In 1965, the United States passed the Hart-Celler Act which reversed course on decades on discriminatory immigration policy. In the 1920s, the country had passed immigration laws designed to encourage immigration from Western and Northern Europe (predominantly white countries) and to suppress immigration from Asia, eastern Europe and elsewhere.
But starting in 1965, the United States prioritized skilled and specialized immigrants from around the world. Thousands of doctors, nurses, engineers and other skilled workers moved to the U.S. from places like the Philippines, China, India and other nations that had previously been blocked from immigration.
And many of these immigrants moved places where other whiter, wealthier Americans wouldn’t. Doctors moved to rural, mountain, and urban communities to fill a growing need in our healthcare system.
Neema Avashia’s father was one of those doctors. He grew up in India before immigrating to New York and being recruited to be a company doctor for a Union Carbide chemical plant in West Virginia. He dedicated himself to his new home and community, helping neighbors with their health needs – even outside of the responsibilities of his job.
Avashia was born and raised in the bedroom suburban community of Cross Lanes, West Virginia. She’s an Appalachian through and through. She can sing Country Roads by heart. She knows the state’s mountains and waterways by heart. In her new collection of essays, “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place,” she describes feeling more hillbilly than Hindu.
She wrestles with big questions about identity in her book. Could she really call herself Appalachian if her family didn’t go back several generations like her neighbors? What are the ways in which the ethics of community and kinship interact with an ethics of survival and assimilation? What does it mean to grow up in a business environment like chemicals or coal that extracts so much from its places and people? And what does it mean to see the people you love posting vile, hateful things about immigrants and people of color on Facebook?
Avashia now lives in Boston as a teacher and advocate for her students and school.
On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview, we discuss her Appalachian upbringing and how it feels to love and support a place from afar – even on days when it doesn’t feel like it gives you the love you deserve in return.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: We are here to talk about your book, “Another Appalachia.” So tell me about another Appalachia, tell me about the community that you grew up in.
Neema Avashia: You bet. So I grew up in southern West Virginia in a small town called Cross Lanes. It’s an unincorporated community. Population, when I lived there was around 10,000, it’s decreased since then. And my parents moved to the area because my dad got hired to work as the physician at Union Carbide, which was one of several chemical plants in the Kanawha Valley at that time, along the Kanawha River.
A bunch of plants popped up kind of post-World War II, a lot around munitions, and then moving forward from munitions into chemical production. And so my dad was a plant doctor. He had a choice between Institute, West Virginia and Seadrift, Texas, and West Virginia was closer, so that’s where they moved. And then that’s where I grew up, I mean, that’s where I became an adult was in Cross Lanes, West Virginia.
Reckon: And that community has changed a lot since then. A lot of us think about how the coal industry is disappearing in Appalachia, but the chemical industry has transformed rapidly too.
Avashia: And they’re connected, right? I mean, that’s, I think, a thing maybe people outside the region don’t know. But coal is how a lot of those chemical plants were fired. So the railroad tracks that were ran behind my school growing up, ran coal one way and ran chemicals the other way. But there’s definitely a mutual dependence between those two industries.
I don’t think it’s unrelated, the decline in coal and the decline in chemicals. I think in some ways are connected to each other and just also connected to sort of broader policy moves and decisions that really shifted chemical production and coal purchase to other countries. And so when I was growing up in the chemical valley in the 80s, there was a level of economic health that didn’t necessarily extend to all parts of West Virginia at all, but the Charleston area was relatively healthy.
There were middle class jobs that you could get with a high school diploma that were union jobs that came with a pension. And so there really was a path to upward mobility for a lot of people. I like to think about it a little bit as like the children of coal miners had a path out of the mines in some ways.
And it was a path that was safer and more secure in some ways. And so there was sort of a general sense of health in the early 80s, that then as you got later into the 80s and into the 90s, you started to see this pretty intense decline begin. And I think we are now experiencing kind of all the intensity of the decline in this moment.
Reckon: Well, it’s interesting, that’s one of the things that’s been so compelling about your book. Obviously in the last few years—in response to a certain book—there have been a lot of stories written about Appalachian decline and kind of the drivers behind that.
