Crystal Wilkinson’s writing
praises the unsung humanity of country life through stories and
characters that show its depth and diversity
Crystal Wilkinson, author of the newly released collection of
short stories, Blackberries, Blackberries, sits in her
second-story office at Lexington’s Carnegie Center and looks out
the window. She leans on the desk, elbows bent, clasping and
unclasping her hands in a slow, thoughtful motion as she recalls
her beginnings as a writer.
“When I was little, I remember making my first book. I had
written several stories on notebook paper. I decorated the cover
and then I took my grandmother’s sewing machine and sewed down the
side, so that it was really bound. There was something about the
feel of those bound pages that made me feel like a real
Wilkinson brushes her hair off her shoulder as she speaks softly,
her manner warm and direct, her voice tinged with Kentucky
country, about her childhood and about growing up as a young
African-American woman in rural Appalachia.
“All I can be is who I am. I am an African-American and I
have all those experiences, but I am also a country woman and I
carry those experiences with me too. In Blackberries,
Blackberries, I purposely put in educated folk, uneducated,
country, aging women, middle-aged women, young girls to try and
express the vastness of this experience.”
Growing up on a 60-acre farm near Indian Creek in Casey County,
Wilkinson enjoyed the solitude of growing up country. The
single-purposed, slow-paced life of the farm provided Wilkinson
with time for a childhood full of love and stories from her
grandparents, mother, and aunt.
“I had three mothers-my mother, my grandmother who raised me,
and my Aunt Lo who I spent the summers with. I was an only child
and I was raised by older grandparents, so when they got tired of
playing with me, I would read and write. I became a bookworm and a
writer because of this,” she says.
At 16, Wilkinson graduated from Casey County High School and
entered Eastern Kentucky University in the fall of 1979 to pursue
a degree in journalism.
“I was one of the first people in my family to go to college,
so there was a big discussion about what I should major in. I
probably should have majored in English because journalism didn’t
feed my creative spirit,” Wilkinson says.
She continued to write for herself in personal journals, penning
short stories and poetry. In 1985, Wilkinson graduated from EKU
with a BA in journalism. During the next 11 years, as she moved
from different public relations jobs with the Lexington-Fayette
Urban County Government and the Kentucky Arts Council, as well as
serving as director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium,
Wilkinson continued to write in her spare time, crafting stories
and writing poetry.
During this time Wilkinson met Kentucky poet Frank X Walker and
other poets and writers drawing on the same Appalachian and
African experiences as herself. The group began to meet and soon
formed itself into an Affrilachian writing group. By 1998,
Wilkinson had written several stories that eventually became her
debut collection, Blackberries, Blackberries. The next step was
finding a publisher that understood her unique artistic vision.
“A lot of big publishers have black imprints, but they are
looking for a specific type of African-American writer, like the
next Terry McMillan. Affrilachians don’t fit that type. Some of my
love letters (rejection letters from publishers) said that they
couldn’t believe that people, especially black people, would still
be living in rural areas, but those were the people I was writing
Wilkinson’s misgivings about large publishers led her to choose a
small press to represent and publish her collection. She contacted
a small British publisher, Toby Press, that gave her individual
attention and full editorial privilege. A limitation of choosing
Toby Press is that the book is not available in bookstores, but
only directly through the publisher. However, the smaller press
provides a focused marketing and advertising campaign for the
collection, a benefit Wilkinson feels certain she would not have
been given at a larger publishing house.
“None of this publishing process has been very deliberate on
my part. I never considered that I was writing toward a
publication. I’d just always been writing,” she says.
Despite juggling her job as assistant director of the Carnegie
Center, maintaining the Writer Mentor program, teaching writing
workshops as well as serving as faculty chair for the Governor’s
School for the Arts, Wilkinson still writes an hour a day and
continues to fashion short stories from her experiences.
“The short story is a unique art form that I love. The short
story connects us all-the beauty of the genre is that it contains
a glimpse of humanity and it doesn’t matter where on the continent
or in the world you are, you can connect to that.”
Readers of Blackberries, Blackberries will identify with the
humanity in the 18 stories that are included in the collection.
Themes of independence, respect, tradition, and resilience course
through Wilkinson’s stories as distinctive and realistic. Her work
paints real people rooted in the Kentucky experience, embedded in
“I have described Blackberries, Blackberries as a praise song
for the rural black woman, who is as varied in her circumstances
as urban black women or white women or women of other cultures. I
hope that these stories attack all of the built-in records that
people have formed in their minds as to what rural Kentucky life
The stories of Blackberries, Blackberries
In the 18 stories contained in
Crystal Wilkinson gathers a healthy mess of narratives as shiny
and juicy as the fruit of the title. The narrators range from an
80-year-old woman waiting to die in “Waiting on the
Reaper” to a 12-year-old boy who lives in a house full of
women in “Girl Talk.” The narrators, mostly women, speak
plainly of life, death, relationships, and family.
“Women are keepers of traditions in families, in African
families and in Appalachian families, and those stories are passed
down. It was not my intent to leave men out or treat them as less,
but my stories are informed by a woman’s experience,” says
In “Hushed,” a young girl uncovers a secret relationship
between her sister and a deaf boy down the road. In “Music
for Meriah,” a young woman struggles with her coming of age
while trying to comfort an overly protective mother who fears her
daughter’s independence. In “Women’s Secrets,” a young
girl lies in bed eavesdropping on a passionate breakfast
conversation between her grandmother and mother about love and
appearances. While many of the stories rollick with music,
laughter, and joy, Wilkinson’s stories also deal with the rawest
edges of humanity-domestic violence and murder. She writes about
real-life experiences, and some stories include more adult themes.
In “No Ugly Ways,” a mother relates the story of her
daughter, Pearl, who is serving time for killing an abusive
“I’ve freed myself to let my stories tell themselves. They
come to me in different ways. I try to tell it the best way as it
comes to the vessel, to me,” says Wilkinson.
Certainly the blackberries that Wilkinson gathers are lasting and
complex, a lifetime of sorrow and joy in a single juicy fruit.
A place for WRITERS
If a writer needs a mentor, a sounding board, an editor, or
just a clean, well-lit place to write, Lexington’s Carnegie Center
for Literacy and Learning is the spot. Located at 251 West Second
Street in the old Lexington Public Library, the Carnegie Center
houses an art gallery and many rooms for reading, writing, and
As a community literacy center, the Carnegie Center sponsors book
clubs, writing workshops and conferences, after-school tutoring,
and art exhibits. The workshops range in subject from computer
literacy to editing to basic Spanish to writing poetry and
children’s literature. For more information about registering for
a workshop, call (859) 254-4175 or check out www.carnegieliteracy.org
for a complete listing.
The Carnegie Center’s regular public hours of operation are Monday
through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
How to pick up BLACKBERRIES
Copies of the book Blackberries, Blackberries can be ordered
for $15.95 plus shipping costs directly through The Toby Press
from its Web site, www.tobypress.com;
by phone at 1-800-810-7191; by fax at 1-800-810-7703; or by
writing The Toby Press, P.O. Box 8531, New Milford, CT 06776-8531.