Crystal Wilkinson is an award-winning feminist poet, novelist, memoirist, and professor from Kentucky. She’s a born and raised country girl and literary force of nature. Her structural innovations start from the ground up with sentences that read like poetry and characters that live and breathe on the page. A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets Collective, she is the current Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.
Wilkinson’s first book, Blackberries, Blackberries won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature; her second book, Water Street, was a finalist for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award; her third book, The Birds of Opulence, won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, The Judy Young Gaines Prize for Fiction, and the Weatherford Award. Her work—fiction, poetry, memoir—has been widely anthologized and published in countless journals. She and her partner, Ron Davis, founded Mythium: A Journal of Contemporary Literature (for writers of color—and an inspiration for Kweli) and now co-own and run the beloved independent bookstore, Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington, Kentucky.
Neela Vaswani is the award-winning author of the short story collection, Where the Long Grass Bends; the mixed-genre memoir, You Have Given Me a Country; the middle-grade novel in letters, Same Sun Here (co-written with Silas House), and a forthcoming picture book, This is My Eye. She is the recipient of the American Book Award, a PEN/O.Henry Prize, the ForeWord Book of the Year Gold Medal, the Italo Calvino Prize for Emerging Writers, the Nautilus Book Award, and many other literary honors. She received a Grammy for her narration of I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World and an Audie Award for her narration of Same Sun Here.
Vaswani has a Ph.D. in American Cultural Studies and an MFA in Writing. She lives in New York City and teaches at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program, and has been a Visiting-Writer-in-Residence at countless schools—from graduate to elementary—all over the United States. She is an education activist in the U.S. and India, and a collaborator with VisionIntoArt and Composers Concordance, two multimedia performance groups based in New York.
Crystal and I have been friends for seventeen years and colleagues at Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. I relished the chance to fan-girl out on my dear and inspiring sister. For this interview, we jawed in person, over email, across phone lines.
Do you remember the first book you bought yourself?
Wow. I’m sure the first book that I went out and purchased with my own money was something wonderful and trashy but I don’t recall what it was.
But the first books that I purchased as a serious writer were books I bought at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. It was a conference with a pretty radical feminist slant then and I was awestruck. That first year I attended, the presenters were Opal Palmer Adisa, Dorothy Allison, Gloria Anzaldua and bell hooks.
What a line up.
Yes. I had never been with other women writers that close up. My daughters were six years old and sat with me at the feet of these women and it was the first time I realized that women with children and women who had work to do and women who were like me were writers. I was lit afire and my confidence blossomed and with that came such an overwhelming belief that I could do this. It was also the first time I realized sisterhood and the extreme power of black women, of a certain kind of woman of any race who was fully open to art. It was a spiritual awakening. bell and I are friends now but back then I thought she was a sort of Messiah and I bought and devoured her book, and books by all the other writers. I loved Gloria Anzaldua too. Dorothy Allison did a workshop that year and gave us a writing exercise and when she said she liked what I had written my heart skipped and that was before I had the capacity to even understand who Dorothy Allison was. I was really shaped by that ability to sit at the feet of writers that I would come to adore. June Jordan. Julia Alvarez. Isabel Allende. Paula Gun Allen. I could go on and on. These women and their books saved my life. And I mean that literally. I was a single mother of three small children, I was newly out of a physical, mental and spiritually abusive relationship. I’ve never thought of it before in this way but these women and these books literally saved my life—from my circumstances, from him, from myself.
Amen. And it’s so interesting to me that all of those sister writers you named are form-rebels like you. Your first book, Blackberries, Blackberries reads somewhere in between a collection of stories and poems. Water Street like a short story cycle/novel. The Birds of Opulence like a novel/epic poem ahead of its time. What is it about form that captivates you? How does it allow you to better tell your stories?
Form is something that I have always been interested in—not just the story a writer tells but how the story is presented and how form meets content. I remember being enthralled with Gayl Jones’s White Rat and especially her story “Coke Factory.” Ricky, the protagonist, seemingly has a mental disability yet he tells the story in his own voice with his own capacities and it’s powerful. I remember carrying that story around and some of my writer friends would say that it was really hard to read but I thought it was so powerful that Jones allowed Ricky to tell his own story.
Carrying it around in your purse?
In my purse and in my heart. I carried the book everywhere I went and that particular story was dog-eared.
I think [that story, “Coke Factory”] was perhaps my first level of awareness of the possibilities of form. I love searching for the most organic form in which to tell a story. I think this strategy was already in my work but seeing another African American Kentucky woman author doing this made me lean more heavily into searching for the best ways in which to tell a story. I remember as I was writing “Humming Back Yesterday” [from Blackberries, Blackberries] trying to think of how a woman who was sexually abused might experience love, might experience the birth of a child as she tries to outrun her trauma. This kind of experimentation has become a very natural part of my process. And rather than lean toward some mainstream idea, I lean toward what feels organic to the story. Novelist A.J. Verdell told me once after we discussed my frustration at the structure of The Birds of Opulence—well maybe it wasn’t frustration, maybe it was fear—that structure was the last frontier.
