Southern Appalachian outsiders tell all
by Rob Neufeld
A woman who was following her wants to know. She’s out there in the rain, too, headed toward a cave where women were known to disappear forever, abandoning society.
Eventually, the second woman calls the stranger to share her poetry—one more thing, along with her break from traditional women’s roles, that would get her dubbed a witch by neighbors.
This particular figure of an outsider in Appalachian society comes to us from the pen of former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer of Cullowhee, who writes about her shadow self in the new collection, “Walk till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.”
As 31 authors show, you can’t judge a region by its cover story. For it’s not just outsiders who feel estranged by Appalachia’s code. Get a little closer, and you see individuals separating from the generalized flock, striving to come to terms with both their home culture and their differentness.
Push and pull
PHOTOS: Karen McElmurray and Adrian Blevins, editors
Dorothy Allison, author of “Bastard out of Carolina,” and another contributor to the book, tells how writing her life stories helped her embrace the poor, embattled, and violent people she’d fled to become a woman who owned her identity.
“Writing it all down was purging,” she says. “Putting those stories on paper took them out of the nightmare realm and made me almost love myself for being able to finally face them. More subtly, it gave me a way to love the people I wrote about—even the ones I had fought with or hated.”
The essays in “Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean” are about healing, not just for the people who became outsiders, but also for the people they left, Karen McElmurray, one of the editors of the book, points out.
Adrian Blevins, the other editor, adds that her father, whose parents were from Crumpler, N.C. (Ashe County),
had looked down on Appalachian culture.
He “went to Virginia Commonwealth University in the 1950’s,” sh
Blevins’ father has passed away, but her mother “will read every inch of this new collection because she understands the need for it.”e says, “and was turned into a beatnik by the experience, was shamed by his painting teacher who called him a ‘mountain man.’ Therefore, he constantly corrected my grammar and so on; it was hilarious, since he really is a mountain man—he was a painter and art history teacher who was obsessed with mountain music and mountain food and mountain laurel.”
The pain of estrangement
“I’d like to write something useful for the wrecked heart, for others who have lived a portion of their lives frozen and bankrupt, unable to recognize themsel
ves, because I know my loss is a commonplace kind,” Jessie Van Eerden, West Virginia author and teacher, declares.
Her essay, “Walk till the Dogs Get Mean,” provided the title for the book.
When Van Eerden had found her marriage falling apart, far from home—in Oregon—she reveals, she’d restarted the walking routine that she’d practiced as a child in West Virginia, where she’d ventured “past the trailers pinned with lattice and past the cinder block ruins.”
“The dogs come out of the shadows,” she writes. “I watch them snort around, daring me to take another step.” Back home in West Virginia, she relives the experience, again turning back when she encounters mean dogs.
Then, she says, “I’d crest the hill, and see my parents’ place, the house I grew up in, nestled there like a dollhouse, and feel a stranger there.”
Thomas Wolfe’s phrase, “You can’t go home again,” keeps popping up. The insider becomes an outsider, of necessity, yet longs for home.
Coming home, for escapees, means facing their demons.
Michael Croley, whose father was an east Kentucky working man who married a Korean, recalls confronting the guy who’d written an ethnic slur on his locker room locker, and then getting no support from students or teachers.
He also recalls going to college and recoiling when African American students judged him for coming from Corbin—a town that, in 1919, had forcibly expelled its black population.
Teachers kept telling Croley, who wanted to be a writer, that he needed to write about what made him separate. It was a visit home and a talk with his mom that helped him cross that boundary.
She told him how, when she’d first come to Kentucky, “clerks had followed her up and down the aisles at stores...Women at the insulation factory where she worked picked on her.”
“Once,” Croley recounts “she was badgered by a group of boys on a school bus and she pulled up beside the bus and waved it to a stop. She walked right up the steps and to the very back row, and said to the boys, ‘You wanted my attention: now you’ve got it. What do you want to say?’ A friend of mine was on that bus and he said it was awesome to see the surprise and fear on their faces.”
That’s walking past where the dogs get mean, and it produces surprising results, as Van Eerden also discovered.
Using her metaphor, she tells how she followed one of her fearsome dogs to “the closed back door of a sinking trailer,” where it howled at an empty bowl left outside. She looked in a window, and saw a shut-in on a bed, and then saw a Home Health aide arrive, enter the trailer, and provide gentle care to the invalid while cursing and singing the blues.
“The aide,” Van Eerden continues, “starts on the pile of dishes, then remembers, goes out to the car and comes back, to the back door where I’m peeping in. She has no time to fool with me; she just empties an Arby’s paper bag into the bowl, roast beef and fries, and the husky tears in.”
Van Eerden finds this revelation unbearably transformative. The demons have been humanized.
PHOTO: At the 4th of July Party, Anderson Branch, 1985 by Rob Amberg
McElmurray’s and Blevins’ book, several years in the making, had begun as a proposal for a writers’ conference panel discussion about women finding their voices. Then, at an Appalachian Studies Association meeting in Boone, the scope expanded to how silencing and being silenced operate across the board in Appalachia.
As the book grew, it became much larger than the subject of what was forbidden, McElmurray says.
“It’s more about the conundrum of being from the region and longing to get away from it; and once you’re away from it, longing to be back,” Forbidden subjects, in any case, are what often drive mountain youth away.
