by Serena Zets
I think I read so much because I’m on a never-ending search for a book, a voice, a character, or an author who speaks to not only my sum but all of my individual parts too. I seek a single page, or even a paragraph, that makes me feel seen. I’m often left still searching, even when the book has ended and the story is over. I have found myself in slivers of writings by authors like bell hooks, Durga Chew-Bose, Fatimah Asghar, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and more but no book has ever spoken to or seen me in the way Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia does.
Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place is the debut book by writer and teacher Neema Avashia about her upbringing as a queer Indian woman in West Virginia, the only entirely Appalachian state in the U.S. Appalachia is defined as a geographic region of 423 counties across 13 states and spans 206,000 square miles, from southern New York to northern Mississippi. Her life story might seem anomalous from most mainstream narratives of Appalachia, hawked by people like JD Vance who benefit from portraying Appalachia in an exclusionary and ahistorical way. Appalachia is portrayed as overwhelmingly white, impoverished, rural, and conservative. While that is a part of Appalachia (as it is a part of most regions of the U.S.), it is not the holistic story of all of the region’s 26 million residents. As a queer multiracial Indian & Appalachian person who grew up in the region, I immediately recognized myself in the specificity and complexity of Neema’s words. Neema’s navigation of identity across places, geographies, and communities mirrored mine in ways I didn’t know were possible. I saw the experiences of my family, friends, and communities reflected in print for the first time—a liberating literary experience I never thought I would have.
After reading the book this spring, I was able to see Avashia read at Lost City Books (in my new and distinctly non-Appalachian home of Washington, D.C.), where her presence brought additional meaning to her words. When preparing to write this review, I remembered that experience and realized it would be incomplete without her perspective. Neema and I spoke over the phone on a Friday afternoon in July as she drove through Southeastern Kentucky after spending the past week teaching young Appalachian writers of color at the Ironwood Writers Studio. Our conversation made me wish I had her as a teacher. Even if I didn’t get to formally learn from her in a classroom, I’m grateful to have learned from her words. Neema said she “can think of very few books that have felt like a mirror. I’m very grateful to have helped others find what I never could.” She has created mirrors for whole communities who have never seen themselves in the pages of books published by mainstream publishing houses. When pitching her manuscript to publishers, Neema said she was repeatedly told “these are very beautiful words but we can’t sell them.” Her book was eventually picked up by West Virginia University Press, an Appalachian press that specifically prioritizes Appalachian stories. Her book found a home in the same region she did.
She shared that this whole publishing process has been a learning experience about the publishing world and what it gets wrong about readers and writers alike. She said,
“This whole narrative of what we can or can’t sell made me realize how little credit the publishing world gives to readers and their ability to hold complexity. I feel some despair but also like this book is a middle finger to that entire idea that readers don’t have autonomy. Books can be about a million things and people can think many things are true at once. These books shouldn’t just come from small presses, they should come from big presses too..”
It doesn’t help that the Appalachian narratives that big presses deem marketable are ones like Hillbilly Elegy, which often leave out many of the region’s people and perspectives. I asked Neema what she hopes her writing, and specifically, this book, gets right about Appalachia. She said “I think that from the cover onwards, the reader understands the goal. If you were not Appalachian, and you read JD Vance’s book and thought you understood Appalachia after that, if you look at the cover of my book you’re never going to think the same thing ever again. You don’t even have to open the book and your narrative of Appalachia will be disrupted. By the end of this book, I want you [the reader] to acknowledge that you didn’t know Appalachia, and that there is still more to know.” Even as I read the book, I had to admit there were so many facets of Appalachia I didn’t know. In Appalachia, identity is very geographically distinct. My experience of Appalachia as an urban Pittsburgher was wildly different from Neema’s as a Southern West Virginian; reminding us that no community, no matter how small, is monolithic.
