Cassie Chambers on “Hill Women” and Finding Strength in Her Background

Toward the end of Cassie Chambers’ memoir Hill Women: Finding Family and A Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains, she prepares for her wedding. And as she does, she imagines herself beside her mother and grandmother on their respective wedding days. She contemplates “what we gain and lose through generations: identity, community, and connection to place and one another.” These three strong mountain women, as well as these ideals, come to represent some of the many facets, both personal and cultural, this book centers around. From Aunt Ruth chasing away unwanted guests armed with a board covered in nails, to the author’s mother, Wilma, secreting away the money to help her pay for schoolbooks, these are indeed women of “fire, grit, and grace.”

Having grown up in one of the poorest counties in the country in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Cassie Chambers went on to attend Yale College and Harvard Law School. She then came back home to defend victims of domestic violence. She brings her unique perspective to the stereotypes often associated with her community and adds a refreshing defense of a hard-working, generous, and proud people that are frequently maligned. She offers a feminist perspective and gives voice to the often-overlooked women of this area. Perhaps most of all, this book is a love story to her mother.

Cassie Chambers was kind enough, especially having had a baby just six weeks ago, to grant me a Zoom interview.

First, I have to say how much I appreciated this book and how illuminating it was for me. My mother, grandmother, and generations back were all raised in the mountains of East Tennessee, and I was not. Your book gave me many “Aha” moments into understanding the women that I come from and why they made the choices that they made. That said, did you have any “Aha” moments of your own as you researched both family and community for this book?

Yes, I had a lot of “Aha’s”. It’s very interesting as an adult to go back and write about things you experienced and people you knew as a child, the formative figures in your life, and really see them in a way that is not dependent on identity as mom or grandmother, but as women. It made me really appreciate the challenges they had to overcome and see them not just as relatives, but also women who really made a difference in their communities.

You write about being accepted into the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as a turning point for you, both personally and professionally. Can you speak to what that experience was like for you and how it reconnected you to your community?

I spent a lot of early adult life being ashamed of where I came from and my background of poverty, and felt I needed to hide that in order to fit into the privileged environments I found myself in.  One of my friends says that we are kinder to our friends than ourselves, and that played out for me through my work in the Bureau with women living in poverty. I got to see the strength and resilience these women had, and the fact that they had to do so much with so little really just added to what impressive, strong women they were. That then caused some dissonance in me, when it made me think how I’d been trying to hide the fact that I come from this background, and I’m admiring the strength of these other women. It made me reevaluate my background and where I come from and it was the start of seeing my beginning in poverty in Appalachia as a source of strength in identity and something that should be celebrated.

One of my favorite stories was of your attempt to fit in at Harvard, frantically studying the women around you for lessons in fashion “do’s and don’ts” and saving to buy a Burberry scarf. (I think your Mom helped with that one, too).  How did your crash-course into the Ivy League culture reframe your way of seeing your family and friends from home? And vice-versa? Has that changed as you’ve grown older?

I think the way it left a lasting impact on my view of the world is I understand that there are different unwritten rules in different environments, and I think for kids like me that come from a background of poverty, or even just working class backgrounds, you don’t have exposure to these rules. It feels like this game everyone is playing and you don’t realize a game is being played, let alone what the rules are. This matters because a lot of times when we talk about how we increase socioeconomic diversity we ignore this, and the sense of feeling like you understand the world you’re in and feeling comfortable, knowing how to navigate social settings, and what the social expectations are.  This is important to a young person. I’ve spoken to a lot of other people that were at these elite institutions at the same time I was, and we all agree in the importance of finding ways to recognize that.  We want to help support that aspect of admitting it feels uncomfortable when you feel you don’t come from the same background as your peers, and how it can be a real barrier. We offer support by actively providing resources for them.

You write about your mother, grandmother, and Aunt Ruth and their “relentless drive for the betterment of the next generation.” You clearly were driven to achieve, yourself. Now that you are a parent, do you find threads of them in your own parenting?

I’ve definitely been shaped by the women that parented me, and having a 2-year-old and a six-week-old now, I think one of the things I saw my mom balance is taking care of her community while also taking care of her family.  That has been something I have been trying to figure out.

I want to make sure my children grow up understanding that we are responsible for our neighbors, that it’s important to take care of our family and our family is our core, but likewise everyone around us is also our family. It’s a tough thing to figure out how to do, and I think in some ways those connections aren’t as strong in our families as they used to be, but it’s something that matters a lot to me, because that’s how I was raised, and I want to pass that along to my boys as well.

