By Jody DiPerna
What if I told you that reading a book would inspire you to pair “Ghetto Supastar” (Pras) with “Islands in the Stream” (Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers) on your latest playlist? Or cause you to attempt your childhood imitation of Magic Johnson’s Junior Skyhook? What if I said that this book gave me such tenderness toward a place that parsing my thoughts about it was like scooping up tadpoles with my bare hands?
Neema Avashia’s memoir, “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place,” to be released next week by West Virginia University Press, demonstrates how woefully incomplete the predominant narrative about Appalachia really is. Avashia’s stories expand our notion of who is permitted to have voice in the literary canon as it shatters misconceptions of a place, interpersonal relationships and what it means to be part of a community.
Avashia’s parents came to the United States from India and settled in a small town in southern West Virginia where her father was a medical doctor working for Union Carbide, a chemical corporation. This collection is all about what it means to grow up in a small town, smack in the middle of Appalachia, a region as complex as the terrain that defines it.
In “Another Appalachia” she feels her way through what it was like to grow up part of a small brown minority in a white place; and what it was like to be Hindu in a place understood as Christian. What does it mean to be Appalachian? Who gets to be from this place?
“There’s so much strength. I wouldn’t be the person I am without Appalachia,” Avashia said. “Growing up in West Virginia — it wasn’t an easy place all the time. I love so many things about where I grew up, and it was also hard. Those two things can be true at the same time.”
She writes of the neighbors who welcomed her family. Unsure of how to prepare a vegetarian meal for the Avashias, Mrs. B cooked a meal of all of her favorite side dishes and lef out the customary meat. Mr. and Mrs. B started as neighbors and became a surrogate family.
“I feel like I’m often in this place in my head of — was it really better or was I a kid? It’s a question I think about a lot,” Avashia said.
The Avashia family became part of what the great writer and poet Ann Pancake calls the Appalachian kinship economy. Avashia herself writes about it as the ethics of place, when her father would drive around and give flu shots to people in their homes, if they couldn’t afford them. And who would bring back prescription medication from India because it was cheaper there, to give to people in the community who needed it. It was just a thing that he did for his neighbors.
“It’s not typical ethics but in context, it makes sense. Should my dad have been driving around town giving flu shots? Some people might say no. It’s just what people did for each other,” she said, noting that other neighbors helped their family with appliance repair, or putting in their large garden.
And as much as the region shaped her family, she writes of the gifts and strengths that her parents gave to their neighbors, too.
“I’m perpetually amazed by my mom’s ability to adapt to new information. She moved from India to West Virginia in the 1970s and if you can adapt to that, you have shown a pretty profound capacity for adaptation,” Avashia said.
She describes with such specificity of Hindu holidays and her Indian aunties that you can smell the inviting pot of chai warming in the corner. She tells of how the topography and the autumnal colors were unlike anything her parents had seen, as a “motley crew” of Hindus gathered monthly to pray. At the same time, their outsider status was clear.
“‘I heard that people like you worship cows.’
“I was in elementary school the first time somebody hurled this phrase at me, much the same way a bloody cow’s head had been hurled at the door of our makeshift temple in the basement of a house once in the late seventies.
“How does a child explain faith to another child?”
In other ways, too, she was an outsider, although it was years later when she was able to feel her her way to her authentic queer self. In her grade in school, there was just one other Indian, a boy, and he was the only dating pool available to her.
“People didn’t really date outside their race where I grew up. So I wouldn’t say that I was able to develop a healthy understanding of sexuality or relationships,” Avashia said. “Then there were my parents’ expectations. I spent a lot of time trying to do the things that I thought I was supposed to do. I had constructed in my head as the ‘supposed to’ person: an Indian man. I had to give myself permission to go outside of that box. It took a really long time.”
Avashia’s relationship to industry is as knotty as every Appalachian who has grown up in the orbit of large industry. Growing up a stone’s throw from Union Carbide, she well understands how industry can both feed and bleed a place. Jobs, houses and the promise of a better life for one’s children are sometimes purchased at the price of the health of the environment and the people who live there. Avashia doesn’t have answers, but she manages to balance both the good and bad, the dangerous and the sublime in her mountainous Appalachian growing up.
There is decline, of course, which Avashia describes in her opening essay, “Directions to a Vanishing Place.” But there is also fellowship and hardwork. And in many ways, people in this place do a lot of work outside of the wage economy. Avashia says that she remembers people working all the time, even if they weren’t working for pay.
Through these connected essays, she is able to explore the multiplicity of her childhood home, a place she returns to in her memory, but also a place she visits. She sees a place where hard work and energy are mortised into the grooves left by disappearing industry, even as economic decline and the distances amplified by social media damage it.
This book, while deeply personal, also seeks to investigate the nature of the place and her place in it. Appalachia has become a national shorthand for ‘Trump voter,’ but Avashia sees it differently. Appalachia is that, she says, but it is other things, too. And she wonders why some places get permission to be more than one thing and others are reduced to a singular stereotype? How do people pass through the place and see only the MAGA flags and miss the rainbow ones?
“I needed to share [these stories]. People don’t see people like me, and they don’t understand the place where I grew up. I felt the urgency to be part of that narrative,” Avashia said. “I don’t want to continue to be silent.”