“Structure is the last frontier.” I need to remember that. What do you mean by “maybe it wasn’t frustration, maybe it was fear” that was holding you back in the early writing of Birds?
I needed to learn to listen to the book and try to let the form arise naturally. There was a time when The Birds of Opulence was big and more traditional and I began to listen to the book and finally made the decision that distillation was the way to go. It was what the book wanted/needed. I found myself paying attention to sentences like I would in a poem. That’s kind of what that particular book demanded.
If it doesn’t feel natural, if it doesn’t feel organic I have to begin again and begin again until it feels right, until it sounds right. In the end it’s all about the truth. The truth of the characters and their lives.
What are your thoughts on compression and fragmentation and what books most inspire you along these lines?
Oh wow! I know a lot of literary traditionalists don’t agree with me but I think fragmentation is the most natural way to tell a story. And all the beauty of compression comes from poetry in my opinion. I didn’t become a poet because I didn’t think I had what I see in my favorite poets—a careful treatment of language that reminds me of song and prayer. I’m so inspired by poets and by poets who also write fiction. Some of my favorite compressionists and fragmentists are lyrical in their narrative approaches. There are so many, a long list of books I go to again and again: Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich; The Meadow by James Galvin; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid; Abeng by Michelle Cliff; Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje; and an entire host of short story cycles beginning with Jean Toomer’s Cane and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio on up to the present. All of these are books of great inspiration for me but my interest is fluid; there are always new books that come in and take the place of others, though most of these have been on my list for a long time.
The concise, heartbreaking fragmentation in your Prince tribute, “Dig If you Will the Picture” featured in Oxford American feels like a revelation in its evocative gaps and silences—what it chooses to say and not say. Do you feel there’s a connection between raw, emotional material and compression/fragmentation?
Yes. I feel as if a hard piece of writing should leave room for the reader to sit with this thing that has happened on the page, and then the emotional landscape of the piece can be even more vivid.
How has your own sense of identity(ies)—yourself as an African-American-country-woman—evolved from book to book?
My primary identity has always been and still is as an African-American-country-woman. I think that perhaps when I wrote the first book I was just accepting that that was who I was and at the beginning of celebrating my ruralness instead of hiding it. I spent a great number of years trying to hide the fact that I was a rural woman because I didn’t want to seem backward or country. When I say country I don’t mean a small town. I mean I lived in a world where our house backed up to the woods. We lived on a gravel road with an outhouse and all of our water came from a well. No inside running water or inside toilets. Our house was heated by wood burning stoves and we could only get one television station but replete with creeks, trees, green land it was such a beautiful place. For much of my young adulthood I was obsessed with trying to hide my accent so that no one would know where I was from. But then I fell back in love with my upbringing and gained the confidence to celebrate my background and to allow my writing to be a sort of praise-song to that upbringing. I think the writing has helped me combat stereotypes about African American rural identities. I haven’t really subtracted any identities in recent years or added any. I’ve been comfortable in my own racial, geographical skin for a number of years now.
What do you feel are the most prevalent stereotypes about African American rural identities?
They are similar to white ones but I think some idea that we lack refinement or education is the primary one.
Have you ever had any difficulties placing your books once written?
I think all of my books have been hard to place. They are all structurally nontraditional in some ways. The stories in Blackberries, Blackberries tend to be located in the oral tradition more than the written tradition and are very short. Water Street is a cycle that doesn’t end in a traditional way. And Birds of Opulence is also temporally inverted at times and plays with point of view and verb tense. It’s a mosaic and is meant to mimic memory in general and specifically ancestral memory. There’s a lot going on in that book. I would wait on the edge of my seat every time someone read it in hopes that someone would “get it.” I was so excited that my agent Erin Cox got it and was appreciative of how hard she tried to convince several mainstream publishers to “get it.” She talked about the characters as if she knew them and I knew that she believed in the book and my intent.
What have been your biggest writing obstacles over the years?
I really don’t care about plot. I can write plot but I find traditional arcs boring. I am much more interested in why a characters does what she does than what she does next. I am driven by the why and not the “what next.” And those books are hard to sell. At least that’s what I’ve been told. But when someone gets what I’m trying to do, that excites me.
I have at least one book that is linear that I hope to publish one day, but it even has its own quirks. It’s still quiet. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s a novel that I love and I love the characters and how insular the plot is. It’s set in the 70s but I have debated with myself for years about setting it in modern day and seeing what happens. I like to think of it as a sort of 70s female Invisible Man but I doubt Ellison would approve of it if he were still with us.
I know all these ideas I have and my various “ways” of telling keep my work from being more popular, but I am hoping that one day the publishing industry will allow more room for inclusion of experimental narratives—though I’m far from being too experimental or radically post-modern in my narrative strategies. For me, each book kind of demands me to learn something new and it takes a while to learn how to write the next book and adhere to the ways in which it needs to be written. All strange I know but I think this kind of artistic, for lack of a better term, approach instead of a more traditional approach gets me in trouble with the mainstream publishing world and frankly it’s often frustrating because figuring how to resolve an issue once would be a fabulous way to do this.
And time is always an obstacle. My life is so busy that even days that are supposed to be devoted to writing get eaten up rather quickly, so it’s hard to get it in and I get really mad at everyone—students, children, Ron, Facebook friends, strangers, everybody (lol) when I’m not writing.
