Students and faculty alike filled the Alumni Room in Old Main Friday afternoon to listen to award-winning fiction writer Crystal Wilkinson’s work, which centered on family struggle and the tension between rural and urban landscape. English professor Cyn Kitchen introduced Wilkinson, telling us to relax our collars, take a deep breath, and get comfortable in our seats to receive these flesh-and-bones characters.
“These characters cannot be separated from their setting, nor the setting from the characters, for without one, you don’t have the other,” she said.
As she stepped to the podium, Wilkinson’s warmth was immediately apparent as she asked the audience how we were and telling us how much she enjoyed looking at the faces of her audience members before she started a reading. Then, donning a pair of bright red reading glasses and, citing her Facebook status about giving a reading at Knox, she spoke of the comments she had received from her friends with past and present connections here.
Wilkinson then launched into her short story entitled “Holler,” a piece recently published by Slice Journal that Wilkinson characterized as a “black Appalachian story.” The story followed an unnamed narrator and her brother Tall Boy, who had recently been released from an institution where he had been committed after finding the body of a farmer who had been beaten and dragged to death while working his fields. The narrator struggles to reconcile a fight between her husband and brother. Wilkinson stopped halfway through, saving the rest of the hour for fielding questions from the audience.
The first question, speaking to Wilkinson’s fine ability for characterization and suspense, asked what happened in the end. The author replied that the ending dealt with the rise of racism, and the characters faced the decision of whether to stay at home in the mountains or move to the city because of it.
Another question posed asked which writers influenced her the most, to which she responded, “A very long list. I have phases that I go through, culturally.” She cited Junot Diaz as one of her favorite Hispanic authors. Also mentioned were Neela Vaswani, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gayl Jones, Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison, Wilkinson’s personal “high priestess of writing.”
Wilkinson’s grandparents raised her in Indian Creek, Kentucky, situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Her roots in Appalachia and the difficulties of being the only black family in an all-white community continue to influence her work.
“I’ve always lived life straddled,” she said. “Even when I’m not writing Kentucky, I’m writing Kentucky.”
Wilkinson has written two short-story collections: Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street, both published by Toby Press. She has recently established, with the help of her soon-to-be husband, a literary journal called Mythium, which caters to writing by ethnic writers and writers of color. She commented on her surprise at how much scope the project has gained. Famous writers from around the world have submitted work.
“We’re trying not to be star-struck,” she said.
Ending her reading, Wilkinson invited the audience to look over copies of Mythium.
“If you don’t buy the books, look at them. Touch them,” she said.