The novel will be at the center of statewide conversations on the dynamics of family and community, the strength of women and stigmas surrounding mental illness. Kentucky Reads will offer 25 scholar-led discussions of “The Birds of Opulence” to community organizations throughout the Commonwealth.
“Mental illness continues to be one of our greatest societal ills and the stigma surrounding it is as concerning as the disease itself,” Wilkinson, an associate professor in the Department of English in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, explained. “It gives me great hope that communities all over the state will read the novel and use it as a catalyst to discuss family, the strength of women and the ways in which we can combat the stigma of mental illness.”
"The Birds of Opulence" is Wilkinson's first novel, and it centers on several generations of women in the bucolic Southern Black township of Opulence as they live with and sometimes surrender to madness. The Goode-Brown family, led by matriarch and pillar of the community Minnie Mae, 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.
The residents of Opulence struggle with vexing relationships to the land, to one another and to their own sexuality. As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers pass away, they live with the fear of going mad themselves and must fight to survive. At once tragic and then hopeful, this captivating novel is a story about another time, rendered for our own.
According to Kentucky Humanities, Wilkinson offers up Opulence and its people in lush, poetic detail. It is a world of magic, conjuring, signs and spells but also of harsh realities that only love — and love that’s handed down — can conquer.
Since publication, "The Birds of Opulence" has won the Appalachian Writers Association's Appalachian Book of the Year for Fiction, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, the Weatherford Award for fiction and the Judy Gaines Young Book Award. It was also chosen as the 2020 Agrarian Literary League selection at the Wendell Berry Center.
In the summer of 2018, “The Birds of Opulence” was included in Book Benches: A Tribute to Kentucky Authors, a collaboration between Arts Connect, LexArts and the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. The public art project featured 36 functional, book-shaped benches — each illustrated and themed around a different work by a Kentucky author. The benches were placed throughout Lexington to encourage reading and provide a place for rest. Wilkinson’s bench was installed along South Limestone in front of the University Press of Kentucky office.
Wilkinson’s work has earned her personal honors as well. The Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Committee and the West Virginia Center for the Book selected her for the Appalachian Heritage Writer's Award. In conjunction with the award, she was the One Book, One West Virginia author for 2019. Wilkinson also won the 2020 Mary Frances Hobson Prize and the 2020 Rockefeller United States Artist Fellowship.
As for this latest accolade, Wilkinson is honored to be recognized in her home state. “Kentucky has such a wonderful literary tradition and I’m honored to be a part of it,” she said.
The University Press of Kentucky is the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, representing a consortium that includes all of the state universities, six private colleges and two historical societies. The press’s editorial program focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. Offices for the administrative, editorial, production and marketing departments of the press are found at the University of Kentucky, which provides financial support toward operating and publishing expenses.
Any nonprofit in Kentucky can host a “Birds of Opulence” discussion for a booking fee of $50, and each host organization will be provided with 15 copies of the novel to share among participating members. Publicity materials to promote the discussion will also be provided.
For more information, contact the Kentucky Humanities Council.
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