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Illustration by Stacy Reece
Illustration by Stacy Reece

Fight From Away

Appalachians leave home for many reasons. But no matter where they go, mountain folks defend their people and culture.

“For a long time, I’d known the tightness of these hills, the way they penned. But now, I also felt their comfort, and worse, I’d learned the smallness of me in the away. I understood how when I left, I lost part of myself, but when I stayed, I couldn’t stretch myself full.”

—Ann Pancake, Strange as This Weather Has Been

“There are no jobs here.”

This lesson came from my father, who, most nights at dinner, would direct the conversation toward employment or lemonade stand economics. Jobs, after all, were the ostensible reason he’d left India in the first place: for the income and opportunity that work in the American labor economy provided. When he moved us to the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia in the early 1970s, there were jobs aplenty at the chemical plants that dotted the banks of the Kanawha River, and at all the businesses associated with that industry. Jobs that could move working-class Appalachians and working-class immigrants alike into a growing middle class. But by the mid-’90s, when I hit middle school and started to get his lectures, the employment picture had shifted. Plants shuttered. Jobs moved to other states or disappeared entirely. And any kid of immigrants will tell you—when work disappears, our families disappear, too. That’s what happens when the only safety net you have is the one you knot under your feet as you walk the tightrope of financial security.

This lesson also came from my sister, seven years older than me, who went to an Ivy League college in upstate New York, a good thirteen hours from our home in Cross Lanes. When she came home on school breaks, she made lists with me of places she thought I might like for college.

None of them were in West Virginia.

When I pushed, even a little, and said things like, “Maybe I want to stay here,” and “Maybe I’m happy just being average,” she did not hide her dismay.

It came from my teachers, who told me two things: “Don’t become a teacher.” And, “Don’t stay in West Virginia.”

And it came from the Appalachian atmosphere of my childhood, replete with both the smell of chemicals, and the notion that you need to leave to succeed.

It came from my teachers, who told me two things: “Don’t become a teacher.” And, “Don’t stay in West Virginia.”

I didn’t interrogate those messages, because there was no counternarrative offered to me as a young person, and I hadn’t yet figured out how to build my own. “Stay and fight” wasn’t a message I heard anywhere. “Go back to where you came from” was a message I heard all too often. People who loved me were telling me to go. People who espoused xenophobia were saying the same. Consequently, I internalized the need to leave as both requisite for success and survival. I left for college in Pittsburgh, and only continued to move further away afterward: to Madison, Wisconsin, for graduate school, then to Boston for work as a teacher. But even after two decades in this frigid New England city, I don’t know how to call it home.

Appalachia is home. Appalachia will always be home.

Growing up, I lived on Pamela Circle, a street with neighbors who constantly sought ways to support one another. The kinship economy, Ann Pancake calls it—this recognition that no one is coming to save us, that we are dependent on one another to survive and thrive. That looked like my dad giving physicals to every kid on the street before basketball season, and Mr. Starcher coming over to help with oil changes, and Ms. Carney and Mom swapping Christmas cookie plates. It looked like need being met without even having to utter the need aloud.

Since moving away, it’s been incredibly difficult to find community that models a similar ethic. Maybe it’s city living, maybe it’s a particularity of puritanical New England culture, but people up here don’t make themselves vulnerable to one another easily. They don’t reveal their need. To see it, you have to look and listen closely, and that’s become a hallmark of how I live my life here. I look and listen for need, and think about how I can meet it. As to whether my own unexpressed needs get met by those around me? Well, that’s a different question.

I found steady employment that paid a good wage. I satisfied my father’s metric of success. But when it came to my own metrics of rootedness and relationship, I did not feel successful at all.

Many of my relationships from childhood are far weaker now than they were growing up.

Folks have moved away from the street, moved on in their lives. Truth be told, in the years leading up to the 2022 publication of my book Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, I’d started to feel like home was more a construct of my mind than an actual place I could go. When bad things happened in Appalachia—floods, mine collapses, chemical spills—I watched and grieved from afar, but aside from donating to the GoFundMe of the moment, I struggled to know how to engage.

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In the summer of 2019, I went to the Hindman Settlement School to attend the Appalachian Writers Workshop. I had lots of trepidation before I went—could I claim an identity as an Appalachian writer? Even if I did, would people see me as such? It took me a few days to get out of my head. But in eastern Kentucky, on the banks of Troublesome Creek, I found home again. In people who sounded like home, and extended care like home, and wrote stories and poems and essays filled with ways of knowing and being that were just so deeply familiar. In people who modeled that radical politics and rural life can go hand in hand. That you can, indeed, stay and fight. That rootedness is not stagnation; it is strength.