I’m sure a lot of our readers can relate to that feeling.
I know that Water Street is most frequently marketed as a short story cycle or linked story collection. I had the pleasure of re-reading Water Street for this interview and found myself considering it a book ahead of its time in terms of form, and that if you were shopping it around now, it could be sold as a straight-up novel. Did you write it as a story cycle, or did it evolve into one?
I think you can look to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Jean Toomer’s Cane; and then zoom forward to books like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or even Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Anaya Mathis and see that this structure comes and goes out of vogue. I love all of the mosaic forms and write that way intentionally. Publishers and agents seem to celebrate the form cyclically and I seem to miss the celebration each time. I say that in jest but when Water Street was making its rounds through the publishing world and then with The Birds of Opulence there were those who said “This reads like short stories.” It became sort of funny to me after a while. I don’t write for fame or wide acceptance but of course we all writers want our work celebrated in some way and we want readers and those in the industry to “get it” and to understand that the form or structure is intentional. And I do think that Water Street could have been sold as a “straight up novel.” I wrote it as a short story cycle from the very beginning. No, I take that back. I don’t remember which story came first but it was after I wrote a second story and saw how they relied on one another and then I became enthralled with the idea of how each story would rely on one another to say something larger.
Along those lines of related stories…I find it so moving and gratifying that, so far, all of your books are connected either by place or character or both. They stand alone as complete, perfect gems, yet can be read as family. Did those connections arise naturally as the place/characters continued to grip you across books?
These connections did arise naturally, especially once I let go of industry expectations and just let the books be. I am aware that sometimes, if you read carefully, there are contradictions but I think that we live in a world—and many worlds really—of contradictions. It was not difficult for me to keep up with the connections. In fact, I didn’t or don’t. I know this world, yes, but I didn’t want to be my own continuity director in that regard and spend a lot of time trying to be consistent. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter that each book is connected and perhaps not connected in its own way. I know this town well, but in the same way any keeper of the word in any community has variations or various truths around a subject, I allow myself that freedom too.
Is it hard to keep track of the connections? And do you think you’ll return to these characters in the future?
I tried doing a family tree for the Brown/Goode clan and I have met their ancestors on the page and most likely have a prequel going all the way back to Africa if I decide to write it and all of those ancestors make the characters who they are but I don’t rely on a map or a family tree. Perhaps that is in my future but not now. I think I will always return to these characters and their ancestors, they feel like my very own ancestors now and I do like that kind of cyclical knowing and all the ways in which ancestral memory works in regard to looking forward and backward.
Can you talk about your experiences with your publishers?
I have only worked with small presses. I was so grateful to Toby Press for giving me that initial start and enjoyed the hands-on approach of Toby Press as an upstart small press. I adored their marketing campaigns and how much the publisher was willing to invest in my future. They believed in not only Blackberries, Blackberries as a first book but they also believed in me as a writer and were willing to invest in future projects. My writer/publisher relationship is similar with University Press of Kentucky. From acquisitions to publication and beyond, it’s been hands on. And I know a lot of writers are leery of small presses or university presses but my nominations for the Hurston/Wright Award and the Orange Prize for Water Street and my Ernest Gaines Award for Excellence for The Birds of Opulence really speaks to the presses being willing to distribute and market the books. That’s not to say that those things wouldn’t have happened with a large press, I think they would have, but they also were able to happen with the presses I’ve had.
Something I’ve always loved and admired about your work and perspective is how you handle themes of “mental illness.” Your characters (that others might stamp “mentally ill”) are described as being “caught between two worlds” and shown to have different—but not lesser—realities and perspectives than the people around them. It’s as if your characters are sometimes, actually, going sane, rather than going crazy. And yet you don’t shy away from the very real pain and difficulty that madness causes for the person struggling with it and the family supporting her/him.
I’ve gotten excited and not really asked a question here, but what are your thoughts on this?
I’ve been walking about the subject of mental illness my entire writing life. My mother was schizophrenic and I think that’s where it started. I never feared my mother. I remember my grandmother being afraid of her especially when it came to protecting me, but I remember thinking How do we know that she isn’t the most brilliant of us all? What if she simply sees things that we do not see? That stuck with me throughout childhood into adulthood. It’s one of the haunts that recurs in my writing. I’m actually haunted by the varieties of ways there are to be human in this world; the varieties of ways in which there are to live; to think.
Much of your writing touches on the themes of belonging and the outsider. I love how in The Birds of Opulence, Joe—an outsider and a man—is accepted into a female-driven community, family, and place. And he ultimately becomes the one who truly sees, honors, and is held up by the women who were born and raised there. Giving the outsider the last word, in a sense, and quietly showing how he’s earned his belonging, seems radical to me in terms of a “traditional country perspective” or “traditional country narrative.” It also seems like an evolution or departure from the role of the outsider in your previous books, where you explored the dual freedom and loneliness of the outsider. Was this intentional? Have your thoughts on belonging and insider/outsider changed over the years?
