Paradox and Perception of Appalachia: An Interview with Jessica Cory and Laura Wright

When most people imagine Appalachia, they conjure up images of smoky mountaintops and seemingly endless forests. I know I did before moving to Western North Carolina in 2008. I also had imagined shirtless men in overalls making moonshine while their wives cooked biscuits and gravy. This is, of course, not the case. What Jessica Cory and Laura Wright showcase in Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place is a multi-faceted look at what Appalachia looks like today. We discussed the collection of essays and how it came together. Both authors feel that Appalachia needs to be better understood and given consideration in the larger discourse of literary ecocriticism.

Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University, and is currently working on her PhD in English, with a focus on Native American Literature, at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Her previous work, Mountains Piled upon Mountains, is an edited collection of fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry all focusing on Appalachia.

Laura Wright, PhD, is a professor of English Literature at Western Carolina University. Her main areas of scholarly research focus on postcolonialism, environmentalism, and most recently the creation of the field of vegan studies. Wright’s other works include The Vegan Studies Project: Food, Animals, and Gender in the Age of Terror and The Routledge Handbook of Vegan Studies.

Your previous scholarly work helped establish the field of vegan studies. What was the transition like moving from vegan studies to ecocriticism and more specifically Appalachian studies?

Wright: Well, I don’t think it was a transition. My previous monograph (prior to The Vegan Studies Project) was a text called Wilderness into Civilized Shapes: Reading the Postcolonial Environment (2010) — and it was one of the first monographs to engage with ecocritical readings of non-Western novels and places. And all of my work and scholarship has been very environmentally focused to various degrees. In terms of Appalachian Studies, while I don’t consider myself a specialist in that field, I do have a fairly extensive background in Appalachian literature and folkways. And I am an Appalachian woman, whose family has been in [North Carolina’s] Buncombe, Haywood, and Transylvania Counties since the 1700s, so I grew up in Appalachia and am deeply and historically connected to this region.

In the forward, you write about how Appalachia has been characterized and mischaracterized in literature where people imagine “lush trees and majestic mountains rise up against a backdrop of gray sky.” How would you describe the current Appalachia?

Wright: I think of Appalachia as an externally constructed space, historically one filled with poor white immigrants from Scotland — and that was the story of my family: my mother’s parents were poor tenant farmers who later built their own small house in Mills River. My father’s parents were also farmers who lost everything during the Great Depression. My father’s father ended up joining a logging crew and cutting timber for the outside interests that swooped in to exploit the desperation of Appalachian places during this period. But that imaginary construction ignores the Native peoples that were — and are still very much are — a part of this region as well as Affrilachian populations (a term coined by the poet Frank X. Walker) and other communities of color that make up the region. Appalachia is fairly impossible to define: where is it? What are the boundaries? Who lives there? If Appalachia has historically been conceived of as a place of disdain in our country, a place of squalor and isolation, I see all around me now the ways that Appalachia is increasingly characterized as a place to go and escape from the city — a place where one can go within “nature.” Of course, this image is just as much of a construction as the other.

The theme of pastoral romance appears several times throughout the collection. However, the pastoral that has been romanticized is slowly being erased through mountaintop removal and other mining and environmental factors. How does this change in the environment affect the pastoral view so many readers have?

Wright: I think that to the “outside world,” those who are unfamiliar with the ways that coal mining destroys entire ecosystems and landscapes and poisons the communities of miners, I think Appalachia is a quaint, rural wilderness — a playground with zipline canopy tours and rivers to conquer. Living in Asheville (or just outside of it), I’ve been watching in quiet terror as all the things that are so great about being here — that draw so many people here — are being gutted as so many people move to this region. The loss of tree canopy just in the past five years is devastating; in many ways, Asheville and the surrounding regions have become a place of massive second homes constructed on the sides of clear-cut mountains. The Vanderbilts did it first, after all!

A favorite essay of mine in the collection is “‘Lives Slip Away Like Water’ Drowned Communities in Rash’s One Foot in Eden and Raising the Dead” by Elisabeth Aiken. What is the importance of these “drowned communities” in the larger field of ecocriticism?

Wright: One thing I really appreciate about Rash’s novels is the way that they grapple with the displacement of peoples in the service of protecting “nature” in the creation of a national park (as is the case in Serena) or to generate power (as in One Foot in Eden and Raising the Dead). I have done a fair amount of work on this topic in terms of postcolonial locations — the Narmada Valley dam project in India, which displaced millions of mostly dalit Indians — those in the so-called “untouchable” caste. Similarly, in countries like South Africa, wildlife preserves (where Western tourists can come, see, and kill megafauna) have displaced indigenous peoples from land where they had been for generations. I think that these instances all point to the ease with which people can be erased from the history of a place, if the corporate interests are powerful enough. In terms of ecocriticism, often these displacements create what might be considered natural spaces Lake Jocassee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, wildlife preserves — so looking at such places by “raising the dead,” so to speak, allows for a greater critique the financial, social, and political forces that shape people and places.

The final essay in the collection “Toward a Post-Appalachian Sense of Place” by Zackary Vernon looks towards the future of Appalachian studies. What do you envision the future of Appalachian studies becoming? What will constitute Appalachian?