And you approach it with a lot of empathy. I mean you talk about some of the white people in your life growing up that have reason to look fondly back on the 70s, 80s and 90s, because of that upward mobility and things that you were talking about. And you open with an essay where you are returning to the community that you grew up in. And I believe you said, it’s now called needle city. And because of drug use there and most of the towns in the bedroom community that you grew up in seem to have fallen into disrepair, and yet you don’t necessarily reach the same conclusions that other book, Hillbilly Elegy, reached.
So, tell me about why you come at it from a certain perspective versus maybe why J.D. Vance came at it from his perspective, other than you’re not a politician.
Avashia: I was going to say, other than that I’m not trying to get elected and so therefore invested in one particular narrative about what happened.
So, I mean, I think that, and I say this as a child of the chemical industry, which is a weird thing. I think a lot of us who grew up in that area have very complicated feelings about what does it mean that the industry that put food on your table was also poisoning the air? And also, I think we all know what it looked like when that industry left. And so for us, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t about individual people not wanting to work or somehow being defective, in the way that other book likes to make people seem, but really about how corporations and government abandon a place. And what does it look like when policy decisions are made that render harm on a community, but there’s no accountability for that harm. And I think you can look at that with the chemical industry. I think you can look at it with coal. I also think you can look at it at Big Pharma.
There are clear choices that were made by those industries, take everything they could from Appalachia, in terms of resources, in terms of human labor, in terms of money and then to bounce. I have a hard time putting that on any one Appalachian person and saying, “Well, this is your responsibility, or it’s your fault this happened.”
I understand it as this is capitalism. You take everything you can from a place and then you leave. That’s capitalism at large, when there’s no more of the thing to take, you go, and you go to a place where you can take it again. Or when people start to push back too hard and want too much and they’re asking for too much, and they’re asking for regulation. They’re asking for you to be accountable for when you pollute the water in the air. They’re asking you for protection for workers, you leave. Those asks aren’t unreasonable, but industries don’t want to do them and government doesn’t want to make them do them.
Reckon: What types of products were being manufactured at a plant, like Union Carbide, in West Virginia and elsewhere in the Chemical Valley?
Avashia: Pesticides, a lot of pesticides. That was one of the biggest things. Also, I mean, DuPont was there. So a lot of cleaning, Tuff Stuff, cleaning supplies, but the largest carbide, in particular, the largest production was of pesticides.
Reckon: So products that were driving a lot of middle class growth elsewhere in the country, but also we’re having environmental effects in the Gulf Coast, for example. Having orders of magnitude of environmental devastation beyond just poisoning the air there in West Virginia as well.
Avashia: For sure. Union Carbide has a plant right outside of New Orleans, sorry had. No, it is not just an Appalachian thing. You can kind of track it. And you can look and it’s the same thing in the Gulf Coast. It’s that feeling of that really complicated relationship, I think it’s resonant for people in a lot of parts of the country that aren’t cities. I think in a lot of rural America, the way in which there’s a really complex relationship between industry and the people who live in the place, it’s very resonant I think for lots of people, when you know both that you need this thing to survive and that this thing is actually not good for anybody.
Reckon: I was also interested in kind of the interpersonal relationship between you and your father, because he was a company man kind of through and through. Tell me about your parents. It takes a lot of courage, I think, to immigrate from India to a community, I know they stopped in New York first, but then to a community like West Virginia. So tell me about who your parents were and what drove your father.
Avashia: I mean, I think the older I get, the more respect and appreciation I have for how difficult my parents’ journey had to have been. I think things that I didn’t understand as a kid and even things that I didn’t really fully understand until I was writing this book. In terms of the sacrifices that they made and the kinds of choices that they were presented with and what they had to do with those choices.
And I think this is not unusual when you’re the child of immigrants. I think it’s the story of a lot of immigrant families that our parents did not have a safety net. And when you don’t have a safety net, the thing driving every decision you make is your family security. That you never can see much further than that, because if that’s insecure, then nothing else matters. And so I think for my parents, a lot of the choices they made in terms of how they interacted with the chemical industry and even how they interacted with our neighbors in our Appalachian community was ultimately about survival.
It was about making sure that we were taken care of, that we had a safety net under us. They were our safety net and they didn’t have a safety net. And I think then when you’re the child of immigrants, it can be easy to look at their choices and be like, “Wow, I can’t believe you made those choices.” And yet I have a safety net, the one they made. And so I can make different choices because of what they didn’t do. I think about that a lot with my parents, I think about just the stakes of being just a small handful of people of color in all white environments that were not easy.