Yes. Honestly, I have an obsession with the notion of the outsider, perhaps I have always felt like an outsider—geographically, racially and even psychologically and I’ve always treasured my otherness and possibly even nurtured it to my own detriment at times but in literary terms the outsider character is the one who has always interested me most. Joe as a character, as a symbol does transcend the rural tropes and I think for me he represents how love can transcend blood, geography, everything. Joe’s ability to let go of himself so purely, so wholly so that he can belong—he lets go of judgment, of any urge to make people around him into something or someone else. This is the true power of belonging. Joe wasn’t in this position in early drafts of the book. He was a wooden character, in the background. Still fully himself but just there and one day I just saw him in all his vibrancy and allowed him to step forward and the book shifted in some amazing ways. I made several complete passes through the book just looking at Joe and what he was doing and how he felt and how powerful it was to see him give up his power as an outsider to really blend in and belong. And, yes, my own thoughts of belonging have morphed into knowing that while there are things we can’t control, sometimes the ways in which we become other or outsider is as much choice as it is about anything. It’s a decision. Sometimes a radical decision. Sometimes a passive one but a decision nonetheless.
Joe is also one of the best caretakers in Opulence. He’s so tender and wonderful with his wife, Lucy, who struggles with mental illness. I feel that your work often addresses gender and the traps and harm done to us all because of norms or expectations. How do you feel your sense of gender and gender roles has changed from book to book? Do you actively pursue these themes in your writing?
I don’t think my own sense of gender and gender roles has changed from book to book. I am a pretty radical feminist with radical thinking and beliefs but I grew up in a very traditional way in which men had particular roles in community and in family and women had their own particular roles too. I never believed in that sort of patriarchy but I lived it so in my writing some of the roles that are portrayed is a sort of witnessing or observing of those roles and how they hinder enlightenment or consciousness in rural black communities, so they were intentionally written to allow the reader to observe and make some decisions about the characters on their own, but I know I’ve been surprised in the past when readers have sort of condoned the behavior of some of my characters and that always bothered me a little bit so I guess in those later passes of the novel when Joe stepped forth and presented himself to me in these very vivid ways I kind of rejoiced in highlighting the ways that he lives in this world as a man. There are few hints to Joe’s past and how his city life might have been a little more rough and tumble but coming to Opulence saved him. It softened him but that was a good thing. It saved him. One of the things that I have been really focused on in my new work is nature’s capacity to heal black people. And I think some of that was coming through by the time I finished Birds and projects were kind of crossing.
Joe is also a very different caretaker from a character like Meriah (from the very first story in Blackberries, Blackberries) who takes responsibility for—by necessity—her mother’s well-being. How do you see the relationship between gender and caretaking?
Yes, Meriah, being a daughter, being an only daughter is living up to her expectation as a child, as an only child, as a woman to be the caretaker whether she wants to or not. Joe has a choice. He is still present in a household run by women and he could have easily stood in the background and allowed the women to take the full responsibility of his wife’s care and even when they are older, he could have easily relied on his daughter or granddaughter to take up this issue but he takes it upon his self. I did consciously think about these issues in writing this book and in other books. It’s really time for a radical shift in thinking about who the caretakers are in our communities, in our households, in our families. I have a close friend, a rather well-known writer who is the daughter in a family of sons and even though she is famous and fully involved in her work there is an expectation that she is the one who sacrifices her time, her career, her mind, her physical strength and health to take care of her parents. We’ve got to stop this. We are all equally responsible. And so many women have asked me about Joe, where they can find themselves a Joe.
I’ve always loved your sex scenes and the range of what you’re able to capture from the erotic to the brutal to the chaste to the tender. Also the many points of view you inhabit: male; female; black; white. And how the nuances of power and comfort shift with each portrayal. You do an especially powerful job of showing young women and the confusion of using sexuality and one’s body as relief, a way to seek and search. Can you talk about writing sex scenes? It seems to me it’s a very difficult and unique skill.
The first time someone criticized my work for being sexual, I was taken aback. In my own private life I’m quite reserved in some ways so the first time someone asked me about sex in my books I was quite effected and perhaps a little embarrassed to speak about it but of course my characters are sexual beings. We are all sexual beings and I have just always thought that if I was going to write a character truly then I must explore them completely as a human being. Everything I know about each character doesn’t make it to the page but often knowing something about a character’s private life (that part of life that no one knows about) tells me something about why they do what they do and how they live their lives each day. I don’t write sex scenes for every character but it is certainly a question that I ask myself about each character I write. And what about sex? Food and sex. I always have to know what each character would eat for breakfast whether it makes it into an actual scene or not. And I have to know about their sexual history. And regarding sex, the actual sexual act is always the least important fact in writing a sex scene. Always.
I know you don’t like to talk too much about writing-in-progress, but what can you say about the book you’re currently working on?
The book I’m currently working on is a nonfiction book and it is primarily about my mother’s history of mental illness and how that has impacted me and how I see it affecting future generations of women in my family. It is not a linear look at the subject of mental illness in my family but one that takes various shapes and forms. Memory is not linear.
