LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia – Jeff Mann & Julia Watts, eds. (West Virginia University Press)

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I resurrected this blog in response to the McConnell/Ryan/Putin installation of the T—p Reich, which has proven to be just as destructive and embarrassing as we all thought it could. Sometimes worse. We have been divided so deeply, we may never be able to bridge our differences–if, indeed, we had before. We need every scrap of understanding we can muster. We have to begin to know others as more than just avatars alongside rude comments on blogs, and that means reading about them. What we learn from their stories can transform our differences into commonalities. That’s why volumes like this one from Jeff Mann and Julia Watts are so important. But beyond its regional and queer significance, it’s a potent read.

Mann and Watts have pulled together a collection of some fine Appalachian authors, wisely ordering them alphabetically rather than attempting to categorize them. But verse or prose, the basic themes of fierce individualism and connection to the land and family pervade this volume so intensely any categorization would be useless. Approaching this collection from an academic direction, however, would be a mistake. These pieces are all emotionally powerful and speak to a wide range of experiences we all remember no matter where we come from or who we really are.

The book is dedicated to the late Okey Napier, Jr., aka Ilene Over, a locally revered West Virginian drag queen, but the last line of Mann’s dedication is separate–for the ones who stayed. Queer people of all stripes have been leaving their backgrounds behind and reinventing themselves en masse since World War II, but the population of those who never left the small towns, the gossip, the beatings, the separateness, is largely unheralded. And many of those are, willingly or not, on the front lines in the fight for LGBT rights, bringing queer realness to the Sunday church picnic. It’s less of a feat being gay in NYC than it is in, oh, say Sylacauga, AL.

That divide between those who left and those who stayed is exemplified in Rahul Mehta’s “A Better Life,” perhaps my favorite piece in the book. Sanj and his bestie Sylvie are separated when Sanj leaves for the Big City. However, things aren’t as rosy as he portrays them on a visit home, as Sylvie finds out when she comes to visit. Not only does Mehta explore the dichotomy between those who stayed and those who left, but he throws a multicultural element into the mix. I also enjoyed Silas House’s “How to Be Beautiful,” a tale of a wild excursion from a small town to a drag bar, and “Saving,” by Carter Sickels, about the return of a trans man and his girlfriend to film a documentary in his small town.

And that’s just the prose. The poetry also takes on many of the same themes but seems to concentrate more on the Appalachian relationship to the land, family, and domesticity. Kelly McQuain’s “Scrape the Velvet from Your Antlers” is a powerful example of the former while both Dorothy Allison and Jeff Mann have a firm command of the latter. In particular, I loved Mann’s “The Gay Redneck Devours Draper Mercantile,” a perfect depiction of how food resurrects memories. In addition, some newer poets are also highlighted, including Lisa Alther, whose “Swan Song” really moved me, especially the last stanza:

Yet, life is long (unless it’s short)/And friends who last are few,/And since love first starts in one human heart/It might just as well end there too.

Mann and Watts have done a splendid job of choosing pieces that represent not only Appalachian values but how those values often conflict with each other. More than just an academic exercise, however, these poems and stories bring the point home emotionally as well. Highly recommended.


© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

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