Since the release and subsequent film adaptation of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, there has been a wave of publications from Appalachians seeking to challenge a narrow and imbalanced depiction of the region by telling their own stories. While Vance’s Appalachia reinforces stereotypes and negative perceptions of a place that has a long history of being misrepresented on the national level — and, most recently, was accused of political aberrance following the 2016 election — this new wave of Appalachian literature reveals a nuanced and complicated reality about a place marked by the relentless exploitation of its natural resources, victimization and abandonment by federal programs, and the rich cultural overlaps of the people who call it home. Together, these stories underscore a fundamental truth: no one person’s experience can accurately define a place, just as one place cannot fully define a person.
In her own addition to this flourishing canon, Neema Avashia tells the story of coming up in West Virginia as a queer daughter of Indian immigrants in her essay collection, Another Appalachia. Speaking about the title of the book in an interview on Appodlachia last December, Avashia explains, “I think there are a lot of ‘anothers.’ I think Silas House offers us ‘another’ Appalachia, I think that Crystal Wilkinson offers us ‘another’. I think Frank X Walker offers us ‘another’ Appalachia.” With a series of revelatory essays, Avashia offers us her own “another” and shines light on a community and place that might otherwise go unseen.
Avashia achieves a complicated and nearly imperceptible balancing act between nostalgia, admiration, humor, and incredulity for a place so many — even those of us born there — struggle to describe. The essays read swiftly while seamlessly orienting us to the world of Cross Lanes, West Virginia through the eyes of both child Avashia experiencing the dissonance of immigrant life in a southern culture and as adult Avashia living in Boston with her partner Laura and reflecting on the people who welcomed her and her family. While there is a logical progression to the essays, I sense that there’s much Avashia isn’t telling us between the extremes of neighbors acting as adopted grandparents and classmates hurling racist epithets. Many of the details about her family and the Cross Lanes community, while colorful, exist at a distance. Whether this distance is protective or merely the distance of memory manifesting in the retelling is unclear, but the details she does include gently unveil an upbringing that is undoubtedly unique.
As Avashia states herself, she exists at the intersection of many different identities — queer, Indian, Appalachian, among others — and feels strongly that the only way to see herself reflected in modern literature was to write herself into it. Avashia also hopes that others who inhabit even one (or several) of these identities will be able to see themselves in her writing. “If I’m writing at the intersection of six different identities,” she says in her interview with Appodlachia, “and you see yourself at one of those — that’s still more, in some cases, for people than they’ve ever seen themselves in a piece of writing before.”
In many ways this collection is a love letter to a specific demographic that exists at the intersection of two of the identities Avashia writes from — Appalachian and Indian. As she explains, there are other first-generation Indian kids who grew up in West Virginia during the chemical plant boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s whose stories are threatening to disappear in the slow decline of economic opportunity and increasing exodus of residents leaving the state. In the essay “Unholy Coconut” Avashia recounts the ways her parents and other Indian families from neighboring Charleston integrated and, in some instances, reimagined Indian traditions in their mountain life. To honor her maternal grandmother’s death, Avashia and her family throw a coconut into the Kanawha River, a symbolic act that is not entirely Hindu, nor exactly American, but comes to represent closure for Avashia’s mother who cannot scatter her mother’s ashes at Triveni Sangam in India. Here, and in many of Avashia’s stories, we see how one place echoes another, and how it is the people that give places their meaning.
While intersections are central to Avashia’s writing, what also stood out as I read this collection were the distances. Physical distance, both precise and approximate, appears frequently — the 8,000 miles between her home in West Virginia and her parents’ birthplace in India, the distance between her current home in Boston and her childhood home in West Virginia, the three-hour drive from the writing residency she attends in Kentucky and Charleston. In “The Blue-Red Divide,” perhaps the most overtly political and intensely personal essay in the collection, the physical distance between her and a man she considers an adopted grandfather is multiplied by the additional disconnect she feels when his online activity contradicts the person she knows from childhood. Broken relationships with family members in India seem to add further distance to an already transatlantic divide. Avashia herself becomes the intersection of all these places — West Virginia, Boston, India — and people — her Indian family, her adopted West Virginian family, her partner and friends — bringing them together by holding their differences in her identity and her writing.
Avashia shows an immense amount of empathy for people whose self-expressed views on race and immigration directly oppose not only her views, but her experience as the daughter of immigrants and presence as a queer, Indian woman in America. When Avashia talks about Mr. B in “The Blue-Red Divide,” she notes a disturbing shift in his posts around the time of the 2016 election from apolitical photos of boats to anti-immigration, racist, and anti-woman reposts. Even as she feels the sting of these messages, she struggles to understand Mr. B and those who share his views: “Maybe the Bs were conservatives all along and I just never knew it. Or maybe … the destruction wrought by joblessness and rampant opioid addiction on my home state has created a kind of helpless rage that is only stoked by xenophobic rhetoric.” In an interview, Avashia worried aloud if she’d done enough to show her fellow West Virginians empathy in her essays. I am here to say that she has shown enough to inspire me to do the same.
There is an unabated sadness in this story about the Bs, a disconnect which surfaces throughout the collection. Despite her proud West Virginian roots, the question of whether the soil of her home state ever fully accepted her hangs in every essay. Rather than respond with grief or dismay, however, Avashia has chosen to nourish those roots. She tills up the good memories, honors the people who accepted her and her family wholeheartedly, and celebrates the ways West Virginia molded her into the person she is today.
“Perhaps, then,” she says in the closing essay, “belonging is not as far away as I sometimes imagine it to be.”
By Neema Avashia
West Virginia University Press
Published March 1, 2022