Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Place's Place

I recently began reading Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, edited by Joyce Dyer (an Appalachian outmigrant herself). I'm not through with it, because I've admittedly been skipping back to the writers whose "place" most closely resembles my grandmother's place of upbringing. But when you're dealing with place, how near or far a place is from your own becomes very important.

I've been interested in my Appalachian heritage for some time, but this interest has become more urgent as my grandmother's health wanes. I'm not interested in this heritage in a genealogy sort of way -- I'll leave that up to my Aunt Mary Virginia -- but in a cultural, and partially socio-political way. And of course, in a deeply personal way that I tie to my family's and my own fierce connection, attachment, or involvement with place.

My first real study of Appalachian art and politics was in my second English comp course at the community college, here in Illinois of all places. The professor chose to teach us to write argumentative essays by showing us politically charged documentaries --I think it worked. We watched Stranger with a Camera and read Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Only then did Appalachia crystallize for me as its own culture, and as a place that is deeply troubled, yet capable of producing some of the clearest and most thoughtful American voices.

My next way into Appalachia was through writing it. I joined a writers group after that comp class, and wrote stories and vignettes about my family. I received a lot of positive feedback on everything from descriptions to dialog, but what always got the most kudos was my building of a place. My group mates felt they knew just what it was like to stand in grandma's kitchen, or to walk the ridge where grandpa has slept in the Virginia earth since Thanksgiving 1964. I never felt like I put all that much craft into getting these places across. They just sort of came out of me. Like I was born with brown hair and a little voice, I was born with ready-made images of mountains and streams and chipped coffee cups and pickled beans that I could just unwrap and present to anyone who was interested.

I wasn't raised in Virginia. I wasn't even born in Appalachia proper. Though to get from Grandmother's to Dad's one must drive under the Appalachian Trail (my sister and I would race to spell it first as soon as it came into view, "A-P-P-A-L-A-C-H-I-A-N!"), western Maryland is a few miles too far north to qualify as the southern highlands. So though I grew up in the shadows of the smaller Appalachian ridges, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a stone's throw from West Virginia where the mountains soar, I am an outmigrant's child. So why I am so tied to a place I never really lived? I think the answer is that these aren't purely genetic ties, but cultural and narrative ties that were strengthened by living in a place that was a fair surrogate for "real" Appalachia, and by sharing this new place with grandmother who sounds as if she never left the hills.

I have lived so many places, and the only non-Appalachian place that has any claim on my soul is Arizona. It has mountains of a very different kind, but they provided a backdrop I could get used to. In between those mountains you can see far too far. The never-ending views between the ranges made the landscape something new and exciting. Most people from grandma's place, if they had ever seen Arizona, would find it stark and barren. (My dad took my grandmother on a truck trip through the state, and when she saw a pointed mountain in the distance, she asked if it was a slag heap...) For me touching down in Arizona was like a trip to Mars. Stark and barren in parts, sure, but fantastic and wonderfully confusing. No where else I have lived, whether beautiful and captivating like California or maddeningly flat and nondescript like Illinois, has ever gotten a hold on me like AZ.

You might say everyone has a connection to their home, how it looks, the type of people who live there -- but I have to argue that this is different. Appalachia is not just a hometown you miss or a geographic region that makes you comfortable. It is, like an island or a lost homeland, a borderland of sorts. Appalachian peoples can be looked at through a postcolonial eye just like any once-colonized people. While the list of who took land from who goes back millenia for any given tract of earth, I think it is fair to say that these first immigrants to the Americas who struck out into the hills mingling with God knows how many peoples who were already living there, were colonized, in the last two centuries by mining and logging empires. Appalachians, you might argue, have an advantage in American society because they are white. They may have an easier time leaving Appalachia and joining the rest of mainstream American culture. But why should they leave? And more importantly, if it comes down to leaving, why should they leave their culture behind? And maybe even more importantly, they're not all white. The concept of Appalachian whiteness is precisely what has made it okay to write them off as a culture, to ignore their poverty, and to make jokes at their expense. While political correctness has removed the humor from all situations and issues surrounding race, it is still quite all right to make incest jokes about hillbillies. Jokes aside (even Appalachians tell them about Ozarkians, and vice versa), the problems of the region are largely ignored. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. thought it necessary to speak about the hungry children of Appalachia alongside the hungry black children of the deep South, as people who have been overlooked.

That was a political aside -- I'm writing to talk about place, remember? When I saw Bloodroot I had to have it. It was everything I'm interested in (women writers, place, semi-matrilineal families), minus the politics! My latest way, then, into Appalachia is through its literature.

So to come back to place, this book has given me what I've been looking for when trying to explain why place is so important to my identity, and even why it sometimes becomes important for success at my endeavors. Not that I need to be in Appalachia to succeed --for I never truly have been in Appalachia. But why I might not go to the first ugly place that offers me a job, why I might consider the place with hills before all the other possibilities, and why I always, always try to think of ways to go home. I was done with Tucson when I left. And when I mentioned I might go "home," an ex-boyfriend told me not to "cut off my nose to spite my face," that "moving doesn't change anything," and other such rhetoric as I have heard spewed from people who don't have their own strong sense of place. Well, as much as some of you don't have a home or even a need for one, there are some of us -- Appalachians and their descendants, in particular -- who will always try to get back to it, and if that doesn't make practical sense (for we are a surprisingly practical bunch when it comes to making our way in the world), we will try to find a place that suits us, even if we're stranded in Illinois, or Ohio, or blessed with some opportunity in the big city. One contributor to Bloodroot found the only hill in the flat Ohio town where she teaches, bought the house in top of it, and put her office in the unfinished attic, so she could envision herself on a ridge. I chose a house by a river, which creates its own natural hills by its banks. You can't even swim in this river and the "hills" are laughable. But that's all the place I could make for myself in Chicagoland, where I moved for the practical purpose of being close to my son's very involved grandparents. Maybe I'm silly, but these women (some natives of the hills, some outmigrants' daughters) have made me realize that that is just what we do. We pine for our place, even when we've got a decent one.

This book has also brought me to a final and startling conclusion that going for a Ph. D. has always partially been my way to get to a different, but more familiar place. Not a meal ticket, but a ride ticket. Some of my school picks have changed since I had to postpone hightailing it out of the flatlands, but I still plan on shuffling off pretty quickly if a school will give me the means. My choices are in Tennessee, North Carolina, the wilds of New York state, etc. You know, places with hills.

I'm going to come back and edit this a little to add in some quotes and facts from the book, to show you that my ramblings are not isolated, but shared by a relatively ancient family of deep eyed, high cheeked women.

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