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A conversation with 2019 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Crystal Wilkinson

By Staff | Oct 4, 2019

Wilkinson, center, gives advice to a local author about her work, as Anthology of Appalachian Writers editor Natalie Sypolt, left, and Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities Director Sylvia Shurbutt, right, listen, during the 2019 Writers Master Class at the Robert C. Byrd Center on Sept. 26. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Appalachia Studies and Communication Director Sylvia Shurbutt first met Crystal Wilkinson through her stories, which she said spoke to her the most in Appalachian literature, along with the work of Frank X. Walker. So it was no surprise when Shurbutt asked Wilkinson to be the 2019 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence.

For Wilkinson, the honor was more than a chance to publicize her work. It was a chance to shed light on some aspects of Appalachian history, which are often overlooked.

“A few years ago, I looked up the definition of ‘Appalachian’ in the dictionary, and saw it said ‘of white race.’ If all Appalachians are deemed miners, white and bare-foot, where is there room for African Americans in Appalachia?” Wilkinson said, mentioning she is one of the founders of the Affrilachian Poets organization. “I don’t think African Americans are portrayed at all in Appalachian history, and we’re all changing that. The hope is one day, this won’t have to be emphasized, that we won’t have to remind people that we are here.

“As most authors, I was plagued by my upbringing,” Wilkinson said, mentioning she grew up with her grandmother and grandfather, who was a tobacco farmer. “I’m from a strong, proud black family that lived on the same plot of land for three generations. I loved to play in the woods. I think the combination of all those things made it impossible for me to be anything but a writer.”

While Wilkinson has won many national awards for her writing, her focus has not been on the awards, but rather on telling the untold stories of African Americans, mental illness and domestic abuse in Appalachia.

“My mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic before I was born. She was hospitalized for almost a decade, in-and-out, between 1960 and 1970,” Wilkinson said, mentioning her daughter has the same disease, which is today known as bipolar disorder. “That’s why I write so much about mental health in Appalachia.”

In spite of her mother’s disorder, Wilkinson made the most of her childhood, writing poems from a very young age. Her grandmother saved those poems in a box, which Wilkinson found years later. Although she is known more as a novelist, Wilkinson still writes poetry for personal enjoyment. She has even used letters written by her grandmother to her mother’s doctors as inspiration for poetry.

Wilkinson’s grandfather has also become the inspiration for some novels she is beginning to write.

“I’m writing a series of water witch stories. My grandfather was a ‘water witch’ or a ‘dowser.’ He was one of those gifted people who would walk around with a stick and tell people where to build their wells,” Wilkinson said, mentioning her grandfather was also respected in their white community for his folk remedies for illness, such as crafting copper bracelets to remove arthritis.

The breadth of Wilkinson’s personal and family history has equipped her to tell many stories that still need to be heard across the country.

“I don’t do any research, so I guess a lot of it does come from my past, growing up in rural Kentucky,” Wilkinson said. “I write a lot about those subjects, about women’s issues and other topics that don’t get talked about a lot.”

In the few days Wilkinson spent in the Eastern Panhandle this past week, she said she enjoyed sharing her stories with schools, libraries and other local community groups.

“I really looked forward to talking to the high school students – that’s been the highlight of my week. That was amazing,” Wilkinson said. “For Shepherd University to put together something like this, that includes those of so many age groups, I just think is wonderful.”