I recently ran into a woman, Karen in Boston, whose grandfather worked at the same plant as my dad. And I was like, “Oh, I’m sure they knew each other.” And she was like, “I hope they didn’t because my grandpa was pretty racist.” And in my head I was like, “I’m sure they worked together.” And I’m sure my dad experienced that and I’m sure he swallowed a lot for us.
Reckon: And you talk about the ethics of community versus the ethics of assimilation or the ethics of survival. And I thought that was a really interesting point you made in this essay about your father and his relationship with the chemical industry. He was somebody who was the town doctor, in addition to being the company doctor. He did a lot of pro bono work for the community there. And in return, it sounds like at least some members of the community, maybe not this woman’s grandfather, responded in kind by being willing to show up and fix broken things around y’all’s house or meals.
You talked specifically about a couple that you call Mr. And Mrs. B. So tell me about y’all’s relationship in that community, but then also how you came to view your father’s role later on in life, in that ethics of community versus survival.
Avashia: I didn’t have language for this until I encountered Ann Pancake, who’s an amazing Appalachian writer from West Virginia and she uses this language with a kinship economy. And in her view, in places like Appalachia, kinship economy is really what drives a lot of relationships, which is that there’s nobody coming to save us. There’s no outside resource that’s going to solve our problems. So the way we relate to each other and orient towards each other is, what do I have that I can give you? And what do you need, how do we match our skills and needs with one another? Because ultimately that’s our way through and I think my parents picked up on that very quickly. I think they very, very quickly understood that this was the way you related to people, is through what you had to offer and that they were going to give you what they had to offer in turn.
And that’s the context I was raised in and I think it was really incredible. I think it really shaped a lot of how I think about being in community now, even though I live in a place where that’s not how people orient at all. I wish it was, but it’s not. I still orient that way. I still am always thinking about what gap can I fill for you? What do I have that I can offer you? And so I think I just saw that happening all the time, all around me in so many different ways, big and small. I think about, I had a neighbor who heard about a driving lesson that I had with my dad that did not go well and was like, “I’ve got it. You don’t need to do this doc. I’m going to take it,” and taught me how to drive.
Rick Withrow taught me how to drive. And he came every weekend, I mean, this wasn’t like a one-time thing. This was, “I’m going to make time out of my schedule.” He worked at the chemical plant too. He did shift work. It’s not like he had a ton of time on his plate. He had three kids, but he saw a need and he was like, “I can sell this. I can take this off your plate.” There’s something really beautiful about that. And I don’t necessarily feel like every Indian person in our small Indian community understood it the way my parents did. I really do think more than a lot of the other Indian people in our community. I think my parents really found a home in that kinship economy and found that really aligned with their values and their way of being.
And I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to see that my dad was both really trying to and have at those values and also really grappling with what does it mean to work for this employer. And how do I hold these two things that sometimes kind of fly in the face of each other. When the football incident happened, the other chemical plant that was making the same chemical that was being produced in Bhopal that resulted in so much death and so much damage was the Institute plant, which was where my dad worked. So methyl isocyanate was only being made in two places, Bhopal, India and Institute West Virginia. And without question, a lot of people in our community were pretty freaked out.
Reckon: And just so our listeners understand cause I had not heard of this incident prior to reading your book, but this was the largest leak in global history of a chemicals plant in India. And despite the fact that your father was a company doctor in the United States plant, the company sent him to India, basically to serve as kind of a token face, as an Indian face, in the company’s response, because this was, I believe, an American based company, is that right?
Avashia: A hundred percent, it’s an American based company. The leadership of that company was entirely white. My dad was a plant doctor, but he wasn’t upper level management that would get sent to an international disaster, I think. But for the fact that one, he worked at another plant that had that chemical so he had some understanding of the treatment response. And two, I think he was Indian. And I think they were hoping that having an Indian person on their team would in some way mitigate the rage that was going to get directed at them when they went to India to try to respond to this terrible, terrible disaster.
And I think when my dad came home, people in the community where we lived were also really scared and really angry, what does it mean that this chemical is being produced that has caused so much harm somewhere else? Could it cause the same harm here?
I think it becomes very hard to figure out how do you hold these things, that your work is making people feel unstable and unsafe. And you’re also trying really hard to be a contributing and caring member of a community. I have a much greater appreciation for how difficult it must have been for him to hold all of that together.