Wright: Good question. I hope that Appalachian studies continue to both explore the reasons for societal perceptions of Appalachia and Appalachian peoples while also providing challenges to them. 

When you started this project, what was your goal? How did you narrow down to final essays in the collection?      

Cory: This collection actually began back in 2016 as part of what eventually became Mountains Piled upon Mountains (WVU Press, 2019). My initial proposal included both environmentally-focused scholarly essays and creative writing with the goal of highlighting the connections between different landscapes and relationships with those landscapes across the region.

WVU Press suggested I split the project into two separate entities, which made total sense, and thankfully Laura came on board to lend her ecocritical expertise for what became Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place. While certainly an important area of research and scholarship, there aren’t quite as many people writing environmental critiques of Appalachian texts (including films). We knew we wanted to include analyses of works by queer and non-white authors as well to push back against stereotypes of the region.

Of all the different regions of the country, why did you choose to write about Appalachia? What makes Appalachia special?

Cory: Well, for one thing, I’ve lived in various parts of Appalachia for most of my life, save the few years of my childhood I spent in Columbus, Ohio, and another five years in Eastern North Carolina. While the mountains of Western North Carolina look a bit different than the corn-covered hills of southeastern Ohio, I wanted to highlight the beauty of a region that’s often showcased in the media for its difficulties. While the region, like all parts of the country, does have its issues, I wanted to show how people are not only surviving in the region but thriving, and working together to make it a place we’re all proud to call home.

The title of the collection is “Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place.” What makes Appalachia a paradox of place?

Cory: That wording is totally Laura’s! When we consider the seeming contradiction of a paradox though, some themes immediately jump out regarding Appalachian emplacement. These seemingly paradoxical understandings of place include the struggle to stay in the region versus the desire to leave, especially for younger people; and the love many residents have for the hills and hollers but are forced to work jobs that negatively impact these same landscapes, such as various types of mining or development.

I feel that Appalachia is thought of more complexly by people living inside or connected to the region versus those people with little connection to it. And this varies still even within the region by the depth of connection people have to the areas now known as Appalachia (and what is considered “Appalachia” varies a lot too). For example, peoples indigenous to the region are going to have a different relationship with certain areas than someone whose family has only been living in the region for 300-400 years, and how their family came to the region may also play a part in how they connect to it. That land-based relationship is going to be different still for folks who’ve more recently arrived or who grew up in the region and now live elsewhere. In short, Appalachia is a paradox in a lot of place-based ways.

Your own contribution to the collection, “An Ecofeminist Reading of Robert Gipe’s Trampoline as Insight into Appalachian Oppression,” looks at the similar ways women and the Appalachian landscape are oppressed by a patriarchy of capitalism and colonization. Does this oppression affect how Appalachia is viewed by outsiders?

Cory: I think people unfamiliar with the region see the oppression of Appalachian landscapes and residents as of their own making, unfortunately, in many cases. After the horrendous Kentucky flooding last year or the recent expulsion of Tennessee lawmakers, and the many abortion restrictions being passed in Ohio and Tennessee while laws favoring guns over people are passed in West Virginia, people seem to be quick to point the finger at voters living in the region and blaming us for these ills. This blame reduces the complex networks of people and places in the region to a problematic binary that’s great for clicks but terrible for actual interaction and understanding.

I also think these binaries ignore the difficult decisions that people sometimes face. For instance, if you’re struggling to make ends meet and certain political parties or representatives promise to put more money in your pocket via lower taxes or other incentives, most of us can see why folks choose feeding their families over other issues. It doesn’t always mean that folks don’t care about these other issues, just that in Appalachia, family (broadly defined) often comes first for many people, even if voting for certain people harms their neighbors.

As someone who lived in Appalachia for almost a decade and more specifically Western North Carolina, I felt that the region is largely misrepresented. I had my own misconceptions before moving there. What would you say to someone who had these outdated and oftentimes derogatory viewpoints of Appalachia?

Cory: A lot of people’s ideas come from popular media, which Emily Satterwhite in addition to McCarroll, Harkins, and others have written about extensively. To be fair, does the region have its issues? Absolutely. Right now, a handful of folks the county over from where I live are trying to convince their library branch to cede from the region’s library system so they can ban LGBTQ books, but it’s important to remember that this is happening outside of Appalachia too. Many of the problems we experience throughout the region, such as racism, transphobia or homophobia, poverty, pollution — they’re not unique to the region; you’ll find these problems all over the country.

I’d suggest they do a lot of reading. Meredith McCarroll, Anthony Harkins, Stephen Pearson, Erica Abrams-Locklear, Chris Green, Marie Cochran, Zane McNeill, Elizabeth Catte, William H. Turner, and many more scholars are joining with creative writers like Neema Avashia, Lisa Kwong, Stacy Jane Grover, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Savannah Sipple, and countless others to show that the region is not the monolithic myth that certain media coverage makes it out to be.

Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place
Edited by Jessica Cory and Laura Wright
University of Georgia Press
Published May 1, 2023