Winter 2019 Editor’s Note

At a recent conference focused on Appalachia, a prospective contributor approached our magazine’s exhibit booth and began perusing a recent issue. She had submitted some work during our last reading period, she told a student worker, and she indicated her familiarity with some of our contributors. Then she proceeded to make a stunning declaration. She and her work were more Appalachian than anyone or anything we have published. And further, she was more Appalachian than anyone at the conference.

Upon receiving word of this encounter, I moved through several stages of processing. My hackles rose in defense of my student and authors. Then I shook my head at the sheer lack of logic displayed by the prospective contributor—it is never a good strategy to demean a publication in which one wants their work to appear, let alone to imply one’s work is superior to that of others. Finally, I was left with the bedrock of her claims about the magazine and the conference. What, exactly, did she mean about being more Appalachian?

Did she trek miles through the mountains each spring looking for poke? Was she talking about her recipe for cornbread? (Never any sugar, I imagined her sneering.) Did she shun any music that did not include some variation of guitar, banjo, mandolin, autoharp and fiddle? Would the addition of a piano—or, whisper it, an electric guitar—dilute the supposed authenticity of the music? How could someone scan a room of scholars and writers, many of whom have devoted decades of study and craft in relation to a place, and imply that her work counted more than theirs?

We all have notions of what it means to be from Appalachia or to be Appalachian, and those can be entertaining and enlightening to discuss. But purity tests are a different thing entirely, and to me they wreak of cultural eugenics.

Does one have to be born in Appalachia and, if so, where is that exactly? Are we to accept the expansive political map of the Appalachian Regional Commission? Or are we to restrict citizenship, as many do, to central Appalachia—eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, southwest Virginia, east Tennessee and western North Carolina? (If the latter, this precludes James Still, widely celebrated as one of the most significant Appalachian writers; Annie Dillard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book set in southwest Virginia; and bell hooks, the internationally renowned 8 feminist, critic, and creative writer who has long lived in, studied, and written about the region.)

Does one have to solely set their writing in Appalachia? (Such a test would mean the likes of Barbara Kingsolver, Mary Lee Settle, Silas House, Denise Giardina, Wilma Dykeman, and numerous others sadly do not qualify.) Does one have to always live in Appalachia to count? (Farewell to Lee Smith, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Nikki Giovanni, Lisa Alther, Henry Louis Gates, Ann Pancake, Jayne Anne Phillips, Dorothy Allison, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Wiley Cash, Maurice Manning, and many others.)

With such restrictive criteria Appalachian literature would be left with a pretty spare canon, which is but one reason that, as editor of this publication, I have rejected the notion of purity tests—an ethos that provides the underpinning of our mission statement. We are a literary magazine that “showcases the work of emerging and established writers through Appalachia and beyond, offering readers literature that is thoughtful, innovative, and revelatory.”

Just because “Appalachian” appears in our name does not mean we are a publication subsumed by the past. There is history to such an assumption: it is a pernicious stereotype that first emerged when the very idea of Appalachia as a distinct region was constructed 150 years ago by local color writers and others. Since then the region has often been defined as the American counterpoint—a place with its eyes on the past instead of the future. A region isolated from the outside world, where time has stood still. A simpler place, quainter, more bucolic—or alternatively, more primitive and violent—than the rest of the country.

But, of course, this is not true. Appalachia is, and has always been, a microcosm of America—a place directly connected to the triumphs, tribulations, and issues of the rest of the country.

While we certainly honor the past, our orientation is on writing from contemporary Appalachia that strives to encompass the diverse identities and issues of its people. We seek to offer a complex view of a complex region that goes beyond saintly grannies and mossy fenceposts.

Further, we believe the very notion of Appalachia is not firm but porous. In our pages, we often feature work set in the region. But we also pay tribute to the experience of the Appalachian diaspora—the people who have moved beyond the region’s geographic borders but who are still spiritually Appalachian, even when they are sometimes several generations removed. We explore urban Appalachia, which has historically been underrepresented. And we even occasionally offer work from other mountain or rural cultures as points of comparison and reflection.

In short, our notions of Appalachia, its people, and its literature are complex and nuanced. This region is expansive— it cannot be contained by one county, one race, one ethnicity, one gender, one class, one sexual orientation, one gender identity, one religion, one accent, one dialect, one era, or one age group. There are many Appalachias and many Appalachian experiences, and as long as I am editor of this publication, we will seek to showcase them in all their vibrant, complicated glory.

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Millions, The Nation, Sojourners, and on C-SPAN's Book TV and NPR. Howard is editor of Appalachian Review, a literary quarterly based at Berea College, where he teaches and directs the creative writing program. He serves on the graduate faculty of the Spalding University School of Creative and Professional Writing, and holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and degrees from The George Washington University and the University of Kentucky.

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