At the end of the book you are working to defend victims of domestic violence in rural communities, and write of the painfully slow process of the law. Is that what you are still doing? What obstacles do you think can realistically be tackled and how?

Right now I have a dual role. I teach at the University of Louisville Law School, teaching Access to Justice, so it’s giving me a chance to think more philosophically about our court system and also shape the way the next generation of young people are thinking about the law and access to justice issues. I really enjoy brainstorming with young lawyers and having interesting conversations about important issues.

I am also still doing some of the impact work in the rural communities. I have one case I’ve been working on for 3 years now, where we’re trying to get it so that the court says low-income folks have the same right to expunge their records as wealthier individuals do. Expungements can be tied to your right to vote, and here in Kentucky we still permanently disenfranchise people who have a felony on their record, and a whole host of other rights and abilities to do things ,like secure housing, etc. Every legislative session I think to myself how easy it would be if the general assembly would just pass a law and fix it, but I recognize legislative environments are complicated.

What I love about it is you have an opportunity to tell someone’s story, and advocating for justice is something that brings that person hope. I think that is where my identity as a writer and a lawyer come together because I love telling people’s stories and hope that makes a difference.

You wrote about becoming politically active after the election in 2016 after realizing the ramifications for your community. You said, “It wasn’t enough to save the world one family at a time. Elections are the way you make society into whatever vision of it you have.”  You went on to become vice-chair of the state Democratic Party of KY.  Now that Biden has been elected, do you foresee any change in the political landscape around you?

I was recently elected to the Louisville Metro Council, so I am no longer vice-chair of the party, but that has given me a really interesting perspective, because I have experienced rural areas and now live in the most urban area in the state. What worries me is the growing rural/urban divide, and Kentucky is like so many states where I see the rural areas becoming more conservative and the cities more liberal and my concern is that we’ve really lost a way to talk to each other in a way that’s productive and civil. It’s sort of this “us vs. them” mentality a lot of times when we talk politics. I believe struggling communities, whether in urban or rural areas, have more in common than different. I think finding a way to have conversations around issues that are impacting all us is the next level of political work that needs to happen, and it is not partisan or based on any political party.

So much of this book is an ode to your mother, Wilma, who passed away some years ago. What do you think she would add if she were beside you right now as you answer these questions?

I think she was excited to see this story of the strong women of Appalachia get out in the world and I have no doubt she would be the biggest champion of this book. She’d probably be going around telling everyone she knew, like my Aunt Ruth. Aunt Ruth is not one to brag, but since the book came out she’ll call me sometimes to say, “so and so read the book and they said I was the hero”, and you can tell that there is a real sense of pride to feel that she is seen, and others like her are seen. I think my Mom would be very much in that same boat, happy that the women she grew up with are being celebrated.

I hesitate to ask, because I’m sure you get this a lot, but what are your thoughts on the book that came out in 2016 to much acclaim, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”?

I’m fine being open about JD Vance. I never fault anyone for telling their story and think that’s all of our right. I take issue with the way his book portrays the area as hopeless and broken, and really tries to frame problems as moral failings of individuals, as opposed to systems. I think in some ways our stories have very similar arcs, but the way that we explain our success differs, because I don’t think my going through this background of poverty to the Ivy League was anything that had to do with me or my skills or abilities, and that it didn’t happen instantaneously. It took 3 generations of women working really hard to give me those opportunities and I think it’s unfair to tell the stories without talking about those previous generations. I think sometimes we fall into this JD Vance narrative of rags to riches, of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “if you really set your mind to it you can do whatever you want, young man”, and that really takes out the complexity of what social change looks like and what progress looks like for an individual. I think it’s really harmful and detrimental in the long run.

Finally, for the writers, what advice would you give an aspiring memoirist? And is another book in the works?

It is something I did not know before I started writing, but the editor that you work with makes all the difference. When writing a memoir your editor almost becomes like a therapist, in my opinion, where their job it to read what you’ve written about the most significant moments of your life and then push you to dig a little deeper. I think finding someone you can connect with and that you can engage in those vulnerable conversations with, for me as a first-time writer, made all the difference.  

I’m currently working on a project I’m co-writing with a friend about motherhood, reflecting on what it means to be a working mom and how that concept has evolved and changed.  

Cassie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, especially given the distraction level in your home right now, and thank you for writing this book.

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains
By Cassie Chambers
Ballantine Books
Published January 7, 2020