Hindman quickly became its own kind of Pamela Circle, with Appalachian writers offering me a literary home in adulthood that made up for the childhood home I’d lost to emigration and decline. Folks I met there came to my readings, interviewed me for journals, served as conversation partners, looked for ways to help me on my publication journey in the same way that the Carneys and Starchers and Withrows had helped our family growing up: see the need and meet it. For the first time since leaving West Virginia, I felt like I had new relationships, new connections that bound me to Appalachia. Like home wasn’t just a construct in my mind, or a manifestation of nostalgia, but rather a living, breathing place.

In the summer of 2022, I traveled back to Hindman to teach at Ironwood, a new program that focused on creating space for young Appalachian writers to build community and refine their craft. Together, we wrote essays and poems and stories on the bridge over Troublesome Creek and in the chairs on the porch of the Gathering Place. Sarah Kate gave us a dulcimer lesson in the Great Hall one day, we disco square-danced in there on another, and got to see enormous raptors on a third. We made the requisite pilgrimage to Yoders, all of us piling into a few cars to stock up on molasses cookies, Ale-8-One, and Grippos chips. We ate giant, juicy tomatoes straight from the greenhouse and bought baked treats from the Knott County Farmers Market. And outside these explorations of place, we took part in workshops with incredible writers like Marianne Worthington and Robert Gipe and Frank X Walker, all messaging to young people their stories mattered, that their lives had worth, that they were held and loved within this community.

I watched from away. Because that’s where I live now. Away. And watching the floods was like losing Pamela Circle all over again. Home slipping through my fingers, me unable to hold it tight.

It was difficult to leave at the end of the week. All of us, young people and adults alike, knew that something within us had shifted because of our time by Troublesome.

And then, just a few short weeks later, I watched that site of intergenerational healing and care be ravaged by floodwaters. Followed posts on social media where friends described rising waters, cars washing away, struggling to find a way to higher ground and then to their homes across Appalachia. Pored over photographs of the aftermath: the drenched archives, the ruined library of Appalachian literature, the luthiers and homes and stores and libraries and schools laid waste by uncontrolled water.

But I watched from away. Because that’s where I live now. Away. And watching the floods was like losing Pamela Circle all over again. Home slipping through my fingers, me unable to hold it tight. But unlike Pamela Circle, where I’ve lost most of my direct connections to community, in this case, I watched eastern Kentucky come out for Hindman, and Hindman come out for eastern Kentucky, with offers of food and water, shelter and support with clean-up, archive restoration, rebuilding. And my job became to think about how I could support from away.

Among the many lessons I learned from studying the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one in particular felt especially relevant in this moment: Do not be the asshole who spends money on plane tickets and rental cars and strains local infrastructure because you have some emotional need to show up. Take that money and put it in the hands of the people already on the ground, who have the relationships, who understand the immediate needs, who have been doing the work all along. So, my first step was to reach out to folks like Gipe and Kelsey Cloonan, who told me where to direct my Expatalachian efforts.

I do not have rootedness. This is true. But what I do have is a very, very loud mouth. And some recently published material to use as collateral. In the days after the flood, I used whatever platform I’ve built to amplify the work that was happening in and around Hindman. To offer up copies of my book in exchange for funds donated to Hindman and Appalshop and E Ky Mutual Aid. To pull the eyes of people in my Boston day-to-day toward the mountains of Kentucky, and toward the people who live there, and to not let them look away. To curse out any fool who said something like, “This is what happens when you vote for Mitch McConnell.” It wasn’t enough, but it was extending care in the only ways I knew how. And it’s a template I’ve continued to work from since the floods: when need arises in Appalachia–when right-wing politicians revoke abortion rights, attack trans youth, silence journalists critical of their policies–I turn up the volume on my love, use copies of my book to generate attention, or offer solace, or raise funds.

No one taught me what it looks like to fight from away; I was taught to not look back when you leave a place. This work of walking in Boston with my head constantly turned toward Appalachia is work I learn to do anew each day.

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Every time I do a reading from Another Appalachia, a collection of essays describing what it was like to grow up at the intersection of queer, Desi, and Appalachian, I get the same question. Someone in the audience asks a variation of, “Do you plan on moving back to Appalachia?”

And every time, I have to gather myself before I answer. When I’m in Appalachia, sometimes I am holding back tears when I answer.

Because the answer is no. No, I can’t move back to the mountains where I feel like I have access to a whole part of my body that’s shut off from me when I am in Boston. No, I can’t move into space where I will be fighting alongside radical Appalachian organizers who think the way I do, talk the way I do, fight the way I do. No, I can’t move back to the only place I’ve ever felt a sense of home.

