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Rural Blog: Winner of Berea College Appalachian narrative essay contest counterpoints Hillbilly Elegy

So much of what pop culture says about Appalachia comes from the outside and is often riddled with stereotypes and ill-informed judgments. The “Appalachian Narratives for Our Time” contest from Berea College’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center is a breath of fresh air, with personal essays about the realities of living in Appalachia. Berea recently announced the winners, which were selected by best-selling author Silas House. House, a Laurel County native, is Berea’s National Endowment for the Humanities chair.

Lanormi Manuel

“Appalachia has a rich and, at the same time, challenging history,” center director Chris Green said in a press release announcing the winners. “All too often, however, national media portrays difficulties in the region as the fault of people who live here. We wanted to give the majority of Appalachians who grow up and make good lives a new opportunity to tell their stories.”

Lonormi Manuel of Anderson County, a native of East Tennessee who grew up in Southwest Virginia, won first place for “An Exaltation of Appalachia,” which House described as creative and complex. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Appalachia of my childhood had all the problems ascribed to today’s Appalachia, problems which—I repeat—are found in every single community in this country. (Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you. They have probably lied to you about other things, too.) The Appalachia of my childhood also had a rich tradition of music and literature, a natural beauty second to none, a culture of helping to build our neighbors up instead of tearing our neighbors down.”

This week Manuel discussed the essay on WEKU-FM’s “Eastern Standard.” She said she titled her essay an “exaltation,” one of the few uplifting synonyms for “elegy,” as a deliberate riposte to J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, which she said depicts Appalachia as a hopeless, dying place in need of outside help.

“What I want is for Appalachia to stop waiting for somebody from the outside to bring us a solution to our problems,” Manuel told host Tom Martin. “We can’t help the fact that a lot of our problems have originated outside of our homes and our communities, but we have the power within us, if we will stand up and look in the mirror and say, ‘Yes, I can do this, we can do this,’ and believe it . . . I want to prove the stereotypes wrong, I want us to reclaim our identity for ourselves, and I want us to stand up and say, ‘We have the right of self-determination, and we don’t need your elegy to tell us who we are.'”

Richard Hopkins brought home second place for “From Moonshine to Lawyer.” The Northern Georgia resident recounts his rise from childhood poverty, and talks about how his school’s Future Farmers of America advisor became his “benchmark for how to act and go through life.”

Jamie Ward, born and raised in Gray Hawk, won third with “An Appalachian Upbringing,” which House lauded for its handling of regional historical and cultural contexts. From the essay:

“I’m in my thirties and I still struggle with my Appalachian identity. How do I reconcile my frustrations with my gratitude and values? How do I represent my hometown to the greater world in a way that is honest yet protective of the people I love so dearly? How do I advance in my profession without sacrificing the needs of my community?”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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