And there really wasn’t, I think for Indian folks who came to the United States in the 70s, your job options were pretty limited. You were going where American people didn’t want to go. So I don’t think my dad felt like, “Oh, I can just leave this place and go somewhere else.” I don’t think that ever felt like an option for him. I think he felt like he really had to make it work there even as it sometimes was really hard to.
Reckon: And your family came to America in a time, shortly after restrictions had been lifted against immigration from countries like India. Please share with us. But it doesn’t seem like the anti-immigrant fervor was as heated as it is now in the 70s and 80s in places like West Virginia. And it’s just kind of ironic, like you said, that most affluent or middle class white American doctors, or engineers would not choose to go to the rural and mountain places that Indian immigrants and other immigrants from around the world were going. And yet there’s that tension between anti-immigrant fervor now and who is able to go to those jobs?
Avashia: I think a lot of people have forgotten that history or don’t learn that history in our schools because we don’t teach history in our schools anymore cause people want history to be illegal. But the Hart–Celler Act that passed in ‘65, it specifically encouraged high skilled immigration. So who was able to come easily were engineers and doctors and scientists from Asia, in particular. That was a group of people that were being drawn from that place. But the caveat was, if you come here, you’re going to work where we have need. And where we have need is either in intensely urban areas or intensely rural ones, because those were the two places that affluent white people were not wanting to work. It was too hard. They felt like the work was too hard or the living conditions were not good enough or whatever it was.
So that definitely meant that in communities like Charleston, West Virginia, if you went into a hospital, many of the physicians were Indian or Chinese or Filipino. It wasn’t like my parents were an exception. It actually was quite common and not just in West Virginia, but in many parts of the south. There are these pockets of Asian immigration that I think you can see in certain fields and in certain areas where it’s like, “Oh yeah, there is a significant… I’m thinking in Mississippi. There are sort of these pockets of Asian immigration that exist because of the Hart–Celler Act. That said, I think something I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older is our numbers were never that high. And so I think that what might have happened is that it was really easy for people to view us as an exception.
And in fact, I’ve had people say that to me, when I have tried to engage with people from home about their immigration views, and I’ve said to them, “You’re talking about me. Or you’re talking about my family when you say these anti-immigrant things you’re talking about us.” Their response is, “Oh, you’re not that kind of immigrant.” And that’s very hard for me because I’m like, “Sure. We are. Yes, we are exactly that kind of immigrant, whatever that kind of immigrant is, we’re them.” But I think because the numbers were so small, people could kind of engage in this exceptionalism to be like, “Oh, we have negative feelings about immigrants, capital I, but you’re fine. You’re okay. We can somehow separate you from this broader phenomenon.” And that’s a really painful thing I think to grapple with.
I don’t want to be an exception. I want you to see me and my story as connected to this very big and old story of immigration to this country, in which effectively this country doesn’t really function without immigrant labor. And before that, without the labor of enslaved people. A lot of people in this country weren’t trying to work without getting people to either work for free or work for less or work exploited. So our labor has made this country in many ways and I don’t see myself as separate from that story. And it’s hard for me when that’s how people have sort of done some mental gymnastics to be able to care about me and care about my family is by saying, “Oh, well you’re an exception. You’re not like everybody else.” It feels kind of conditional instead of being able to be like, “Yes, your immigration story connects you to this bigger immigrant community and we love you. Period.” It’s like, “Oh, we love you because we think you’re not like them,” doesn’t feel great.
Reckon: No, I can’t imagine that it would. And especially, and I mentioned it a few minutes ago, but this couple that you described, Mr. And Mrs B, who I guess were almost like a grandparent figures for you. She was one of the people who said, “I didn’t see color when I saw you.” And he increasingly posts hateful and vile things about immigrants on Facebook, as so many people do these days.
And yet, you go out of your way to make space for empathy for them, sometimes hid parts of your personality and yourself, including your sexuality and you point out that they never seemed willing to do that for you. You would make space for protecting their needs and that yet they weren’t willing to do that for you, even if they thought in their heart and think in their heart of hearts that they love you. I know she has passed. Has he read this book? Have you heard from him?