I think my agent would have loved to see it written as a straightforward memoir but it has come to me in poems, in short bursts, in reflection and I am simply honoring the process of how things come. I have poems and letters. I have written a series of poems based upon letters (that I found during my research) from my grandmother to my mother’s doctors. There may be several books. Maybe the poems are a separate book. I’m not sure. I had a recent inquiry about publishing them separately. I’m not sure yet. Already I’m whispering “Structure is the last frontier” to myself as I write like a mantra. I have to write more of the book so it can show me the way. I am confident that it will show me what it needs to become. The others have.
How is the process of working through factual material (records, ledgers, photos, patient histories) about your mother affecting your search for form this time around? Does having all that material help you to see your mother and her experiences more clearly or does it obscure things or both?
I have over 300 pages of information now, counting new records that I acquired this past summer. I get caught up in the small things. I spent weeks, literally, on documenting what my mother wore and what the records say she brought with her during her initial hospital stay in 1960. She had money, a garterbelt, stockings…I imagine these things being documented and stored and I get stuck there looking at those items in my imagination and seeing my mother wearing them. So you can imagine that if I do that every time I run into something and I stay there and swirl in the information for a while then I will get lost. And I have gotten lost in much of it but I think the story is better off for it. I sit with it for days at a time and then put it all away and just write. It’s both a help and a hinderance. I just wish my mother had lived long enough for her to talk to me about some of these things more. I have learned so much about her as a woman, as a young woman, as a mother than I ever knew before. I think our relationship, though it was wonderful, on some levels could have been even stronger if I had considered my mother as a woman, as a girl and not just purely as my mother. So these kind of things stay with me and some days I spend more time thinking than writing and that too is okay. It’s all leading somewhere. I know that much. So I practice patience and move forward.
So far, how is the writing of this book different emotionally and intellectually?
This book is the most difficult one I’ve ever worked on. Exposing family business via nonfiction is so much more difficult than trying to get at some universal truth through a character. When I write fiction there is always a thread of the truth but revealing truth whole cloth has me in another world. I’ve always been one to tell it all but I find myself trying to distinguish between the whole truth and the art of the truth that may transfer to other people, to readers. I often want to run and hide beneath the fiction. I have even considered writing [this story as] fiction instead of nonfiction but I know that it will be nonfiction now and I will get to the end, whatever it is and then I will go back and see what I’ve written. I have never been a writer who depended on outlines but that’s what I’m doing now for this book. It’s my mother’s entire life. It’s my entire life. It’s my daughter’s entire life. It’s my children’s lives. My grandchildren’s lives. But I’m making my way through it and learning so much about myself. I think I’m more stressed as I’m writing this book. It’s draining so very completely draining. When I write I really need to go lay down not go teach or go meet with someone at the bookstore but I do. I stuff my emotions down and go on about the day. I find ways to survive and come back to other things that need doing. I have to.
How will your themes of “mental illness” evolve in this next book?
I’m not sure how my themes of mental illness will evolve other than things being delivered head-on. I really don’t know what can be done about the ways in which mental illness is handled in our country. As a country we stigmatize, we ridicule, we are terrified of mentally ill people. We don’t even want to talk about the mental illness in our homes when we have mental illness there. I hope that by writing my own truth that people will continue to find theirs and will eventually be able to talk about it.
As a teacher-writer-mother-grandmother-wife-small-business-owner-etc., how do you take care of yourself and protect yourself—in general and as an artist? What advice do you have to offer other women balancing work, family, and art?
I don’t take very good care of myself in general or as an artist. Judith Ortiz Cofer, may she rest in peace, has a wonderful essay, “5 a.m.: Writing as Ritual” in which she says the following:
Empowerment is what the emerging artist needs to win for herself. And the initial sense of urgency to create can easily be dissipated because it entails making the one choice many people, especially women, in our society with its emphasis on the “acceptable” priorities, feel selfish about making: taking the time to create, stealing it from yourself if it’s the only way.
I had this hanging on my writing desk, inside my purse, on the refrigerator—everywhere I could find—just to remind me. I remind myself quite often. I don’t really relax and sometimes it’s okay not to relax. Often I’m so exhausted that all I can do is stare at the walls. I used to laugh at myself but I’ve come to know that this is not good. I can do without rest (though I know I shouldn’t) but I can’t go without writing for too long. Whether the writing is good or just God-awful I have to do it or I’m impossible to live with. I write more than my friends think I do. I do steal time. It’s not as much as I would like but I do it. It is not what I imagine I would accomplish if I lived on an island with other writers but who knows we might not create art at all if we lived in that sort of environment, we might just giggle and share stories and drink mimosas all day or something. My reality is my reality so I strive on. I accept that if I had chosen not to have kids or own a bookstore or any myriad of things that make up my life that I might be writing more but I am not sorry that I am surrounded by my family or the wonderful people at the bookstore. It’s all a choice. I made my decisions.
Do you write every day?
