Crystal Wilkinson’s Opulent Ambition

Courtesy Photos

Courtesy Photo

Kentucky poet and author Crystal Wilkinson has won the prestigious Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her novel, “Birds of Opulence.”

“It’s very exciting!” Wilkinson says. “I have such a love of Earnest Gaines’ work, and he’s always been one of my mentors. I mean, not a direct mentor, but I did get the privilege while I was a student at Spalding to hear him read from his work once. I’ve always loved his work and appreciated his Southern sensibility, and I’ve sort of tried to pattern myself after his work with my Affrilachian writing.”

The award recognizes rising African-American fiction writers and is named in honor of Gaines, who is one of Louisiana’s most beloved writers.

“The Birds of Opulence” is about the Goode-Brown family, led by matriarch and pillar of the community Minnie Mae, who is plagued by old secrets and embarrassment over mental illness and illegitimacy. Meanwhile, single mother Francine Clark is haunted by her dead, lightning-struck husband and forced to fight against both the moral judgment of the community and her own rebellious daughter Mona. As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers die, they live with the fear of going mad themselves and must fight to survive.

“It’s a book about African-Americans in a small town in Appalachia,” Wilkinson says, “and mental illness, which I think is a taboo subject for many of us. It’s a book about love and triumph.”

While the book is relatively short at 208 pages, Wilkinson says it took her a long time to finish, which makes the award all the sweeter.

“I’m really excited about the award, and I stuck to my guns over the years,” she says. “I did a lot of editing over the years as I had people read it, but there were some things I just would not budge on. And I’m just happy that some people who’ve read it have gotten it and understand it.”

Her admiration for the judges also plays no small part. “They’re all well-known writers across the country … Francine Prose, Edward P. Jones, Elizabeth Nunez,” she says. “I’m just really excited about it on a number of levels, and I’m glad that there’s a body of people out there somewhere that get it and thought it worthy.”

Wilkinson traveled to Baton Rouge and spent the week there attending events leading up to the awards ceremony on January 19. She also gets a $10,000 prize, intended to support her in her writing.

Wilkinson is the author of two short story collections: “Blackberries, Blackberries,” winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and “Water Street,” a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is the Appalachian writer-in-residence at Berea College and teaches in Spalding University’s low residency M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program. She also owns Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington. “The Birds of Opulence,” her first novel, was released earlier this year.

Previous winners of the Gaines Award include T. Geronimo Johnson for “Welcome to Braggsville,” Attica Locke for “The Cutting Season,” Stephanie Powell Watts for “We Are Taking Only What We Need” and Dinaw Mengestu for “How to Read the Air.” The award is in its 10th year and has become nationally recognized in its role of enhancing visibility of emerging black fiction writers while expanding the audience for this literature. VT

By Lisa Hornung.