Avashia: I haven’t. And I don’t know that he has and if he has, I’m not sure he likes what he’s read and that’s a hard thing. It’s a hard thing. But I also think, I feel like so many of us are struggling with those relationships right now, where people who we have really deep love for have landed in a place that we really don’t understand. And in some ways I felt like I needed to tell that story because I think so many of us are privately grappling with that story and there’s not enough public room to talk about it. And to talk about what do we do when some of the most important relationships in our lives are now sort of being shaded by this intense political divide. I really do still hold a lot of empathy there and still think that, I’m not confused about his anger.
I’m not confused about why he feels the way he feels or why he’s gone to the place he’s gone, because I understand it as grief. I understand it as this place that I love that I raised my family in, that I made my life in, has completely combusted and there’s deep grief with that. And then when you’re grieving, all of us want to understand the why, that’s every one of us, when we’re in deep grief. We want to be able to make meaning or make sense of what’s happened. And I feel like there’s only one narrative being offered for what happened right now. And that narrative is one of xenophobia and exclusion. And I really struggle to see where other narratives are at the same volume as that intensely hateful narrative.
And so I try to just think about it from that place of, if I’m really in deep grief and you’re giving me a narrative and there’s not another one that I can find and I gravitate towards that narrative. I think I get it. I don’t think it’s good and I don’t think it’s right. And I really wish we could turn up the volume on alternate narratives. And I think lots of people, including Reckon, including Appodlachia, I think that’s what we’re trying to do is to turn up that narrative. But I also think that is a narrative coming from individuals and not necessarily a narrative coming from a political party, in the way that I really wish it were right now.
Reckon: Well, especially when you look at your father and your family and other communities, other people like them in your community, holding a community like that together for decades around the chemical plant and the unpaid work. And service that your family did to not then be able to leap and say, “Oh, no, immigrants were actually great for our community,” is very upsetting.
But you still look back on the Appalachia fondly, and that comes very clear throughout the book. So I don’t want this interview to make it seem like this was some sort of polemic against West Virginia, because you love West Virginia. And you’d write about how there are moments, your hillbilly culture was more pronounced than maybe your Hindu culture. And so tell me about growing up Hindu in West Virginia and what that was like for you.
Avashia: Yes. I just want everyone to know that I wore Tudor’s Biscuit World socks to school today, and I’m wearing a rainbow y’all t-shirt right now. So let’s not be confused. I have deep love for the place that I came from, and I’m very, very clear about how the person I am today I would not be without my West Virginia family and community. I can’t really imagine who I’d be. So I think of this book in many ways as a love letter, like a real love letter, which is to say complicated and messy and hard at points and love makes you work, love isn’t easy. And so it’s a love letter in all those ways. It has the hard stuff in it, but it also has a lot of joy in it. But I mean, my family, my parents are Hindu.
My mom was a lot more devout than my father, but we moved to West Virginia and there’s no Hindu temple. There’s no big community in which you’re celebrating these rituals, they’re not holidays off from school. Our first temple was in the basement of a person’s house. They just were like, “We’re going to make a temple in our basement.” And they did and that was amazing. And then we would meet at high school gyms or the junior women’s club to do rituals together. It was very much like people trying to create community and create faith in spaces that weren’t necessarily built for that. And I think what that meant for me as a kid is that I grew to develop a really deep appreciation of the people, the community, but it didn’t grow up to be particularly faithful because it was really hard.
It’s hard to sort of experience these sort of approximated rituals and all these things sort of happening decontextualized, and having it be only a thing you’re doing on a weekend or once a month or whatever else. And to feel really connected in the way that I think when you’re in India, there’s a temple on every corner. You can’t not be aware of faith, for better or worse, it’s all around you. In my day to day existence, Hinduism wasn’t around me in that way. I mean, my mom had a little altar in our kitchen that she would pray at and I was raised vegetarian and I would read these Hindu comic books to try to understand the mythology. But it all sort of felt like it was happening kind of at the sidelines, as opposed to what was central in my life was Appalachia.
I was spending my days at school, I played sports. I was in 4-H, I was in girl Scouts. I went to the library, my immediate community that was around me, 90% of the time was an Appalachian community. And so I think the cultural practices of that community really rooted themselves in me in a very strong way. And are the thing that I think, I feel like I live out the most in my day to day, still vegetarian, but that’s like the, of my Hinduism, that’s the main thing that’s remained. Whereas I can name for you 20 ways in which I feel like my Appalachian identity shows up all the time, every day.
