Ask any fiction writer and they will likely tell you…
Denise Giardina is not one to mince words. For nearly four decades, she has been speaking truth to power throughout Appalachia and beyond in her art and social activism, and for a short time, even on the political stump as the Mountain Party candidate for governor of West Virginia. A consummate student of literature, culture, history, and politics—subjects at the forefront of her six novels and many essays—she often underscores her opinions in person with a wry smile or a knowing look.
In this recent conversation with Appalachian Heritage editor Jason Howard, Giardina does not hold back, offering insight into her writing, how she defines the boundaries of Appalachian literature, her criticism of the coal industry, and what she believes the 2016 presidential election has revealed about the state of Appalachia and rural America.
JASON HOWARD: In your novel The Unquiet Earth, one of your characters, who is living in Washington, D.C., confesses, “I crave the mountains. They invade my dreams, and so do my kin, living and dead.” Has this proven true for you as well?
DENISE GIARDINA: It has. It’s why I’m back in West Virginia since 1992, despite my reservations. I still after all these years debate whether I did the right thing. But kin and the mountains called me back.
JH: You yourself left the mountains for a time earlier in your career, living, attending seminary, and working in and around Washington, D.C. How did that experience shape you as a writer and activist?
DG: I could not have become a writer if I hadn’t gone to seminary and to Washington, D.C. The immersion in theology was essential to my writing. Washington threw me into politics and protest, and into joining a radical Christian fellowship, Sojourners. It got me arrested and sent to the D.C. jail. It faced me up against the powers and principalities. When it came time to write Storming Heaven, I was ready.
JH: Why were you arrested? Have you drawn on that experience throughout your subsequent years of activism?
DG: The Sheraton on—I think—Connecticut Avenue was hosting an arms show where [arms] dealers displayed their wares and countries came to buy. Kind of a demonic car show. We were protesting that. I had mixed feelings about the experience. I thought and still do [think] that we were right. We women were thrown in a paddy wagon along with some prostitutes (mostly drug addicts). At the jail holding cell we bonded and and started singing loud righteous activist hymns and civil rights songs. We were clapping and rocking and a guard showed up and told we’d be taken “out back” if we didn’t shut up. As he left, one of the prostitutes yelled, “Well, it’s only the Gospel.” One of the seminal moments of my life. But I also realized after getting out the next day when our friends and lawyers posted bond that we had been playing jail, and the prostitutes were in jail for real.
JH: Why were you never able to stay gone? What brought you back to the mountains?
DG: This may be weird to say, but mountains feel like part of my physical body. I had to come back. Mountaintop removal is like ripping my guts out.
JH: As a writer from Appalachia, you have not felt constrained in your work by the region’s borders. Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth are mostly set in the region. Fallam’s Secret takes place in Stuart England and West Virginia. And Good King Harry, Saints and Villains, and Emily’s Ghost are set outside the mountains. For a piece of writing to be labeled “Appalachian,” do you think it must be set in the region?
DG: No. Growing up in the region affected every one of those novels. And Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth are not “Appalachian,” they are about the world.
JH: Your most recent book, Emily’s Ghost, was about Emily Bronte and how she often defied the social conventions of her day in terms of religion, courtship and marriage, and labor rights. I’ve heard you say that you see Emily Bronte as Appalachian, and that Wuthering Heights could even be considered an Appalachian novel. What do you mean by that?
DG: Wuthering Heights was ignored for decades because it didn’t fit the English novel mode—too passionate, the servants too upfront and disrespectful, etc. I was intrigued to learn that George Washington was Emily’s hero. I imagined her on the Appalachian frontier and thought she’d do just fine, and her novel would have fit just fine.
JH: You’ve written about the visual representation of Appalachians in media and the impacts they have had on you. What are some good, positive media representations of Appalachia on film or television?
DG: I like the first part of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Matewan is good, although the small budget meant [director John] Sayles couldn’t really capture the scope of what was happening. I thought October Sky was respectful, but totally ignored the political impact that is so important.
JH: I know you’re a big Marshall football fan. How did you feel about the film We Are Marshall?
DG: It didn’t get good reviews but I thought it deserved better. The weakest part was some of the fictional characters. But this was before Matthew McConaughey had a career reversal, and his performance deserved attention it didn’t get. Matthew Fox also gave a good performance. The movie captured the community, with respect, and also captured the times. (I was a college student in the early 1970s). When I watched the movie in a packed local theater, people wept.
JH: You’ve written a play before, but for the past couple of years you have been in front of the curtain, on stage in a program about Minnie Pearl for the West Virginia Humanities Council’s History Alive! series. What is it about this comedienne that appeals to you?
DG: Well, we have same birthday. And we’ve both had breast cancer. But I just love her sweetness and humor. I’m a political person, but Minnie points us beyond politics to something that I think is higher—our common humanity. She touches a nostalgic part of America that we need to hold onto. Plus she was a pioneer in the field of female comics.
JH: Since the 1980s, you’ve written extensively in publications like The Washington Post, The Nation, The New York Times, and The Charleston Gazette about the environmental and economic exploitation of Appalachia. In 2000, you even ran for governor of West Virginia as the Mountain Party candidate to bring attention to what you have called “the horror of mountaintop removal.” All these years later, do you think anything has changed in the region with regard to these issues?
DG: Sadly, no. We have destroyed our region and I fear it’s too late.
JH: Do you see a connection between the social and political issues Appalachia is currently confronting with those that the nation as a whole is facing?
DG: I think Trump’s candidacy shows there is a crisis in rural America nationwide. It’s not new actually. Analyzing the past several elections, there are not really really red or blue states. Urban America, even in the Deep South, is blue. Rural America, even in the North, is red. And since Appalachian America is rural, it is red. Despite its own self interest.
JH: You said that Trump’s candidacy has exposed “a crisis in rural America.” What do you mean by that, and what should we and our political leaders be doing about it?
DG: To be honest I am discouraged. The experience of many rural Americans is so far removed from what urban Americans experience. Although the media reaches all corners [so] maybe the divide is more generational. But when you look at the election maps, rural areas always go right-wing. I think it would take something on the scale of the Marshall Plan to change that.
JH: In recent years you have grown more outspoken in your criticism of some aspects of contemporary Appalachian culture, and you’ve talked about how hard it is sometimes to live in Charleston. What makes you stay?
DG: I’m poor! Seriously, if I could afford it I don’t know if I would leave or not. I’d certainly consider it. What I’ve seen is people who once fought against their situation now not only embracing it but attacking those who try to help. That’s depressing.
JH: Journalists are constantly writing pieces on Appalachia and talking about the feelings of “hopelessness” in and about the region. What gives you hope for the region?
DG: It’s bifurcated. I frankly have no hope for the coal mining areas. The non-coal areas have a lot of hope, a lot to offer. Someday they will figure out how to rehabilitate the coal mining areas. But it won’t be for several generations or more.