Starting a business is not for the faint of heart, and opening a bookstore in the age of e-books, tablets, and smartphones requires a lot of chutzpah. Crystal Wilkinson, an award-winning writer with a blog named “Write with your spine,” is obviously not one to walk away from a challenge. She took her immense passion for sharing the written word and channeled it into the acquisition of Wild Fig Books in 2011. When the store closed nearly four years later, she re-emerged with fresh vigor, nestled into a new location at 726 N. Limestone with an updated name—Wild Fig Books & Coffee. Wilkinson now classifies the store as a literary boutique, not only offering books to the masses, but clothing items, food, and baked goods, as well as coffee, tea, and espresso. Just like the revived book store, Wilkinson is ever-evolving as an artist.
Wilkinson was born in Ohio in 1962, but Kentucky became home when, as an infant, she went to live with her grandparents on their seventy-acre farm in Casey County. Her grandfather, a tobacco farmer, and grandmother, the first writer she knew, provided the freedom and encouragement to foster her artistic talent. The love and regard she carries for the people as well as the land of Appalachia is evident throughout her work. Her childhood and upbringing pervade her previous story collections, Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the 2002 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. The Birds of Opulence, her first novel, has just been released in paperback, and it was named the winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, the Weatherford Award for Fiction, and the Judy Gaines Young Book Award.
Wilkinson’s affinity for the Appalachian region is so strong that she and other writers set out to enlighten others that Appalachia, home to approximately 25 million people, is more than what is portrayed through stereotypes. In an effort to challenge preconceptions, Wilkinson joined with fellow writers to adopt the term Affrilachian. Coined by Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker in the early 1990s, the use of the word sought to highlight the prevalent yet under-represented presence of those of African descent throughout the mountain South.
Wilkinson earned an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University and has presented workshops and readings around the country. Her work has been published widely in anthologies, including Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region; Gifts from Our Grandmothers; Eclipsing a Nappy New Millennium; Home and Beyond: A Half-Century of Short Stories by Kentucky Writers; and Gumbo: Stories by Black Writers. Her work has also appeared in various literary journals, including Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review, Southern Exposure, Briar Cliff Review, LIT, Calyx, African Voices, Indiana Review, SLICE, Appalachian Heritage, Oxford American, and others.
She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She was the recipient of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women for the promotion of feminist artist expression.
Wilkinson is the former assistant director of The Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning and served on the creative writing faculty for the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts from 1997 to 2001. She was also a featured writer/teacher on the documentaries Coal Black Voices (2001) and James Still’s Legacy (2003), both produced by Kentucky Educational Television. More recently, Wilkinson was named Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College where she teaches writing and literature, and she also serves as a faculty member in the MFA program at Spalding University. But most days you will find Wilkinson alongside her partner, fellow artist Ron Davis, at their bookstore—a love letter made manifest to her community and the beauty which surrounds it.