Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Where I’m From

We are happy to have Valerie Nieman, author of fiction and poetry as our guest blogger today. She has written an interesting post for our blog. I hope you will leave comments for Valerie, and remember she will be in Hayesville, NC July 6, at the Moss library. See sidebar for more information.

Where I’m From


Valerie Nieman

           I’m from New York. And I’m an Appalachian. Born, bred, educated, lived, worked there. Only in recent years have I slipped out of the mountains, living now just a few miles from the “official” border of the region. That world was my world, and still is, appearing in my poems and novels all along, but most strongly in my latest, To the Bones.

          Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, takes in more than 200,000 square miles, encompassing West Virginia and parts of 12 other states. Despite the stereotypes about “hillbillies” and “mountain people,” there’s no single culture. It’s still heavily rural, more than 40 percent of the population living in rural areas compared with 20 percent nationally, but accents, food ways, ethnic makeup, and economies vary greatly across the region.
          I grew up in Cattaraugus County, NY, one of 14 counties that make up the “Southern Tier” along the border with Pennsylvania. The hills there are low and soft, the Allegheny Plateau, good land for dairy farming. Memories from my growing-up days — maple sugaring, Amish neighbors, big gardens, harsh winters — were superseded by the three decades I lived in West Virginia, yet they continue to crop up in my writing. Darrick, one of the main characters in To the Bones, went to school at St. Bonaventure. Oil City, PA, makes an appearance in a poem in Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse.
          In 1976, I headed south to Morgantown, WV, to get my journalism degree at West Virginia University. The Mountain State caught my heart when I camped with my then-boyfriend at Cooper’s Rock State Park, waking after a late arrival to a glory of dogwoods and bird song.
After college, my now-husband and I bought some pastureland in Marion County. We built a barn, a house, fences. Planted an orchard and an organic garden. That land shaped the landscape of Neena Gathering and of To the Bones.
          It’s a different kind of hills from the ones where I grew up, most notably in the presence of coal mining. The culture, too, was different. Soup beans and cornbread. Pepperoni rolls. But many things were the same—both areas had seen much immigration from Italy, and excellent Italian food was celebrated in both western New York and north central West Virginia. And in both places, I gathered wild berries and apples gone feral, though it was in West Virginia that I came to know the despised wild leek of my childhood as “ramps,” and a really fine food when properly prepared.
          I came to North Carolina in 1997, to the land of barbecue, tobacco, and restaurants offering “meat and three.” Grits replaced home fries on the breakfast menus. Collard greens and pinto beans are Southern kin to creasy greens and soup beans. North Carolina is Appalachian—Gov. Roy Cooper is co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
          Appalachia today is a diverse place, but it always was. Native Americans, Spanish and French and English explorers, Irish and Scot and Scots-Irish settlers. African-Americans brought forcibly as slaves and whose descendants came north to the mines and mills in the Great Migration. Germans who came to work in the glass plants of the Ohio Valley. Peoples from all over Europe, Polish and Italians and Welsh and Hungarians and many others, whose emigration landed them in the coal camps. “Lebanese” peddlers who offered goods to isolated farms and to miners’ wives. And so on, to new arrivals from all over the globe who come to start new lives or attend college or work in the High Technology Corridor.
          The ill-educated, ill-clothed mountaineer with a jug and a hound? That media creation proved useful in denying residents a say in their lands, resources, politics, future. They just weren’t suited to such things, went the standard line, and so needed to be corralled and cozened. When I arrived in West Virginia University in 1975, you could still get souvenirs depicting that hillbilly stereotype in the university bookstore, but the WVU mascot has been for nearly a century the Mountaineer. A heroic bronze figure of the buckskin-clad pioneer has stood on the campus since 1971.
          To the Bones satirizes stereotypes and as a genre mashup, plays with the tropes of mystery, horror, tall tale, even a bit of romance. The stranger comes to town is a recurring theme in Westerns, but is also what John Gardner called one of the two great stories. (The other is a man (woman) goes on a journey—Peer Gynt, Odysseus, Harry Potter, and the list goes on.) But the deep story in this novel is one of love and despair, people who deeply love the land of their birth and rearing, yet who clearly see the despoiling and destruction wrought by the extractive industries that put food on the table.
          Too much has been taken out and too little given back. My place back in West Virginia had a capped gas well in the field, a mine crack in the back field, and no water—the mines had cut off the aquifer. But I loved it.
          Appalachian I was, and remain. You can see it right there in the stories and poems.

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