I don’t write every day but I live in the world of my books every day. It’s been a very difficult three or four years. I lost my granddaughter. I lost my mother. I lost aunts and uncles. There is something profound when someone who has known you your entire life leaves. When my mother died I kept thinking that the only person who still saw me as a child was gone. Was I finally a woman? I guess. But since I’m working on nonfiction walking around in the world while writing this book is a heavier burden than when I’m writing fiction. In an ideal world, where money was no option, I’d be writing this book every day so I can get some of the hard stuff surrounding this book out of me. But alas I’m teaching. I’m going to meetings. I’m grading. I’m trying to be human and be in public while carrying this great, huge boulder of an idea and my entire life on top of it and my mother’s entire life. It’s very heavy. It’s all in there and it’s not hiding behind fiction. It’s there.
What are your thoughts on writing about personal experiences, pain, and losses in memoir and how much time do you personally need to pass before you feel you can understand things and/or write about them?
I don’t know. The book I’m working on now is my first memoir so I have no idea. I know this book has changed since my mother left. I started it one way when she was alive. We laughed about it and she said she wanted to go on book tour with me so she could be there when I read from it. I never imagined that she wouldn’t be there for that. I never imagined she wouldn’t be here period. Everything has changed since my mother died. I’m a different person, perhaps more crass. I told Ron the other day that I curse more because there is no one alive to call me down. I still feel accountable to the ancestors of course but still I find myself cursing more because my mother is not here to say, “Crystal Laine, you stop that!” And as far as time passing. She’s been gone a year and I’ve had to begin the book again on some level because the entire voice has changed. The point of view has changed. The urgency has shifted focus. I really wanted to tell her story for her and for other women who suffered through mental institution incarceration but now I find that the story is more about me than I ever thought it would be. I know that’s what a memoir is for but I was so connected to my mother’s life, the details of her life, not so much how I was affected by her life and her mental illness. And how strong our love was.
In your essay, “Dig if you will…” you write that Prince taught you how to “be yourself” and how to save yourself, “again and again.” Can you say more about how you’ve come to (and continue to) be yourself and save yourself?
Prince came into my life at a time when I was being sexually abused so in some ways my life froze there during that time and I’ve always maintained a kind of teenaged love for him. I do accept his short comings as a human being, but I also still revel in his artistry and his ability to put his art first. I think like I said before it’s a balance. Sometimes I’m not myself. Sometimes I’m self conscious and insecure, well I guess that is me being myself too. But what I mean is that sometimes I’m not my best self and that is when the saving comes into play. Prince quite literally saved me from my circumstances. Through his music I survived isolation. I survived sexual molestation. I was able to save myself from suicide through his music, which also taught me the restorative nature of art. Even producing the art can save us. That’s why it’s worth it to wake up at 4 a.m. to produce art. I think Prince was likely his best self when he was making music. I, too, become a little closer to being my best self when I’m writing.
You are such a visual, musical writer. Who are some of your favorite visual artists and musicians and how do these other arts influence your writing?
The artist’s life affects me as much as the writer herself. I love Prince, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Erykah Badu, Helen LaFrance, Valeria Watson-Doost, Basquiat. Just a long list of visual artists and musicians. My tastes are varied and all over the place. I like classics wherever I find them so I like blues, country, bluegrass, some classical, rock and roll. It’s an eclectic taste. I really like what some contemporary women are doing. I’m attracted to the work of Krista Franklin and an entire host of young artists but again I am attracted to how they are managing to live their lives as artists as well. I really miss the days of patrons in the arts and just wonder what some of these artists would/could do if they were given conditions under which to produce freely. A fantasy for most of us. Right?
There have been times when I’ve been in a museum or at a concert and I’ve been rude for running out to head home to work on something. I can’t really write to music but often I can solve a problem in my writing while I’m listening to music but I have to turn the music off and return to my work in order to resolve it. I’m not really sure why that is. I imagine all of us creatives working the same way even though we might not know each other’s artistic language. I used to paint but I don’t any more but I’m still attracted to the process in an organic way not a skilled way. I’ve never played music but there is something, especially with organic forms that take me away from here and return me to where I need to be and I’m able to gather inspiration that I can funnel into my own work.
How does collaboration with other writers and visual artists affect and feed your work?
I haven’t collaborated with other artists for a long time but in the past I have worked with dancers and filmmakers and visual artists with my writing. It was a transformative experience to see a poem about my grandmother and a poem about my breast cancer scare on stage through dance. I cried and cried. They somehow touched the same spot that I was trying to get at when I was writing them. Amazing experience. A friend turned several of my poems into short films which was also a wonderful experience. I would live and work in a village of artists and us feeding off one another all the time if I could. But the quiet, introverted side of me might not appreciate that after a while. But it could be bliss. Talking about this makes me remember how wonderful artistic collaboration is. Ron and I worked together when he designed book covers for my books and that, too, felt like a kind of heaven. For him to read my work and translate what I was trying to get out into a work of art was such a good, good feeling, almost spiritual. It was another level of conversation, of “getting” the work.
I love this quote of yours: “My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did.” This seems to me to sum up your resistance to being shoved into any identity box and how you, by your mere existence and with the force of your writing and voice, expand all the categories society could drop you in: country, black, female, writer, etc. How would you like to see the identity of “country” further expanded? And “black?” And “female?” And “writer?”
