. What makes Tookie stay with her mother?
CW: I think she stays out of duty, and a sort of stereotypical idea of a woman’s role in a family. She sees it as her duty, her brothers see it as her duty, and even her mother sort of sees it as her duty. She’s not married. She doesn’t have a husband to take care of, so what else should she be doing? This sounds horrible to me, but I think it’s how these characters would see it.
Generational progressions—and sometimes regressions—are a big part of Birds of Opulence and of all my writing. This book grapples with the question of what we keep and how fragile ancestral memory is. What do we maintain because is it in the blood? Do we carry the things our parents carried because they’re ingrained all the way back from our ancestors? Or do we have a choice to change things for the next generation, for ourselves? What traditions, even what dysfunctions, do we keep, and what we can we discard?
I think Tookie hopes things will be different for the next generation. I think that’s why she’s so upset when Yolanda is born and is another girl. She really wishes male-hood for her, because she thinks she would have a better chance of breaking these boundaries as a man.
Image: Your younger characters seem less religious than Minnie Mae and her generation. Is that because they’re young and the church is so stifling, and faith is something they’ll grow into later? Or has there been sort of a generational shift? Do younger characters have a different form of spirituality?
CW: I think there’s been a generational shift. My Opulence, Kentucky, is sort of like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Ernest Gaines’s Bayonne: I write about it over and over, with recurring characters. And so as I’m writing a novel, one thing that I think about is, what will happen with the next generation? As I wrote Birds of Opulence, I already knew what Mona and Yolanda would be like as adults, because they had appeared in Water Street.
Traditional religion, the kind they grew up with, is not as important to them as it was for their parents, particularly for their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. For those generations, that involved a kind of churchgoing that wasn’t just for religion’s sake, which is how I grew up. Church mattered for my mother, grandmother, and grandfather because they lived such an isolated life. It was the only opportunity they had to dress up, to go be with other adults, to have a communal experience. This later generation of characters from Opulence has other ways to have community. And they also learn how to be spiritual, to have some of their own traditions of worship, sometimes combined with those of their ancestors, and sometimes not.
For example, I write about nature a lot. I think nature’s capacity to heal Black women is important, and that becomes important for my characters later on. (Actually it’s something that they may have known earlier, if they had listened and watched carefully enough.) I think that if Lucy had been able to open up to nature, the trees, the woods, the rivers, the lakes, to all the healing properties the woods could have afforded her, things might have turned out differently for her.
Of course, she has a mental illness that would have taken some medication, but the medication of nature, with its propensity to heal, could have been important for her, if she had stayed long enough to experience it. Lucy is a character I often think about. I mourn for her still. I often think, if I had been Lucy’s friend, I could have taken her on a fishing expedition—even though I don’t fish. We could have walked along a beach, had some girls’ getaways. I think about these things for her all the time.
All that to say, there are other ways these characters find healing. Some of them still rely on the practices of traditional religion, but that’s not an end all, be all.
The church I grew up in was so ensconced in the community that people even depended on it for food at times. My grandmother would say, “We’re going to take this extra food to church because I know that so-and-so doesn’t have food.” There are programs now in churches to help people connect, but I don’t think there’s that depth of interconnectedness in the church community that you used to have in rural towns.
Image: Occasionally we also see glimpses of a spirituality connected to Africa, as when Minnie Mae in Opulence senses the presence of “old-time people from across the waters.” There’s also this mysterious black leather satchel preserved in the town museum, said to have been brought from Africa. Does that satchel have a backstory, in your mind? Is African spirituality present in the world of your stories in other ways, too?
CW: Yes. If you look at the cover of Birds of Opulence, which my husband did the art for, it’s a Sankofa, a bird with its head turned to look over its back. I also have a Sankofa bird on my desk which a friend brought back from Ghana. When we started talking about cover ideas with the publisher, it was the first thing I thought of. It’s an important symbol in the Akan religion. The bird is always moving forward, but looking back at the past. And it usually carries an egg or a seed, a symbol of life. There’s a saying that goes with it. A literal translation is, “Go back and fetch it.” Or you could say: You have to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going. I tried to use that concept in the book.
Somewhere on my desk I have a little wooden box of Akan symbols, the Adinkra. The heart on the satchel and the Sankofa bird both come from the Adinkra. I am working on a prequel to Birds of Opulence set in Africa and the antebellum South, and that symbol comes back in that book.
Image: The theme of mental illness, particularly in mothers, and particularly as a reaction to grief or physical shock, appears in a number of your stories. Why is mental illness such an important part of the landscape of your books?