Reckon: Your mom was not interested in you adopting Christianity. And yet you mentioned that you didn’t grow up surrounded by faith, but I imagine you grew up surrounded by a very different faith and that there were multiple efforts throughout your life to try to convert you or to witness Christianity to you. I’ve heard from readers and from listeners in the past that we don’t do enough talking about what it’s like to be a religious minority in the south. And so describe kind of the day to day of just navigating a heavily Christian community, like West Virginia.
Avashia: I’ve been saved, which is weird to think about cause I think I was six and my friend was like, “Come to Sunday school with me.” And somehow I ended up at the front of the room at the altar and got saved. I kind of think about it as like, “Well, I guess I can check that off.”
But it was very much, I mean, it was pervasive, my middle school basketball coach made us say the Lord’s prayer before basketball games. That wasn’t legal. We weren’t supposed to be doing that. Did I know? No, I didn’t know it wasn’t legal. And did I feel like I couldn’t participate? No, it wasn’t optional. It was in the huddle. So what are you going to do? Be the one, you’re already the brown kid and now you’re going to be the brown kid who’s not going to go in the huddle.
That’s a very hard choice to make. So I can recite the Lord’s prayer by heart. I mean, do I believe any of it? No. But do I know every word? Yes. There’s just this way in which I think when you’re the minority, you become very aware of the majority.
You know all the rules and you know how they work and you know what’s supposed to happen because you’re kind of bombarded with it. And so you become very well versed in what this world looks like. Even though it’s like, “Well, this isn’t my world.” But I think it can be really hard to figure out, “Well, what is the space for my world? What’s the space for my beliefs when there’s such an inundation?” I mean, it really was, it would just happen all the time that I would think I was doing one thing and then suddenly religion would show up and I’d be like, “Oh, I didn’t know this is what we were doing.”
A friend invites me to watch the Super Bowl at our church and it’s halftime and halftime is the best part of the Super Bowl. And we’re supposed to be watching the ads, but you turn it off to pray and try to get people who aren’t Christian to accept Jesus into their hearts. How was I supposed to know that’s what was happening? I didn’t know.
I think it’s pretty humorous. And I don’t think that my friends were doing anything out of malice, but I think it was just kind of assumed that this way was the right way. And if you weren’t doing it, then we were going to try to get you to do it that way. It was pretty constant. This sort of like, “Come do it our way, come do it our way, come do it our way.”
In a way that I think made it very hard to feel like, “No, I have this other way and I can really hold to it.” Particularly, because I think all religions have a lot of patriarchy baked into them, have a lot of misogyny baked into them. So as you’re grappling with those elements of your own faith that are kind of making you distance yourself from it, to also be experiencing this sort of push towards another faith, in some ways I think it just made me not religious at all. I was like, “I don’t really like any of this. None of this feels like what I want in my life.”
Reckon: You talk about, I think you were working on your sister’s vows, translating them to English. There’s a segment in the wedding ceremony that you were like, “Oh no, we’re not doing this.” Tell, tell us about that.
Avashia: It was part of the ceremony, which in some ways is beautiful. It’s nine married women come up and whisper wishes in your ear. That sounds lovely. But then the thing that they’re saying, when you translate it effectively means like, “May you die before your husband.” Which is a very old thing that comes from when Sathi was a practice and if a woman didn’t die before her husband, she was going to be on the pyre with her husband. So it was women trying to basically wish each other, not that fate.
I get the idea behind it. And I’m like, “We don’t need to say that anymore. We can be done with that. We can just say nice things. We don’t need to say that phrase.” I think there were many times where I felt like, “Oh, why are we doing this? What does this mean? What does this ritual?”
I do think growing up in America, there is kind of a criticality that happens of just, I think we’re taught to think in school and I think we’re taught, “Oh, I was, again, I’m not sure that people want that to happen anymore.” But I was taught to think and ask questions and be like, “Why are we doing these things?” And so that questioning, I think gets applied to everything. It gets applied to your faith, gets applied to cultural practices, gets applied to the place where you’re living. Why do we do this here? And I think it makes you both willing to ask questions, or make different choices, but also makes it hard to sort of commit fully to anything because you’re just kind of like, “I’m not sure about any of it. I have lots of questions about all of it.”