I think the first step would be if the world could magically see black women as unlimited, see black people as unlimited. There is still an expectation toward stereotypes. I can be a country, black woman and still be intelligent. I can have an accent and still be educated. And as far as the writing is concerned, that is also unlimited. We are complex—shaped by our experiences, our curiosities, our unlimited imaginations. There isn’t one voice that should be excluded from the black canon or the canon of color. There is room for multiplicity.
How do you think narrative works to push against and change restrictions and limitations on identity?
Identity is fluid. We are never who we were yesterday and I mean that in a generational sense, in a personal evolution sense, on many levels. I like a freer narrative. There has to be structure in order to mimic tension but I don’t really believe in plot as long as there are ideas or situations or even language that creates a sense of friction in the reader’s mind then there is room for the reader as a participant with the book. So a writer’s strategy is everything. Deliberate yes. But it doesn’t have to be stoic or limiting or traditional.
What do you want our many urban readers at Kweli to know about a country-African-American identity?
Almost every generation of black people have country people no matter where the current generation resides in the United States. That is just a fact of slavery. Almost all of our great writers have small town if not rural roots: Ernest Gaines, Gayl Jones, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and on and on. Jesmyn Ward would be a new country writer. I’m not sure she identifies herself this way but I see her coming out of this same tradition. My good friends Nikky Finney, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Kelly Ellis. We are all country granddaughters and all writers. I see this attention to the rural landscape that recurs in all of their work. I think as a fiction writer that I perhaps focus on it more than some writers do. It’s an important perspective and it’s important as a contemporary perspective. Someone asked me once why I write about the “old days.” They were very surprised when I said that some of my characters are living in the “now.” That contemporary country people are a thing. We just aren’t written about so I think it’s important and it cycles back around to that inclusivity conversation. Just as there is room for all of these ways of being black to coexist, there are all of these ways for writing about these varied lives to exist. Ernest Gaines said that he received criticism for his writing not being political enough. I believe that making sure we are seen and our stories heard is political enough even in these tumultuous times. Each time some great horrific thing happens in this nation, I say to myself “Why write?” And each time I circle back around to saying “These stories need to be told. These people matter.” And don’t get me wrong, I love writing that carries the politics on the surface but I just don’t write it. There is something radically political in giving a character who has never had a voice, a character who a reader has never seen close up their opportunity to be heard. Each character represents a segment of the population. That, too, is powerful.
All of my favorite writers are what might be deemed by publishers as “slow writers.” Meaning they don’t churn out a new book every year. I know it’s something I personally feel guilt and stress about—the time that elapses between publications. You write books that are worth the wait, that I think are better for the perspective gained with time and distance. Do you feel a time pressure? And, if so, how do you handle it?
I worried about that for 14 years and now I don’t worry about it any more. I guess on some level I am aware that if I put out a book a decade then my long list of story ideas will not see fruition but I will continue to write the books that work themselves up to the top of the list and demand to be written. I really don’t worry about it. A friend once told me that a writer becomes irrelevant if they don’t produce a book within four years. I just laugh at this sort of thing now. The publishing part of all of this doesn’t bother me as much as it should. I really don’t concentrate on it too much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s there gnawing on my gut but I don’t feel it as strongly as I used to. It keeps me accountable but it doesn’t drive me crazy.
I think hearing that will be a comfort to a lot of people.
You and your husband/visual artist/author/collaborator, Ron Davis, have run your independent bookstore for about six years. The first time I went to the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association as an author with one of my own books, I had a jolt of reality, economics, and representation. I experienced firsthand and en masse how the vast majority of book sellers and librarians are white. Most booksellers and librarians work very hard to diversify their holdings, but with a skewed demographic, I still feel full representation has long odds for artists of color. What do you think?
Some friends of mine in Lexington started a social support group of sorts for women of color called N.T.O.O. which stands for not the only one in the room. As a Black writer it’s not unusual for me to find myself in numerous uncomfortable positions at readings, at conferences, at events where I’m the only person of color. This happens repeatedly at Appalachian events too. I have always loved that quote by Toni Morrison that says “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” So when we decided to open a bookstore it was important to approach it with the same mindset. As writers if there was a way that we always wanted a bookstore to feel; books we always wanted to see on the shelves; a particular ambiance we wanted the store to have; then we had to make sure that our store contained it. We are a black owned bookstore in a gentrified area of Lexington and we wanted the bookstore to feel good to our neighbors and also to anyone who might visit there. But we always had a safe space to be a person of color and to be a writer of color in mind. That was very important to us. We have been told that there are only 50 or so black-owned bookstores left in the country. There is nothing glamorous about owning a bookstore. We do it because it means so much to us. It’s heart work that we are doing. It’s for the community and our efforts to try to walk the talk that we are in this business.
Was opening a bookstore a lifelong dream?
I have genuinely always wanted to run a bookstore even before I ever fathomed publishing a book of my own. Ron used to work for a small black bookstore in Louisville and also worked for a bookstore in Lexington. So we both have always fantasized about this so when the opportunity presented itself we were excited and thanked the ancestors for the opportunity. We envisioned a communal space, a place that was friendly and welcoming and where marginalized people felt at home. We’ve always had a sign on the door that said “friends gather here.” And we don’t mean people who necessarily know one another. We think of literary friends as anyone who has reverence for the written word and wants to see paper and ink survive. A sign that sits right outside our door on the porch says “We are the introverts that the cool kids depend on for survival. So take my hand if you want to live.” It’s also a conversation piece. Ron made it up. He says it’s like we’re not the cool kid but we are their support team. I interpret that in many ways. One way is that artists are often introverts but without that time for reflection and art-making then the books, the paintings the music wouldn’t exist. We see it as our jobs to inspire conversations even though we might not be in the center of the conversations as they are happening. Eccentric? Yes. Essential? Yes.
