Whether in her role as a writer, teacher, or small business owner, Crystal Wilkinson does not shy away from tackling tough issues.
From exploring intergenerational threads of mental illness in her latest book, Birds of Opulence, to hosting community gatherings and salons at Wild Fig Books & Coffee, which she owns with her partner Ron Davis, Wilkinson is creating a safe space for diverse audiences and patrons to connect to the heart of difficult issues that affect us all.
Her first book since 2002, and her first novel, Birds of Opulence tells the story of the multiple generations of the Goode-Brown family living in the fictional black township of Opulence. It’s not unlike the rural Casey County setting of her own childhood, where she was raised on a farm by her grandparents.
Wilkinson says that people often come up to her after public readings of Birds of Opulence to share their families’ encounters with mental health problems.
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“I’ve had lots of people tell me they’ve had mental illness in their own family and that it is interesting for them to see up close,” says Wilkinson, whose non-linear writing in the novel details how the thread of mental health struggles weaves throughout several generations of black women in the mountain South.
“My mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, so the fact of mental health was very much at the center of my life,” says Wilkinson, who is currently writing a nonfiction book about her mother’s illness in addition to a short story cycle, children’s book and poetry collection.
Wilkinson says the book-in-progress about her mother, who still struggles with mental health, is “very difficult to write.”
“What I tried to do with this book is examine the intergenerationality of not just mental health but the psychology and, sometimes, the pathology that’s carried forward in generations,” Wilkinson says.
It would be an oversimplification to imply Birds of Opulence is only about mental health. It explores the intersection of race, gender, class, place and identity in a freely poetic language that Wilkinson says lends itself to writing about memory.
“I used to deny being a poet, but with this book, I embraced it,” Wilkinson says. “It was too hard to try and dissect my poet self from my fiction self, and I guess I’ve grown enough to say that I no longer have to.
“It was the perfect way to tell this particular story, and I’ve discovered that as a writer, the poet is part of who I am, so why hide her and try to quell her energy?”
Wilkinson’s freedom to experiment as an artist working on multiple genres bleeds over into her and her partner’s unique approach to small business ownership.
Their first attempt at running a bookstore came in 2011, when they bought the old Morgan-Adams bookstore on Leestown Road and changed the name to Wild Fig Books.
Their Leestown location closed after four years, in large part due to decline in sales that Wilkinson linked to the opening of Half-Price Books on Nicholasville Road.
Wilkinson says they didn’t think they would ever reopen, but when they looked at the property at 726 North Limestone, they could imagine that space becoming the kind of community-centered bookstore they had hoped to cultivate at their first location.
They changed the business name to Wild Fig Books & Coffee, added a food and drink component, and got rid of the used book model in favor of a strategically selected lineup of new books designed to cater to the community.
The new iteration of Wild Fig has been described as a “literary boutique.”
“I like to think of it as a literary country store,” Wilkinson says.
Kentucky poet and poetry editor of the Oxford American Magazine Rebecca Howell said in an interview this year, “Crystal and Ron have somehow created a place that is part bookstore and cafe, part town hall and writing center. I honestly can’t think of any place like it.”
Wild Fig has become known for a steady stream of community events, workshops, storytimes, salons and other community-driven endeavors in its seven months at the Limestone location.
“We can always have more people in to buy more lattes and to buy more books, but we also want to foster a continuing conversation around literature, various forms of conversations and not just about literature but about issues,” Wilkinson says. “It’s been pretty important to both of us to foster that. We try to get at it a lot of different ways.”
From a Sunday salon series that explores everything from rural LGBTQ identity to coal mining to slavery, Wild Fig is hosting broad community discussions that feel welcoming to folks of diverse backgrounds. They also offer story time and writing workshops, and they even hosted a live viewing of Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget rollout earlier this year when rumors of a cut to the Kentucky Arts Council were circulating.
Wilkinson, who is also the Appalachian Writer-In-Residence at Berea College, says it is satisfying to see folks come away from these community events with new perspectives and understandings.
“People often leave our events and say, ‘Thank you for hosting this, I learned a lot tonight,’” says Wilkinson. “Not just, ‘I really enjoyed that reading,’ but ‘I learned a lot.’”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.