CW: I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill. My mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic before I was born, and that was part of why I ended up living with my grandparents. She had a psychotic break early on, before I was born, and then after I was born, she had another break.
I’ve always studied mental illness in a particular way, both as self-study and as a study of my mother. It’s always been one of my haunts—and one of my fears as I was growing up. When I reached each milestone, I’d think, “Okay, I’m eighteen. Is this it? Do I have it?” When I had a hard test to study for in college, or went through a break-up, or got divorced, I’d think, is this going to set it off? I read a study that said if you don’t have it by twenty, you’re not going to get it, so I’d mark the decades. Mental illness was one of my personal haunts, and it became one of my literary haunts.
I have watched my mother go through her illness, get control of it, and find ways to live with it. I’ve seen the ways families don’t know how to handle mental illness, don’t have coping mechanisms in place. And when you add religion, you have this idea that you can pray it away if you just pray enough. There’s also the invisibility of people with mental disorders. I’ve I often watched that. In rooms where my mother was present, someone would say, “She needs to do this,” or “We need to do this for her.” She was medicated and lived on her own, was successful in working and living her life, but because of the circumstances of her initial breakdown, there was a fear and an invisibility around her that the family could never break through.
And in a small town where everyone knows each other, there’s a stigma. That was sort of my legacy in the town in the extended family, among the girl cousins, being the crazy woman’s daughter. “Which one are you? Oh, you’re her daughter.”
It really gives me satisfaction to hear that a book club has read my book and the primary topic of conversation was mental illness in women and the way it has been dealt with historically, in Black women specifically. I’m glad when that’s out in the open. Many times when I’m on tour, it comes up. Very often someone in the audience will stand up and say, “I never said this to anybody, but my daughter went through that, and reading this book helped me and my husband to talk about it.”
Of course that wasn’t my intent. I just meant to tell these women’s stories as truthfully as I could, particularly Francine’s (in “In Plain Sight”) and Lucy’s. Theirs are the most serious cases, but some of the other women in my stories have issues that a good therapist could have helped with, if not medication. I think even Minnie Mae, strong as she is, could have been helped by a good therapist, but of course there wasn’t a therapist in the fifties and the sixties.
Image: What was your 2020 like?
CW: I’ve really struggled. It’s been a hand-wringing time for me with everything that’s going on in the country, the civil unrest and racism. And the pandemic has been draining for me. My husband has a lung condition, so we’re those people who don’t leave the house. We’ve ordered groceries in and also had boxes of produce delivered from my cousins who still farm.
Here in Kentucky, the Breonna Taylor case had a ripple effect, of course. She had been an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, where I teach. I was supposed to be on research leave this semester, and I had gotten into all these wonderful residences, but of course I couldn’t go. I ended up spending a good deal of what was supposed to be research time on questions and committees related to her death. It’s much easier to say no if you’re in California or New York or Seattle, all places I was supposed to be.
So I spent a lot of time working on my little part in making the university a more equitable place for diversity and inclusion. I’ve been happy about that, but at the same time, I’m the kind of writer who relies on quiet, and I’m an emotionally sensitive person. It’s been difficult when people around me have had Covid, or when friends have had relatives die of Covid. Two of my children have had close scares at their jobs. One works in a group home. All of that has really taken a toll on my writing. I’m still getting some writing done, but not as much as I hoped.
Image: What are you working on, when you get the time?
CW: I’m working on a novel about a woman who is displaced. At sixteen, she’s moved from Opulence, Kentucky, to “the city,” which is sort of a mixture of Chicago and New York. It’s set in 1968, and she’s finding herself. She’s been displaced from everything she knows and has gone through some hard things, and the civil rights movement is happening. She’s trying to find her way away from home and away from the watchful eye of her mother. Religion is in there. Who is she going to become under the eye of respectability politics? On the fringes of the women’s movement? In the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations?
I’m also working on Aggy’s story. And on a nonfiction book about my mother and her illness, a memoir in essays.
Image: One of my favorite passages in your work is the description of the history of the town name, “Opulence,” as a declaration of pride in Black rural life—where do you find opulence in your life?
CW: One reason I’ve harped on this idea of nature is that I’m of that congregation, so to speak. I grew up in nature. I live in the city now and have been a city dweller for a number of years. I don’t necessarily hike, but I enjoy finding patches of land, like the nature sanctuaries we have here in Lexington. There’s richness in that.
During the Covid times I have grown a garden. It’s nothing like the grandiose garden my grandmother had, just a pot here and there, mostly tomatoes since I love them so much. I’ve also encouraged my children to garden. My daughters who’ve never gardened before have had cantaloupe and potatoes, and that’s been very, very soothing. I find those things opulent.