Yes and yes and thank you! Did you as authors of color want to actively push against the ghettoization prevalent in many American bookstores, where POC/women/LGBTQ/etc. authors reside on separate shelves and sections?
Yes and we do. We have fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children/young adult areas. Period. Our books are carefully curated so that while we don’t have more than 3,000 books at a time we do have selections that sort of call and respond to one another. I often imagine how our books speak to the readers who come in and all the conversations they generate.
Some people have called our bookstore kind of a country store. We also notice that sometimes when people walk in the door they are surprised and a little taken aback. We are in a renovated historical house so the vibe is part bohemian, part country store, part living room, part café.
Ron and I are strange people. We enjoy being strange. We are artists so there is nothing that we do that reeks of mainstream. I mean we are black artists who are introverts who have a bookstore in a predominately white town. Some people accept us, others don’t. We know that some of it is about aesthetics. We know some of it is about race. I quite enjoy overhearing customers discussing how this is a “black” bookstore then stepping out and engaging that same customer into a lengthy discussion about Edith Pearlman whose work we both admired greatly. That kind of discussion might be happening across town in one of the chain bookstores but it might not be. And our salons don’t back away from controversial issues. We’ve talked about gentrification, issues in the black gay, lesbian and transgender community, food deserts…sometimes there is a book that goes with the conversation and sometimes we just have the conversation. We had a jazz listening hour and discussion the other day that was like story time for adults. We have drag queen story time. We are pushing boundaries and we enjoy that.
Are you as eclectic (in form and content) a purveyor as you are a reader?
Yes! Absolutely. On some level we sell what we love to read or would love to read. Ron is just as eclectic (if not more) as I am and he sometimes buys books because of the covers. We buy books that we think are rare, obnoxious even (in a literary sort of way). Like I said we often buy books because we think they would make a great companion read for another book that we have on the shelves. Sometimes we put friends or husbands and wives or domestic partners’ books side by side. A friend of ours poet Rebecca Gayle Howell’s new book American Purgatory sits beside her beau Brett Ratliff’s Bluegrass CD. Noted cultural critic bell hooks recently raved about Eve L. Ewing’s book of poetry Electric Arches. So they make for a good conversation. This is not the sort of thing that other bookstores do.
What were/are your intentions for creating community and diversity via the authors you invite to read at the Fig?
We started out wanting to do all things and to have every author who was coming into town, like one of the bookstore chains but that sort of naturally evolved. Now we support a lot of local authors and we also invite WOC who might be traveling through town for speaking engagements at regional universities. And then we have this wonderful thing that is happening where people have seen us in The New York Times or heard us on NPR and ask (and sometimes demand) to read at our store. That kind of innovative thinking is new. I think the writers that come through sometimes cause a stir at their publishing houses because this kind of preference for a small independent black-owned bookstore over a chain bookstore is unheard of.
How do your experiences as an author with smaller presses speak to your experiences as an independent bookstore owner?
We are willing to look at small and university presses when we are looking for what to put on our shelves. In fact, we make a habit to look at some of those works first. We know we will find out about the books that are most popular in larger houses more quickly and that our distributors will send us emails and galleys of those works but we regularly scout for upcoming works by other authors with small presses or university presses.
In opening the Fig, you and Ron have joined the ranks of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ann Patchett, Larry McMurtry, Judy Blume, Louise Erdrich. What do you think about being one of the only POC author-independent-owned bookstores?
Outside of Louise Erdrich, I can’t think of another POC author-independent and I can’t celebrate that we may be the only; I find that disheartening. I think every city, every town, should have and be able to sustain the kind of work that we are doing.
Have you had an experience in a bookstore where your own books were sold/shelved/displayed that you specifically work against with the Wild Fig? Or emulate?
When my books were first published some writer friends and I formed the Kentucky Book Mafia which was a writers’ group but one of our primary subversive acts was to go into bookstores and move books around. If they saw my books only in the African American section they would make it their business to move them to the literature section or the general fiction section. We get lots of ideas for ways to display books or ideas for readings or salons from other bookstores. We are constantly showing each other things that we find on social media or the internet. Recently I’ve been tagged on social media about The Free Black Women’s Library which came to the Studio Museum in Harlem recently. I believe they started in Brooklyn a few years ago and I am in love with the idea, obsessed with it really, and have been trying to figure out how to make such a program work in Lexington.
Thank you so much, Crystal, for your powerful, lyrical, boundary-less work, your woman-writer example, and your service to our communities. One more question:
What are some things you think we don’t talk about enough as writers, as teachers, as women, as POC, as Americans?
The power of personal stories. Mental illness. The ways in which women demean and hurt each other. The body—all the bodies.