Across communities and state lines, Neema and I were raised with the Appalachian and Indian value of community. In both cultures, your neighbors and friends often become your kin. Family is family, whether blood or not. In Another Appalachia, she writes “I don’t share blood with the people I love; only the geography of being neighbors, the history of our lifetimes together” (155). This notion of kinship has remained as each of us has left the region, her for Boston almost 20 years ago and me for D.C. six months ago. In talking, Neema and I found out we were both in Pittsburgh, mere minutes apart, during the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre. Despite not knowing each other then, we could immediately empathize with that lingering grief. We agreed that such shared moments of collective trauma, grief, and rebuilding reinforce the lessons we were taught as young children in communities where we grew up understanding that “no one is going to take care of us except us.”
Such emphasis on community care feels like a microcosmic experiment in empathy that could now be applied to our country on a larger scale. Neema and I commiserated over existing as multiply marginalized people in a time where progress feels futile and hope is rare. In times like our current one of multiple crises, Neema said “the only thing you can do is take care of your people and your communities. You’ve got to fill in the gaps built into our broken system. I think we need to burn the systems down. I don’t know how we’re going to do that but I do know you need people to help you burn it all.” I share the sentiment that we should burn everything down. Still, it leaves me wondering what that means for the future of Appalachia, a region historically left behind during periods of economic, political, and social upheaval. Neema reminded me, “If there’s one thing I know about Appalachians, it’s that in the face of an invasion, we’re going to assert who we are.”
And we have asserted who we are for as long as we’ve existed. I often think about the blurb for bell hooks’ Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place that reads “Touching on such topics as the marginalization of its people and the environmental degradation it has suffered over the years, hooks’ poetry quietly elegizes the slow loss of an identity while also celebrating that which is constant, firmly rooted in a place that is no longer whole.” This attempt to assert an identity in a place that is no longer whole feels very familiar and distinctly Appalachian to me. Staking a claim on a place and a community that is slowly degrading due to external forces is an Appalachian tradition across centuries. In Another Appalachia, Neema admits to not knowing much about the Appalachian writing tradition she has now found herself thrust into. But in her words, the spirit of Frank X Walker, bell hooks, Crystal Wilkinson, Rahul Mehta and so many more revolutionary Appalachian writers lives on. She writes “I do not know what it means to possess a love of a place so strong you remain rootbound even when the soil sometimes rejects your very existence… I want it. I hunger for it. Sometimes, I even trick myself into thinking I have it.” (159)
Talking to Neema was such a meaningful conclusion to my experience of finally reading a book that made me feel seen, both in my wholeness and in my individual pieces and parts. In Another Appalachia, Neema wrote into existence so many sensations I have felt but didn’t know how to name. So many questions I have asked and never received an answer to. How to be a good neighbor to someone who has cared for you your entire life but now cares for a politician who wishes you dead. How to love a place that doesn’t always love you back. How to create home in a place where it seems impossible. Neema doesn’t seek to provide a blueprint, but she does serve as a light, illuminating a potential path for generations of queer brown Appalachians to come. She writes, “what makes Indians in Appalachia distinct, in some ways, is the temporal nature of their time in this space”(157). I mark a turning point in this timeline as the child of a third generation white Appalachian and a first-generation Indian-American immigrant who met at college in Appalachian Pennsylvania. The future of Appalachia looks more and more like me and my friends. Mixed race, queer, multicultural, multi-generational communities who transcend divides and borders and will carry the tradition of Appalachian resilience and resistance.
In concluding our conversation, Neema said “empathy and community are all we have and we don’t have enough of either.” Her biggest advice to young people is to “find community where all the pieces of you are held.” I have found that community in the niche community of queer brown Appalachians that both Neema and I share. In this community, I feel no need to explain myself or my existence, it is understood. To be queer, brown, and Appalachian is a gift. Neema and I have known this our whole lives but Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place makes this gift tangible to communities beyond our own. Neema Avashia presents us queer brown Appalachia in a vessel as messy, complicated, and beautiful as the community itself.
Serena Zets is a reader, writer, researcher, and organizer based in Washington, D.C. by way of Pittsburgh, PA. They hope that their writing will create mirrors one day too. You can find more of her thoughts on books at @serenas.reads.