Interview: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Americans are less able than ever to tell the difference between real and fake,” memoirist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman says. “And we are all suffering for it.”

This blunt observation about our current national moment strikes at the heart of her debut memoir, Sounds Like Titanic, which tells the story of her experience touring the United States as a violinist in an ensemble of musicians led by a man she calls The Composer. But there is a catch.

Unbeknownst to their audiences, the microphone is dead, and they are miming to a recording. As the strange, bewitching tale unfolds, Hindman grapples with what it means to bea woman, an Appalachian, an American, a writer, and a performer.

After a recent reading at Berea College, Appalachian Heritage’s Emily Masters caught up with Hindman to chat about translating music to the page, the blurred lines between reality and falsity, her views on the education system in Appalachia, and the prevailing notions of beauty and female bodies.

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EMILY MASTERS: This is a fascinating memoir. You toured the country as a violinist in an ensemble that played along onstage with a dead microphone to a recording— and audiences across the country were completely fooled. When did you know you would have to write about this experience?

JESSICA CHICCEHITTO HINDMAN: Thank you! By the time I went on the fifty-three city tour around America with The Composer in 2004, I knew that this would be an experience I would write about in some way. The experience was just so absurd that I knew it would make great writing material.

EM: You grew up in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia, which figures into the book at various points. In Sounds Like Titanic, you bring to light the lack of access to opportunity due to the topographical features of Appalachia. The picture you paint of education and opportunity in the region is pretty dismal. Do you think much has changed since you were growing up and going to school in the region?

JCH: Yes, it has changed, sadly for the worse. I grew up in two very small towns in the Appalachian region—one in West Virginia, the other just over the state line in Virginia. My family moved to the town in Virginia in 1990, when the West Virginia teachers went on strike and school was cancelled for some time. The differences between those towns were immense in 1990 and are even more immense now. In recent years, my town in West Virginia was hit very hard by the opioid crisis. Despite having around 2,000 people, the town has been featured in a lot of national news stories about heroin and painkiller addiction. The last time I visited, I noticed that even some of the most basic businesses, like the 7-Eleven gas station, were boarded up and abandoned. Meanwhile, my town in Virginia has been thriving, with lots of new businesses, beautification efforts, and expanded public services such as new parks and other community activities. My Virginia town has also been featured in national news stories about the opioid crisis, but it hasn’t been annihilated by that problem the way that my West Virginia town has. It is both heartbreaking and fascinating to see how two towns separated by a single mountain range have had such a different trajectory.

EM: You talk a lot about your experiences of inferiority when you left the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia due to your dialect and accent and how you felt like you had to be a spokesperson for the region as a whole while you were in college. How have you grappled with maintaining your identity as someone from the mountains while trying to make outsiders understand the complexity of the region? Do you still feel the pressure to speak for the people from back home?

JCH: When I first arrived in New York City, I felt a lot of pressure to explain to folks where I was from and what it was like. There were more people in my dormitory than there were in either of the towns I grew up in. I was really intimidated and felt very out of place. I quickly realized that I was a token-admission to the Ivy League, that my “job” there was to play the role of the poor kid from Appalachia. In a lot of ways, the role of the token-Appalachian kid is to make wealthy, privileged students feel better about the elitism of the school, because look—the school allows in a few kids from rural places. I really resented that role, especially because I felt I was the wrong person for it; my family was one of the most privileged in both of the towns where I grew up.

When I first got to New York, I was told I had an accent, and the reaction to that accent wasn’t always positive. I got the sense that people felt like the accent represented negative things—ignorance and racism in particular—and because of that, I gradually began to speak differently. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but more of a survival mechanism and sort of a way of being polite to people in New York.

I think it is very important for folks in similar situations to be aware of the role that one is expected to play in those environments and to fight against it. Unlike [Hillbilly Elegy author] J.D. Vance’s description of Yale Law School, in which he was super impressed by the boarding-school-educated, chardonnay-swilling, northeastern elite, I found myself enraged by the vast chasm in educational opportunities and the way in which my presence there was being used as “proof” that anyone could get to the Ivy League with enough hard work. That is just false; there were many people I grew up with who were much smarter than I was who never had a chance to go to college, let alone an Ivy League school. I made it mostly because my parents were both highly educated and middle class. Appalachia isn’t geographically far away from the boarding-school-areas of New England, and yet it might as well be another country.

EM: More and more people are facing issues related to massive wealth disparity caused by corporate wealth and corruption. In the final section of your memoir, you examine some of these issues including access to health care, cost of living, and making living wages. We can see that many people in Appalachia have been experiencing these economic effects since extractive industries entered the region after the Civil War. Should we as a nation have recognized what was happening in Appalachia as a warning, and should we have seen the spread of economic disparity coming?

JCH: Yes, that is an excellent way to put it. And it goes beyond Appalachia. Extractive industries have been exploiting poor and/or geographically isolated people for a long time. I’m a writer, so I think about this particularly when it comes to the publishing industry. If you want to write a book about West Virginia, and have it marketed and sold to West Virginians, you have to go through a literary agency and publishing house that is based in Manhattan. Those industries are run by coastal elites—many of whom are lovely people—but they are not representative of the country as a whole. There are lots of great small, regional presses, but none have the marketing and distribution capacities of the big New York City publishers. I think about this all the time in terms of what it does to people’s stories, which stories end up getting published, and which stories get mainstream publicity and attention.

EM: In the book you write, “Life in the body means that no physical part of younot even the lips that you have no choice but to bring with you into prealgebra classis left unseen, unremarked upon, uncalculated for sexual potential.” Your examination life in the body reveals how crippling societal pressure of what a woman should be like has been in your life. How would you advise young women going through similar recognition of life in the body to overcome those pressures and pursue their dreams?