Reckon: Growing up Appalachian and that being the only home that you’ve ever known for the first 18 years of your life and then moving away for college. And I can’t imagine that there are too many people of Indian descent in the world that kind of have to endure the hillbilly jokes at college that you had to go through. But then you’ve lived most of your life now outside of that place, you raised this idea of Indolachian, but how that community was only kind of there temporarily. How do you hold onto that sense of identity and place when it’s not an eighth generation thing? So where have you come down on that now? Are you still working your way through it? How do you feel about your Appalachian identity?
Avashia: I mean, I think that in some ways writing this book has been the most Appalachian I’ve felt in my whole life. I think when I was growing up, I didn’t really feel like I could use that word to describe myself because everyone I saw around me who did use it, didn’t look like me. And then I went to college and people were so terrible about Appalachia, which I will never, never understand how Pittsburghers went from hating on Appalachia to now being like, “We’re the only city in Appalachia.” Someone needs to explain how that’s happened in 20 years because I don’t get it. It wasn’t like that when I went there and sort of having my Appalachian nest become very visible and having it be like, “Oh, these people definitely see me as Appalachian, whether I do or not. That’s how I’m being seen.”
I think in some ways, the further I’ve gone away, the sharper the contrast has become between who I am and the places where I lived. And the more clearly I’ve been able to see how so much of who I am was formed by the place where I grew up. And I think in writing this book that sort of only became more apparent to me. And I think a really beautiful thing about this book process is the way in which is connected me with people who are in Appalachia now with other ex-Appalachians, who aren’t in Appalachia anymore, but kind of share similar feelings with young people in Appalachia. Who are just reaching out and talking about what the book means to them with older queer people who grew up in Appalachia, but don’t live there anymore and are like, “I totally saw myself in these experiences.”
There’s a way in which the book has sort of built this whole new Appalachia around me. That has been really beautiful. And in some ways, like I said, I think I feel more connected in this moment than I have in a really, really long time. It’s a hard thing to think about that going away. I don’t think it will. I think it’s sort of a renewed connection, but it wasn’t something I anticipated. I wasn’t sure what people were going to think about this book. I wasn’t sure if people were going to be like, “Oh, this is this person hasn’t lived here in 20 years. What are they talking about? They can’t even say the things that they’re saying. They don’t have any claim.” But I tried to really write a very specific story and I didn’t try to make big broad statements, unlike that other book. I wasn’t trying to claim I understood anything more about Appalachia than just what it was like for me to grow up there.
Reckon: You call your book, “Another Appalachia.” It’s not the Appalachia. It’s not the only Appalachia. This is another Appalachian story. And you go to this writing conference in Appalachia, in this essay, where you’re working through a lot of these ideas of identity and you write, “Is the definition of Appalachia so narrow that it excludes even these writers, their progressive politics, placing them outside the bounds of belonging? If they struggle to feel represented by the term that perhaps my insider outsider battle, isn’t generational, it’s philosophical.” And that’s something we think about at Reckon, a lot. If we put this kind of cookie cutter mentality on Appalachian or Southern and the identity can only look like what JD Vance is describing. Or it can only look like the Beverly Hillbillies or things like that. Then you’re not making space for anybody. You’re not making space for you. You’re not making space for white progressives, black conservatives, non-binary Appalachians. And so I think that a lot of people will find themselves in this story of yours, even if it is your specific story, there’s a lot of universality to it.
Avashia: I mean, I think that’s been one of the most beautiful things is how many people see themselves in that word, another. And there are so many writers and thinkers who are writing another Appalachia. Bell Hooks writes Another Appalachia. Crystal Wilkinson writes Another Appalachia. Frank X Walker writes Another Appalachia. Dr. William Turner is writing another Appalachia. I can go through and I can list for you. Abraham Verghese, when he wrote “In My Own Country,” way back in the 80s was writing Another Appalachia. He was talking about East Tennessee and working in the mountains there. People are asserting that voice in so many different ways. I think what is hard is that there seems to be a very deep investment by mainstream media in only allowing one narrative about Appalachia to dominate. And that is the Vance narrative.
I think that has become a really convenient narrative. I think you can use that narrative and it allows you to villainize a region. It allows you to exploit it. It allows you to blame it. It allows you to do a lot of things to the people who live there. But what it doesn’t allow for is the level of nuance and complexity that actually exists. And so I hope that every time people see that word, another, it just kind of flips a switch in their head to be like, “Oh yeah, no place can be this flat. No place can be just one kind of person.” It’s not actually possible. And so if I keep seeing another, another, another, does it push me further and further towards like, “Well, who are those others? And how do I learn about them and how do I see their stories? And how do I understand those places?” Deserving of complexity and deserving of generosity, of spirit and empathy and all of the things that we should extend to people everywhere.
