Crystal Wilkinson
Fiction Writer
Lexington, KY
2020 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

Crystal Wilkinson is the award-winning author of The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence), Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries.

Nominated for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Wilkinson has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Kentucky Foundation for Women, The Kentucky Arts Council, The Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and is a recipient of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in Story Magazine, Agni Literary Journal, Oxford American, and Southern Cultures.

Wilkinson currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is associate professor of English in the MFA Creative Writing Program.

Portrait photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky.


A Meditation on Grief: Things We Carry, Things We Remember, 2019

I remember this place where burdens wash away in the dark and mothers’ dresses float like blossoms, a boy drowns—his head turned toward home—body facing the farmer’s house, where the girl who loves him sleeps. She is the farmer’s daughter. They say she is the one who hit his head, the one who hoisted the rock, the one who watched his blood ooze out. This is the way you wash your clothes in the creek. This is the way you catch catfish in deep water. The mothers stand in water to their knees, their dresses wafting out like sheets on a line. On the creek bank, a child runs circles catching the wind and the mothers’ dresses float like blossoms. The mothers sing prayers for the boy’s mother who looks out her kitchen window and cries. The circle of mothers in the water whisper a prayer for the girl who tells all who will listen that she loved the boy who died. Her mother stands in the backyard, her hand on the chopping hoe with tears streaming down her face. The fathers brood in the fields, walking slow as lepers, hearts and houses filled with grief.

I almost drowned once, my grandmother’s dress blossomed around her like a sail. She was my johnboat in the creek. My mother stood on the shore frozen with fear, my father’s name mute on her tongue, his kiss spoiled fruit in her young sweet mouth. That dead boy’s ghost haunts this place, dark water flowing like a deacon’s robe. On nights spoiled with teenage trouble, I went to the creek and waited for the boy, hoping he would listen. Do you dream of the farmer’s daughter? I asked. Are you sorry for what you’ve done? He didn’t answer. They say he raped the girl but I wasn’t afraid of him. By then I had been raped, too, and was becoming a dangerous woman. I waited for him and held court with the moon. I’m here, I said. Let’s get this done! In this place where burdens washed away I stood, my dress flowering, floating. I was drowning too—my face turned toward home—my black body facing my father’s house, where my mother cried for me. They say the boy was handsome, but I never saw him in the flesh. At night the creek did scare me, its rush like a boy’s whispered threat in a girl’s ear. But here the mothers are always standing with water to their knees, their dresses billowing out like sheets on a line, praying because there was always something roaring in those trees, teeth gnashing, fathers killing boys for the sake of their daughters, eyes always watching, eyes always glistening in the dark.