Cover Story: Tour of Duty

Wilson still trying to break the code of language

Jymi Bolden

Kathy Y. Wilson conducts a mini-tour with Al Williams at Sonny's Barbershop in Bond Hill.

"The place where I come from is a small town/ They think so small/ They use small words

But not me/ I'm smarter than that/ I worked it out

I've been stretching my mouth/ To let those big words come right out."

— "Big Time," Peter Gabriel

Kathy Y. Wilson kneads words to survive. She bullies meanings into columns that resonate with lyrical decadence and lingering depth.

She polishes letters to glisten the nitty-gritty inherent within. She knows a word's worth because she is one.

"Words are extremely powerful, and we take them for granted," she says. "We just say stuff willy-nilly, not minding the implications or the depth of which we're affecting other people's feelings, other people's opinions."

Wilson minds language with parental respect. It's a daily infusion to satiate her habit. The high comes in "Your Negro Tour Guide," the column she births for CityBeat.

Every installation is a new creature feature into the political, the personal and the permeable. She takes readers/tourists insight-seeing. The road less traveled is long and winding.

"I'm not just clocking out about something. I do have a point. I'm not just a mental patient walking down the street, you know, although that's how I'm dressed currently," she says, punctuating her remark with an earthquaking guffaw.

Wilson's presence is bigger than her once-sported afro. She's full of projection and protection. She outfits her exterior/interior accordingly.

One side doesn't fit all, but all sides fit Wilson. Her reveals are her own creation, but all are truths. The result is deafening. Even at her most quiet and reflective, she resounds in her own space.

Her sense of place is in residing in a Walnut Hills apartment. This is the introspective, effective source for constructing Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, her release of refreshed CityBeat columns and National Public Radio commentaries.

Wilson answers the building's door wearing black sweats, her aforementioned mental patient garb. The word "Brooklyn" is embroidered across the chest.

It matters not that she hails from Hamilton, Ohio. Apologies are rare for Wilson, but she delivers a sincere if unneeded one for her "pajamas."

Upstairs, during breakfast in her neighbor's apartment, conversation tips to Pete Rose's refusal to sign bats, balls and baseball cards as he promotes his book, My Prison Without Bars. Her own public appearances imminent, Wilson nails a line drive to the crotch of the Rose situation.

"I won't be signing any Negrobilia," she professes.

A quick-witted, letter-perfect sideshow freak and geek, Wilson is a contortionist of the English language. Her flexibility bends and breaks new ground on her call-em-as-she-sees-em writing.

"I just know that it's a new thing," she says. "I know that my shit is new. The subject matter is old as hell. I mean, come on! Racism? Sexism? It's really poetic prose, and you don't see that a lot anymore in newspapers of any ilk."

To create, Wilson heeds the words of poetic pros. She carries and cares for the instruction imparted by writer jessica Care moore to a group of ArtWorks students.

"One of the first things she said to them was 'All language is lethal,' " Wilson says. "And that really resounds for me. And I have repeated that. I've stolen that. I've repeated that many, many times, and I've come to believe it."

In conversation, the writer echoes herself, delivering phrases and sentences twice (and sometime more) for passionate emphasis. "Shit" and "fuck" are as integral to her vocabulary as "cadence" and "alliteration." The dichotomy is puzzling, but Wilson's meaning is clear.

"The great mystery for writers is to be as articulate as we can be," she says. "It's to get the shit as close to making sense to the reader. That's the beauty of it. It's the pursuit. That's what I do every week. I pursue it. Language and ideas.

"When it's a particularly hot-button issue or emotional issue or something very, very personal like the column I wrote about the death of my niece, 'Princess in the Promised Land,' I fought for every sentence. I fought for every single sentence. I got to the end of that thing and went back through it so many times. It had to be as close to perfect as I could get it, because too many people were involved. I fight for sentences. This ain't no joke, and it ain't fun. It is nothing fun. It is a job. It is nothing nice."

Language is a wonder to Wilson, who bears the scars and the awards from the battle. Even with success, she won't sit American idle. For her literary release, she's retooled and refortified her past columns. This is (wo)man vs. the lexicon.

"It was like a secret code. It was like looking at hieroglyphics on a cave wall or something," she explains, delving into her fascination with language. "My obsession with words has been, 'I need to learn how to crack this code.' That's what I feel language is. It's a code. It's like some MacGyver shit."

So she spies. She records.

Wilson wakes from deep slumber to write down thoughts. She can't turn her writing off. It's her sickness, and it's what makes her well.

"I write constantly," she says. "Constantly. In a perfect world, you're writing something down on paper every day, even if it's a sentence. Even if it's some shit you heard on the bus that somebody said that you could never come up with yourself. If it resonates with you, write that shit down."

The reverb has been bouncing around inside Wilson's head since childhood.

"I was 5 or 6, so I was reading, but I would be up in the psychology section pulling books off and just opening books and just looking at words," she says. "And one thing I was doing was, even then, I was thinking, 'I'm going to have a book in the library with my name on it.' "

With Your Negro Tour Guide becoming hardback truths in black and white, words aren't just Wilson's survival — they're her savior.

KATHY Y. WILSON will sign and discuss Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers; 8-10 p.m. Feb. 14 at Plush; noon-1 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Mercantile Library; and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Contemporary Arts Center.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.