But that I don’t feel get extended to people in Appalachia or by extension, I actually think, to people in the South. I think there is this really reductive narrative that gets applied that doesn’t actually serve any of us. It serves to keep us apart from each other and it serves to sow division, but it doesn’t serve the people who live in any of these places.
Reckon: As we start to wrap up, it’s been another weird dark year in Appalachia and in the South. We’re seeing waves of anti-LGBT bills across the country. Perhaps by the time this airs, or certainly within the next few weeks, it seems like Roe V. Wade is going to be struck down and you do kind of get the sense from a lot of people, even a lot of people who have been living in these places and fighting their entire lives, that it’s okay. Maybe it is okay if you are a queer Appalachian, or if you are a woman growing up in Alabama and you are fearing for what it’s like to live in a community like this, that has such strict anti-abortion laws that maybe you should leave and go somewhere else.
But I think something else that I found a lot of inspiration in is that you’ve moved to Boston, you live in Boston now, and you’ve carried that kind of Appalachian kinship economy ethic with you.
You’ve carried that work ethic with you. And you’re also clear that like Boston, despite being in one of the most progressive states in the country, it’s not a utopia. It’s not a Mecca. There’s a lot of shit there that people need to work through. And you have been at the forefront of a lot of those fights, particularly in terms of education.
How do you carry that work ethic with you into other communities, while maintaining that connection to Appalachia, but also by doing the work that you need to do to make places like Boston better?
Avashia: I think that’s such an important thing. I think that the most important thing for anyone is their survival. And so if it feels to somebody like you can’t survive in the space where you’re living, you have to go. That’s real. I feel that really deeply. And I also think you can fight from away. And I also think no decision is forever. So you can fight from away, and maybe there’s a point at which you figure out how you’re engage and you go back. Or you always fight from away because that’s the distance you can fight from.
I think that one of the things that I really have spent a lot of time thinking about is that so much of the fight has been held by the people whose identities are under attack. And a big thing that I think about more and more is, what does it look like for good people in Appalachia and good people in the South who know and love and care about people and trans people and people of color and have them at their dinner tables and sit on their porches with each other. What does it look like for folks who don’t have those identities to get loud for people who do have those identities? I think that’s the variable that we haven’t totally figured out yet.
I was at Taylor Books for a reading in April and a woman in the audience was like, “I have gay friends. I love them. They’re wonderful.” And I was like, “I really appreciate that you’re saying that. And the West Virginia legislature had just tried to pass so many bills that would basically make me not able to exist. And my question for you is, did you call your legislator? Did you say to them that wasn’t okay with you?”
Because if we’re saying that we love people on an individual level, but we’re not fighting for them on a structural level, that’s not love. That’s not real love, it’s something else, but I don’t think it’s love.
And so I think I sort of feel the same way about myself, which is, if I have chosen that for my survival, I need to be away. What does it look like to make my Appalachian values and ways of living visible in the space where I am now? And what does it look like to fight for the people and places that I care about in the ways that I can and the place that I live. And that means and sometimes that I’m fighting against my school district with all of the union organizing and rebel rousing that I learn watching people fight in Appalachia. And sometimes it means I’m telling stories that push on narratives that are being allowed to dominate sort of the national understanding of the place where I grew up that are wrong.
And I’m like, I got to write back against that. But I think for each of us, it’s about figuring out first, how do I secure myself and feel safe and loved and held, wherever that place is then how does that help me to think about, “All right, well, what’s my work now and how do I do the work that matters to me in a place where I feel that safety and security?” And I think that’s a thing that a lot of young people in Appalachia and in the south are going to have to figure out in this moment. And I hope that they give themselves the grace to sort of make the decisions that are really hard for any of us to make. It is not easy to leave, but it does feel like in a lot of these places, survival is at stake for some people. And I think that’s a very real challenge and people need to be safe.
That’s the first thing. You can’t fight if you’re not safe. I guess that’s sort of how I think about it is to sort of strike that balance and figure out how do I secure myself and then how do I fight from that place?
Buy a copy of Neema Avashia’s book “Another Appalachia,” here.