I can’t because I look at my partner, and my child, and all I want, with the entirety of my body, is to keep them safe. And I look at the laws being rammed through legislatures in West Virginia and Kentucky and Tennessee—laws that seek to render us nonexistent. Laws that would deny my child the right to read freely, to talk about her family, to explore her identity fully. Laws that would punish my partner and me, both educators, for our inclusive classrooms. Laws in future sessions that may seek to nullify our marriage. To take our child from us. And I cannot figure out how to move home. I know so many queer folks in Appalachia who are choosing to stay and fight, but I do not have the strength within me to be one of them. If rootedness is the marker of being Appalachian, then perhaps the marker of being a child of immigrants is that I am always on the lookout for the greenest pastures, and once I find them, I’m not likely to leave.

Leaving hasn’t yielded success, but it has yielded a modicum of safety.

I, in turn, asked a similar question at a reading last fall at the University of Charleston, just fifteen miles down the road from where I grew up. I stood in front of a room of twenty-five college freshmen, most of whom were from Appalachia, and asked them to raise their hands if they intended to stay in Appalachia after graduation.

Two raised their hands.

I then asked for students to talk about their reasons for leaving. Many gave answers that were predictable: they sought to move to places with more diverse demographics and social opportunities for young people. They had been told, much like I was told, that they needed to move to seek quality employment. They struggled with the political climate of West Virginia, with a legislature that did nothing to meet their needs.

“Look, the first thing I want to say to you is that staying in one place doesn’t have to be a source of shame. It can be a source of power and pride to be so bound to land in a country where place is increasingly being erased of its character.... Rootedness feels to me like the deepest form of resistance.”

One young woman’s response has persisted in my mind.

“My family has lived in Appalachia for eight generations,” she said. “No one leaves. It’s just embarrassing. I don’t want to be stuck the way they are.”

Suddenly, I was in the very moment that I’d wondered about for myself so many times. The moment when someone could offer a different lesson than “leave to succeed.” But what kind of hypocrite would I be if I told her to stay while I chose the comfort of my Boston apartment?

And would she even hear the “stay and fight” message coming from me?

I rejected the leave/stay binary that had defined my relationship to Appalachia for so long. So I launched into this little discourse:

“Look, the first thing I want to say to you is that staying in one place doesn’t have to be a source of shame. It can be a source of power and pride to be so bound to land in a country where place is increasingly being erased of its character, and where people are increasingly being stripped of their land. Rootedness feels to me like the deepest form of resistance. So if you decide you want to stay, be proud of the decision to do so. But I also understand the pull to leave. If you leave, then I want you to know that leaving doesn’t have to be forever. You can leave and come back. You can do that ten times over. No decision has to be permanent. And last of all, if you decide to leave for good, then I’m going to ask you to think really hard about what it means to fight from away. Because this place, and the people who live here, deserve our support and allyship no matter where we live.”

It was a lecture. And as a teacher, I know that lecture doesn’t work. That the likelihood of those words landing in that moment was slim. But maybe I was saying them as much to myself as I was to her or to any of the young people in that room. Maybe the words I’m trying to formulate, always, are the lessons I learned growing up in Appalachia: that the creek will keep rising, that no one is coming to save us but us, that our survival is going to require us to learn to fight in new ways. That leaving is not the marker of success; fighting is.

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This essay will be published in a collection of works by Appalachian writers connected to Kentucky, many of whom experienced the July 2022 “thousand-year flood” that swept through fourteen counties in eastern Kentucky, killing forty-five people and displacing thousands. The University Press of Kentucky will publish Troublesome Rising in September 2024. To preorder a copy, click here. Besides Neema Avashia’s essay, the book will include work by several Salvation South current or soon-to-be contributors, including Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Marc Harshman, Silas House, Meredith McCarroll, Jim Minick, Annie Woodford, and Marianne Worthington.

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About the author

Author Profile

Neema Avashia is the daughter of Indian immigrants and was born and raised in southern West Virginia. She has been an educator and activist in the Boston Public Schools since 2003, and was named a City of Boston Educator of the Year in 2013. Her first book, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, was published by West Virginia University Press in March 2022. It has been called “a timely collection that begins to fill the gap in literature focused mainly on the white male experience” by Ms. Magazine, and “a graceful exploration of identity, community, and contradictions,” by Scalawag. The book was named Best LGBTQ Memoir of 2022 by BookRiot, was one of the New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2022, and was a finalist for the New England Book Award, the Weatherford Award, and a Lambda Literary Award. She lives in Boston with her partner, Laura, and her daughter, Kahani.

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