“It’s even harder to be from here and want to go back,” McElmurray notes, if, for example, “you’re a trans writer, just as I’ve found it difficult as a strong woman.”
“When I left the hollers of East Tennessee,” Tennessee Jones, a trans writer says about her move to a rundown flat in Richmond, Virginia, “I was a morbidly shy eighteen-year-old girl, so terrified of people I could barely order food in a restaurant...I had a mountain accent so thick it made Richmonders nervous, and though I had no language for it then, a deeply uneasy relationship to my own body, which had never quite curved into the shape of a woman.”
Jones’ other standout quality was intellectual curiosity in a family that only read the Bible.
At college, she became a man and developed an interest in the racially poisonous history of Erwin, Tennessee. Returning home for research, two revelations shook Jones into coming to terms with his people and with his writing.
“I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, talking to her, listening to her tell stories from decades before,” he recalls, “when I noticed the almost grotesquely long and thick thumbnail that had grown that way after she’d smashed it into a car door.
“I remembered watching her dig out the pits of cherries she picked by the gallon on some hillside, the way that thumbnail had torn into the deep red flesh to separate seed from fruit, the lines of cherry juice running down the side of a five-gallon bucket, dark as blood.”
“It hit me like a bolt out of the blue,” Jones says, “that I’d ceased to see my actual family as full human beings...It was this that had kept me up at night: I did not believe in the central humanness of my own characters because I did not believe in the humanness of my people. I was better than them. I was special. I had gotten ‘out.’”
“I was an outsider before I even left home,” Melissa Range, a prize-winning poet now teaching in Wisconsin, reveals in her essay, “Outsider Appalachian.”
“My mother tells the story,” she says, “of how my kindergarten teacher asked her, after the first week of school, ‘Where’s she from?’ ‘She,’ meaning me. My mother, confused, responded that, since she herself had lived her whole life in Elizabethton, and I was her child, then, of course, I was from here.
“The teacher said, ‘Well, she doesn’t talk like us.’”
The teacher was referring to Melissa’s rapid speech, muted accent, and “that I was using words I had picked up from my reading (I had learned to read before I started school) that were too ‘big’ or highfalutin for me to know.”
Range doesn’t see why she can’t discuss both ramp festivals and Emily Dickinson; and use phrases such as “might could have” and “genre theory.” Why can’t someone be both regional and a citizen of the world?
“The most Appalachian woman I have known, my grandmother Ena, who lived in Upper East Tennessee her whole life,” Range says, “once told me, toward the end of her eighty-six years, and in a confidence I am breaking now, ‘Melissa, I love my children more than anything, and I’m glad I had them, and I wouldn’t take anything for them. But if I had my life to do over again, I wouldn’t have children at all. I’d travel. I’d get out and go somewhere and see the world some.”
Home travels with us
“Even in exile we carry our places with us,” Connie May Fowler, author of “Before Women Had Wings,” confides.
Ann Pancake, author of “Strange as This Weather Has Been,” winner of the Weatherford Prize, admits that she carries a legacy of toughness inherited from her West Virginia upbringing.
She tells how she’d denied her friendship with a tender boy named Jamie and had gone out with guys “whose families couldn’t afford phones, so they’d call me from phone booths; boyfriends without plumbing, so they’d slather their adolescent odors with cologne. I had a boyfriend who was set between parked cars at the age of five and told to choose father’s or mother’s, and the decision stuck for life. Those boys had to be tough.”
Leaving home, she was still only attracted to tough guys.
Crystal Wilkinson, author of “Blackberries, Blackberries,” winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, learned that “black women don’t speak their pain,” and suffered the stigma of a mother who was schizophrenic and was called the crazy woman.
“Girls—and even grown women—were not to travel solo,” Jacinda Townshend learned from her people. Yet, she traveled alone to Morocco and Mauritania to write about slavery taking place in that latter country. At other times, she took her young children with her to teach them independence, but the fear she’d been passed snapped at her.
There’s a litany of glowing memories that the outsiders in Blevins’ and McElmurray’s collection call up to indicate the pull of their Appalachian homes.
Poet Lisa Lewis recollects how her grandfather had taken her, as a girl, to Smith Mountain Lake (outside of Roanoke) and pointed to where his farm had been before it had been flooded for a dam.
“My grandfather,” she says, “was a railroad man who worked the second shift and came home smelling of metal and coal and slept all day and once I saw him cry at a shimmering valley of water.”
Lewis introduces the theme of displacement. The insularity that many mountain people have shown is a defense against exploitation.
Sheldon Lee Compton, an east Kentucky writer, tells how, when he interviewed his own people, their open manners turned to a more generally acceptable pose.
Rob Amberg, Madison County photographer, talks about how his camera, by its nature, puts people a distance; and how he’s made a career of getting to know his subjects and recording their words along with their images. An advisor had once told him not to hide in the bushes.
David Huddle, an award-winning novelist and poet, couldn’t have had a more negative reaction to the violence in his Virginia town.
“The chip on my shoulder has a name—Ivanhoe, Virginia,” he begins his essay. He concludes by noting, “at the time of this writing, my wife and I have still not resolved the issue of where we’ll be buried.”
Thanks a lot, Rob, for this excellent preview of Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean. It's a fascinating collection, and I hope readers here in WNC will want to read it. I appreciate your mention of my essay; portions of it were based on actual experiences.