JCH: I get the phrase “life in the body” from Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth, which was published in the early 1990s, around the same time I began to experience what American culture is like for those who live in a female body. Wolf argued that girls my age—pre-teens at the time—were already showing “mutations” in our self-esteem, and these were due to a cultural backlash against the women’s liberation movement. In other words, in exchange for greater political, civic, and professional power, the culture was going to make girls hate their own bodies. That rings very true to me. I should add that my experience is one that is inextricably linked to white privilege. Women of color have always had extra scrutiny from society on their bodies. The best thing I’ve read on this subject recently is Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay collection, Thick. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time—everyone should read it.

For about a decade now, I think that the response to the “mutations” Wolf wrote about has been to try to improve women’s body image. How many times have we all heard that we should “love our bodies”? But I think that response is a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. What I tell younger women when they ask me about this now is to do a brief cataloging of how much time, money, and energy they are spending on activities that relate to outward, physical “beauty.” How many hours on the treadmill and nights spent agonizing over failed diets and time and/or money spent on skin, hair, nails, etc. And then imagine what they might be able to do if at least some of that time, energy, and money was spent on other pursuits. I try to do this myself when I go down a spiral of body-hate. What problems could I solve, what people could I help, what art could I make, if I wasn’t worrying so much about being ugly and fat? It helps me turn the problem outward—into a political and cultural problem—rather than what my disordered brain and our disordered society wants me to think it is—my own personal failing of being physically unattractive.

EM: How do the economic and social issues you address in your memoir relate to events and issues going on in our current national moment?

JCH: I have been joking with people that Sounds Like Titanic is really my Iraq War book in disguise of a lighthearted memoir. My contention is that our nation never really had a reckoning about the trauma of 9/11. Instead, we were told to go shopping. People were desperate for anything that was soothing. When you’re in that state, it’s harder to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. That leads to funny, absurd things—going to concerts that are produced by a CD—but also horrific things—supporting an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with the attacks.

When I finished the book in 2013, I thought it was going to be a “period piece,” about the years immediately following 9/11. But then, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, when everyone started shouting “fake news,” at each other, I realized that I had been very wrong. The book has turned out to be much more relevant to our current time than I ever imagined. I am not happy about this—I would much rather have my book be less relevant and my country be more sane. But as it turns out, Americans are less able than ever to tell the difference between real and fake. And we are all suffering for it.

EM: In the memoir, you claim, “The first lesson in making music, it turns out, is making silence—the blank canvas, the empty room, the white page. A void that must be made before it can be filled.” I am interested in how that notion might translate to writing. Do you think there is a relationship between silence and writing? Where do you find your best generative space?

JCH: I’m not sure if there is a relationship between silence and writing. I like to write with minimal distractions, but I know other writers who are perfectly content to work in a noisy coffee shop or who manage to be prolific despite chaotic writing environments full of kids or pets. But I do think it’s really important to acknowledge the blank page as blank. How scary it is, and yet, how freeing. Just as a musician does not need to fill every second of time with sound, a writer does not need to fill every page. It’s more of figuring out what shape the words and the blank space will form. The blank spaces are just as important as the words.

EM: What were some of the challenges you faced during your writing process in bringing music to the page?

JCH: Music is a particularly challenging subject matter because music is another language. It’s the equivalent of trying to write about Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese but doing so only using English words. How do you begin to describe Spanish if you can only write in English? So, when writing about music I try to use the other four senses as much as possible. I describe The Composer’s music as the equivalent of a surfboard in a bathtub—too big for its structure, too obvious, too absurd. The sound of a cello can be buttery. The sound of a high-pitched flute can make a listener feel as though they are flying. The feeling of a string under your fingers is like having tiny flames shoot into your fingertips; when this happens each note in the ear is like listening to a little fire. The point is to try to stretch the language as much as possible to describe something that isn’t possible to translate into straightforward description.

EM: How did you come to write creative nonfiction?

JCH: When I was in college I wanted to become a journalist. As I describe in the book, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies, began to learn Arabic, and planned to work as a foreign correspondent. The U.S. was in the process of losing two wars in the Middle East, so this seemed like a reasonable aspiration to have at the time. But the years I was in college happened to coincide with the collapse of journalism. Entire newspapers folded, and even the biggest outlets shut down most if not all of their foreign bureaus. At the same time, I was touring with The Composer, hoping to save enough money to fund my own freelance trip to the Middle East. But while I was on the tour I developed a panic disorder and realized I was no longer mentally stable enough to become a war correspondent. What I needed, instead, was to get a stable job that offered health insurance so I could get psychiatric care. I got a job as a secretary for a research institute at Columbia’s medical school. The job was boring, but it offered me free tuition remission for grad school. By then, I had been reading a lot of long-form, literary reporting on the Middle East and thought that creative nonfiction might be better suited to my skills than straightforward journalism. So, I decided to apply to the School of the Arts to study creative nonfiction writing. It was there that I began to write what later became Sounds Like Titanic.

EM: Do you have any other writing projects in the works?

JCH: I do, but I am one of those writers who can’t really speak about a project until I have a full rough draft of it down for fear of ruining it in some way. I’m in the first draft stage now and will be for a while. It’s a nonfiction project, but that’s about all I can say at this point.

Emily Masters is a senior English major at Berea College where she works as a teaching assistant for Silas House and as a student editor for Appalachian Heritage and Apollon e-journal. She is from Monteagle, Tennessee, where she lives on a farm with her family. Her work has been published in The Pikeville Review.

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