7 Books That Show Another Side of Appalachia
When I tell people where I come from, the reaction is often incredulous: “Are there Indians in Appalachia? Indeed there are, just as there are Blacks in Appalachia, and Native Americans in Appalachia, and Mexicans, Filipinos and Chinese in Appalachia. Appalachia, in fact, is a huge region of the United States, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It spans 423 counties in 13 states and stretches from northern Mississippi to southern New York. 26 million people live on its 206,000 square miles of land. But for far too many people, Appalachia is a much smaller, much more cohesive place. If you go by the narratives advanced by major publishers and mainstream media, you would think that Appalachia meant only the states of West Virginia and Kentucky, and that its inhabitants were strictly white, straight, poor, and Christian.
My collection of essays is called Another Appalachia: Queer and Indian coming to a mountain location. I choose the word “other” with intention, because there are many Appalachians and many versions of Appalachian identity. My experience – growing up in southern West Virginia as the child of Indian immigrants and slowly developing an understanding of my queer identity – is just one. There are so many “others” in Appalachia – so many people who live in ways that subvert stereotypes, and have subverted them for generations. And their stories are written by authors who refuse to let stereotypes define the region, and published by incredible small presses like Belt and Hub City, and university presses at the University of West Virginia, the University of Kentucky and the University of Ohio who are committed to it. work too.
I didn’t always know Appalachia was home to so many “others.” I grew up in the 80s and 90s thinking, in many ways, that I was ‘other’, not ‘other’. Subjected to Confederate flags and racial epithets, it was difficult to understand where I fit in Appalachian history. And without visible models of homosexuality, it was so much harder for me to understand my own budding sexuality. In my essays, I write about what it was like to develop a cohesive sense of self and identity in the absence of role models. I write about the relationships in my life that have both nurtured and starved me, in my quest for authenticity and an integrated sense of self. But it was ultimately through reading that I found my Appalachian identity, and found a community of readers and writers who embrace and experience otherness in Appalachia. This list contains only some incredible Appalachian writers who build another Appalachian narrative through their words.
Afrilachia by Frank X Walker
Any list aiming to push back against the mainstream narrative regarding Appalachia must begin with Frank X Walker’s astonishing collection of poetry about Appalachian black culture. Reading Walker’s work, I saw for the first time someone who was not white claiming Appalachian identity and showing readers how black culture has informed and shaped Appalachian culture as a whole. His articulation of Afrilachia allowed me to consider the relationship between my own identity and the external construction of what it means to be Appalachian. Safe to say, there wouldn’t be Another Appalachia without Afrilachia.
Trampoline by Robert Gipe
If you haven’t met Dawn Jewell, the badass protagonist of Robert Gipe’s graphic novel Trampoline, your reading life is incomplete. Dawn is a teenage girl from Kentucky who listens to punk music and has a destructive streak, but soon finds herself caught up in her community’s struggle against a mountaintop kidnapping. Dawn is an accidental radical, a kind of activist who is drawn to struggle not because of theoretical politics, but because of the lived realities she and her family experience every day. His mix of vulnerability and humor, and his deep love of home will carry you through Trampoline and directly in the sequel, weed killer.
The most beautiful star by Carter Sickels
Growing up, I didn’t know any young people or adults who were open about their LGBTQIA+ identity. Looking back, I can see that there were people in my community who were quietly living their truth, but I also know a lot of people for whom leaving was part of coming out. In The most beautiful star, Carter Sickels writes about what it means to leave home in search of wholeness and authenticity, only to have to bear the costs of returning home. Set in Ohio’s Appalachia during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, this story about how a community reacts when one of its members comes home HIV-positive won’t leave your mind for years. after reading it.
F*ckface by Lea Hampton
Besides probably having the best book title ever, F*ckface deals with what it’s like to live in post-coal Appalachia, a place where solid union jobs have been replaced by transient service jobs, and where the bodies of the locals bear the toxic scars left by the coal and chemical industries . This collection is a kaleidoscope, with each story offering readers a different perspective on what it’s like to live in communities where work has, for the most part, disappeared, but people continue to struggle and persist.
The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns by Dr. William H. Turner
When the title of my book was announced, the first email I received was from Dr. Turner. He wrote, “If anyone knows what you mean, metaphorically, about ‘Another Appalachia,’ it’s me and legions of family and friends.” Dr. Turner’s book describes the lives of black families living in mining communities in Harlan County during the coal boom and subsequent crisis. The erasure of black communities and black history from the mainstream narrative around Appalachia has been profound. So deep that as a student educated in West Virginia public schools, I have not heard of the interracial coalition of miners who united to fight at the Battle of Blair Mountain, or the fact that the Kanawha Saltworks, just 15 miles from my home, were worked by enslaved people. Dr. Turner corrects this erasure with his book, centering the stories of Appalachian black peoples and communities within a rapidly changing economic context.
Even while we breathe by Annette Saunooke
Even while we breathe is the first book to be published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose home is in the heart of Appalachia. Cowney, the main character in Clapsaddle’s book, wrestles with the same questions that arise for so many young Appalachians: What does it mean when our homes feed and choke us simultaneously? What do we gain by leaving? What are we losing? Cowney is framed for a crime early in the story, and while the novel follows this plotline, the larger questions of identity and belonging that Clapsaddle raises are just as important as resolving Cowney’s story. .
Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegyedited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll
This anthology is a comprehensive collection of “others” – Appalachian writers from a wide range of identities and geographies who share one thing in common: a deep sense of injustice in the way our home and our people are depicted in JD Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy. Through a mix of essays and creative works, the writers in this collection articulate a much more complex depiction of Appalachia, both its beautiful aspects and its difficult and messy parts. This book is a necessary counterpoint to both Vance’s oversimplified narrative and the creeping stereotypes about Appalachia his narrative girdles.