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Constance Alexander: How to best define Appalachian writing? Well, that depends…

Discussion begins with one word: Appalachia. What is the proper pronunciation? Long “a” or short? The dictionary confirms there is a “latch” in the middle, but is the latch fastened or not? Is the door opened, closed, or locked? Is it an entrance, exit, or both? Is there a secret password for admission, or are tourists welcome?

Answers to these questions may spark disagreement because the way Appalachia is characterized depends on the frame of reference. A little bit like the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, perceptions depend on so many variables that one solid answer to these questions is insufficient.

In a daring effort to embrace the diversity of Appalachia, editors Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd have compiled Writing Appalachia, published this year by University Press of Kentucky. In their introduction, the editors declare that. “To date, no one collection provides the historical depth and range of Appalachian literature, from Cherokee oral narratives to fiction and drama about mountaintop removal and prescription drug abuse, that contemporary readers and scholars seek.”

This book, the editors declare, “reflects contemporary ideas about authorship and Appalachia, and brings readers well into the twenty-first century.”

“Appalachia is complicated,” they assert, adding that even the geographic configuration of the region is porous. “That is,” they say, “the boundaries are constantly changing.”

The scope of this 745-page tome is immediately evident in the Table of Contents. A quick tour reveals familiar Kentucky names, including Wendell Berry, Karen Sayler McElmurray, Frank X Walker, Crystal Wilkinson, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, bell hooks, Harriet Simpson Arnow, and George Ella Lyon, among others. From elsewhere in Appalachia come familiar names like Thomas Wolfe, Fred Chappell, and Mother Jones. Writers not necessarily associated with the region, such as Thomas Jefferson, Booker T. Washington, and August Wilson, are listed. Even James Fenimore Cooper makes an appearance because his stomping grounds in central New York State are now categorized as part of Northern Appalachia.

Work by poet Muriel Rukeyser surprised me until I read the introduction to “Absalom,” which explained that, although born to a wealthy New York City family, she got her start writing for magazines like New Masses and The Daily Worker. Through those connections, she investigated the worst industrial disaster in American history, when more than 700 workers died from silicosis during the construction of Union Carbide’s Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, in West Virginia.

Speaking in the voice of a mother of three sons who died in the tragedy, “Absalom” intersperses her words with passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Reading Ms. Rukeyser’s poem drew me back to the anthology’s Introduction again, to get a firmer grasp on the intent of the editors. Dr. Ledford and Dr. Lloyd cite other collections and anthologies that have been published over many years, but their vision of Appalachia explores some less-traveled roads.

“Mountains and valleys, rural and urban, folkloric and postmodern, traditional and au courant, northern and southern, white people and people of color, straight and gay, insiders and outsiders, sinners and saints,” are within reach in this comprehensive volume.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Varied subjects, genres, and time periods are featured. Starting with early Native American oral traditions and ending with current writers, in between are stories, poems, non-fiction pieces, plays, songs of labor, excerpts from personal diaries, and the text of public speeches.

At the very end of the book, excerpts from the Higher Ground Project shine a light on challenges currently facing Appalachian communities, while at the same time celebrating the resilience of the population. Led by Robert Gipe, director of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College’s Appalachian Program, Higher Ground begins its work with oral histories conducted by students and transforms that information through musical theatre. Issues like prescription drug abuse, negative public health, family trauma, and failing economies are given voice through Higher Ground performances, as well as related mural projects and an annual arts festival called Crawdad.

The voices heard in Writing Appalachia represent a multitude. Beyond the usual stereotypes and misconceptions, they capture a vibrant and varied landscape with compelling and sometimes contrasting visions of the region’s past, present, and future. While I doubt I will read every page of the anthology, I can promise that the book has already had hard use. Every time I pick it up, there is something new to discover – and appreciate — about the unique writing of Appalachia.

The anthology editors are Katherine Ledford, professor of Appalachian studies at Appalachia State University and co-editor of Backtalk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes; and Theresa Lloyd, coeditor of the literature section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and professor emerita at East Tennessee State University.

Writing Appalachia was published in March 2020. A hardcover book, it retails at $50 and is available through University Press of Kentucky, as well as other retail outlets. Additional information is available at www.kentuckypress.com. A detailed review of the book by James Branscome in The Daily Yonder is online at dailyyonder.com.

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