By Gina Malone
The Asheville home of one of North Carolina’s most treasured writers will soon open its doors as an accommodation and workspace for the newly established Wilma Dykeman Writers-in-Residence program at the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA). The initiative comes in the centennial year of Wilma Dykeman’s birth and is the culmination of partner work by UNCA, local investor and philanthropist Ellen Carr, and some of the area’s most prestigious nonprofit organizations: the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, co-founded and led by Dykeman’s son, Jim Stokely; RiverLink, an organization indebted to Dykeman’s environmental writings and activism that now holds the conservation agreement on the historic property; and the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County (PSABC).
UNCA’s chancellor Nancy Cable envisions the residency program as a means to “secure UNCA’s rightful place among the strongest writing centers in the nation.” The interdisciplinary project seeks to include established and emerging writers from around the country and to touch upon issues that were important to Dykeman in her lifetime and in her writings. “Invited guests will have written and engaged in the disciplines of economics, English, creative writing, environmental studies, climate, gender and women’s studies, biology, history, philosophy and, likely, more,” says Garikai Campbell, UNCA’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
The home and its nearby writer’s cottage are situated on 11 acres in Lynn Cove near the head of the Beaverdam Valley just north of Asheville. “Built in the 1920s, it’s a beautiful example of 20th-century bungalow architecture in WNC,” says Jessie Landl, executive director of PSABC. “The historic integrity of the house and surrounding property effortlessly tells the story of a woman passionate about a place, the environment, her family and her craft.”
Choosing UNCA as a partner in the endeavor was a natural choice for a number of reasons, Stokely says, including the fact that his mother attended Asheville Biltmore College, the junior college precursor to UNCA, from 1936 to 1938. She later attended Northwestern University, working after graduation as an actress and radio personality before becoming a writer. “The UNCA staff has the requisite knowledge about how to maintain and manage real estate properties over the long term,” Stokely says. “Their strong maintenance staff is committed to the mission of the writers-in-residence program and to the continued wellbeing of the Wilma Dykeman house and grounds.”
Dykeman left behind a body of work that still inspires today and, says Carr, established her as “the rare author who cannot be labeled.”
Published works include her environmental classic The French Broad, winner of the 1955 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award; novels set in the Southern Appalachians including The Tall Woman and Return the Innocent Earth; and Neither Black Nor White, a study of race relations in the 1950s South that she co-authored with her husband James Stokely. “It seems very apt that her home will not become a time capsule but instead a place to inspire writers, to nurture their careers, a place that will invest in the creation of more great literature from and about our region,” says Ann Chesky Smith, executive director of the Western North Carolina Historical Association.
RiverLink’s land conservation program focuses on conserving smaller parcels of land adjacent to waterways like Beaverdam Creek on which this home is situated. Dykeman’s environmental philosophy as expressed in The French Broad, shaped RiverLink’s vision and goals, says executive director Garrett Artz. “We see this property as a guiding light for growing a much needed capacity at RiverLink, and in our community and individuals, to take actions to recognize the environment,” he says. “We hope there will be many writers who will be inspired to use the pen as the sword to carry forward some of her ideas.”
Further details on specifics of the program are still in the works, but administrators foresee such community outreach as camps, literary festivals and summer conferences that promote writing. “There’ll be an array of things happening across the entire year as we build out the strength of Asheville as a summer destination for intellectuals, for writers, for readers, for artists and for thinkers,” says Cable.
To learn more about the program as it develops and about donation opportunities, visit unca.edu. For more about the partners’ contributions to the program, visit RiverLink.org, psabc.org and WilmaDykemanLegacy.org.