I first met Jean Ritchie about seventy years ago at…
During their panel discussion titled “Voice Lessons” at the 2015 Appalachian Studies Association Conference, writers and teachers Darnell Arnoult, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Amanda Jo Runyon, and Jessie van Eerden offered their thoughts on voice in creative writing. They talked of the vital voices that have shaped their work over the years, a diverse chorus of influences including historical figures and events, personal experiences, family members, books, songs, recipes, Adrienne Rich, and many more. A major theme of their discussion was expectations—in their words, “what mountain writers ‘are supposed to sound like’”—and how they have dealt with that pressure in their writing lives. Since 1870—when, according to historian Henry D. Shapiro, both the idea and image of Appalachia as we know it began to be created by journalists and local color writers—those expectations have often veered from romanticized depictions of simple and picturesque lives amidst a rugged landscape to savage and backward portraits of violence and lawlessness. Appalachians became otherized in the process, viewed by a wide swath of Americans as the nation’s counterpoint.
Literary writers in the region, though, pushed back against such confining stereotypical notions, with authors like Emma Bell Miles, James Still, Harriette Simpson Arnow, and Jim Wayne Miller producing works that offered complex—and often dark, hard-edged, and gut-wrenching—representations of the region and its people.
This tradition remains alive and well today in the writings of Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Barbara Kingsolver, Crystal Wilkinson, Ron Rash, Lisa Alther, Silas House, Frank X Walker, Ann Pancake, Carter Sickels, Karen Salyer McElmurray, and countless others, including a host of emerging talents. These diverse voices are committed to presenting Appalachia not as a sentimentalized, nostalgic region, but as a three-dimensional, complicated place, filled with virtue and vice and everything in between. As such, the literature of contemporary Appalachia depicts a region that remains haunted by traditional themes including poverty, dislocation, sense of place, heritage, environmental industry, and a struggle between its people and the outside world. But it has also expanded to consider issues of race, gender, sex and sexuality, immigration, drugs, and mental health, in passages that are often alternately lyrical, gritty, and graphic.
In their enlightening new book Studying Appalachian Studies: Making the Path by Walking, scholars Chad Berry, Phillip J. Obermiller, and Shaunna L. Scott call for Appalachian studies and literature to “go beyond the established memes, tropes, and stereotypes that adhere to the region”—to present Appalachia in all of its many forms, places, and complexities. In this issue—as in every issue—of Appalachian Heritage, you will find writings that do just that. Dan Leach’s suspenseful story “Floods and Fires” challenges small town mindsets and questions how far a parent will go to protect their children. Jackson Connor’s essay “Speaking of Lineage” contemplates the notions of toughness, ancestry, and masculinity. Pauletta Hansel’s poem “Hateful” takes the Appalachian granny trope and turns it on its head while ruminating about gender roles and expectations.
Two special sections are also featured. One is a clutch of poems centered on music that I have titled “Pitch Perfect,” with breathtaking work from poets including Marianne Worthington and Doug Van Gundy. The other comprises fiction and creative nonfiction from Arnoult, McElmurray, Runyon, and van Eerden, and is titled “Voice Lessons” after their panel discussion, placing their distinctive writing styles on full display.
Listen to these voices as they bear witness to the grit and tenderness of our diverse, complicated region.