Liz McCormick Published

Author Marie Manilla Says There's More To Appalachia Than Hollow Dwellings And Coal Mines

Marie Manilla Headshot_2.jpg

Shepherd University’s 2021 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence is Huntington, West Virginia, author Marie Manilla.

Born and raised in Huntington, Manilla identifies as an “urban Appalachian” and strives to show that side of Appalachia in her writing. Education reporter Liz McCormick spoke with Manilla over Skype recently to discuss how she uses her work to push change in West Virginia and around the world.

In the extended version of this interview, Manilla shares an excerpt of her writing — an essay titled, “Powerless,” which explores her travels west in 2012 to see the Badlands and the Wounded Knee memorial.

The excerpt recounts a side venture she and her husband took that she said “shot her right back to West Virginia.”

Listen to the extended version of the interview for more of the conversation.

Extended: Author Marie Manilla Says There's More To Appalachia Than Hollow Dwellings And Coal Mines

The transcript below is from the original broadcast on Nov. 2, 2021 in West Virginia Morning. It has been lightly edited for clarity. A version of this conversation can also be heard in the Nov. 12, 2021 episode of Inside Appalachia.

McCormick: You identify as an urban Appalachian author. Would you talk a little bit more about what that is and why that side of Appalachia is important to you to show to the world?

Manilla: When I grew up in Huntington, we probably had 65,000 to 70,000 people at the time, and I truly felt like a city girl. Riding that bus into town and shopping in all those lovely clothing stores that we had down there. When I started writing fiction, I was writing about people like me, and I noticed when I tried to get them published in journals that focused on Appalachia, I wasn’t being accepted with open arms. In fact, one editor sent me back a note and said, ‘You know, I love the writing here, but could you send us something more Appalachian?’ And I understood that what a lot of Appalachian themed journals at the time were wanting to write about are the hollow dwelling, coal mining experiences, which I absolutely love to read about, but that’s not the West Virginia I grew up in, and it’s not the one I could authentically write about.

So I just continued to write my stories and I set them in larger cities with the city issues. And what I’m seeing [now] is that more and more writers in Appalachia are wanting to write those stories, too. That’s also a part of Appalachia. There are big cities in Appalachia, there are urban problems in Appalachia that also need to be dealt with in fiction. So I’m delighted that there’s a renaissance going on in Appalachian literature. And a lot of writers are tackling these issues.

McCormick: You said that you see this renaissance in Appalachian writing. Could you talk more about that?

Manilla: I think what this renaissance is about is showing to people beyond our borders, and I don’t just mean West Virginia, I mean all of Appalachia, that we are not one monolithic thing, as the world often wants to believe — and as the publishing industry often wants to perpetuate, or used to, I think, historically. They only wanted to present the grit lit side of Appalachia, you know, the dark, lots of animals being killed and murders and all that — the deliverance type of stories. They want that to be all that we’re about, and that’s not all that we are about. We are urban, we are city dwellers, we are gay, we are straight, we are transgender. So this renaissance is giving voice to all of those people, and I love it. I absolutely love it.

McCormick: The drug epidemic has shaped a lot of your writing. But I look at some of the other issues that we’re dealing with today. We’re all in this global health pandemic, there are issues of racial justice, and poverty continues to be a big problem. Looking at these issues, how are they shaping your writing today?

Manilla: Well, a project that I spent the last several years writing tackled the drug addiction problem that I see out my front window. I really kind of dove headfirst into that. Plus, I’ve also been writing a lot of essays. That’s what I did during the pandemic. I spent a year writing essays and I’ve been writing them for four to five years now. But I noticed that what I’m drawn to write about are the same issues that I’m drawn to write about in my fiction, which are issues of race and class and gender.

I think the reason I’m drawn to those is that I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when I saw on the news, the fights for civil rights and women’s rights were constantly on the news. And what I noticed was the fierceness of all those marchers. But what I also saw were the folks on the sidelines, hurling the cruelest epithets at those marchers. You know, wielding baseball bats and spitting at them. And I knew which side I wanted to be on, which was the side of inclusiveness and equality. So that stayed with me. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to write about those issues in my fiction, and now in my nonfiction.

So, when I started writing nonfiction, I wanted to write about the #MeToo movement. I wanted to write about issues of racial inequality that I witnessed, you know, growing up here in West Virginia. We’re in 2021 now, but what we’ve seen over the last few years is that those issues have never gone away, they just went underground. And now they’re out in the open again, which is good. That’s the only way we can tackle them is to look at them head on. We have to be citizens of the world. And if I can use writing to address that, that’s the tool that I’m going to use.

McCormick: Marie, you’ve recently been recognized as the 2021 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at Shepherd University. One big part of that has been your book, The Patron Saint of Ugly, published in 2014. It won the Weatherford Award that year and has been translated into French. It’s a book that has done incredibly well and continues to capture the fascination of readers. 

As part of the Appalachian Heritage Festival this year, it has been chosen as the One Book One West Virginia Common Read by the West Virginia Library Commission’s West Virginia Center for the Book. 

Talk with us about this book and why you think it continues to capture readers today.

Manilla: The main character is a young woman named Garnet, who was born with port-wine birthmarks covering her body that look like a map of the world. And those landmasses shapeshift over time, depending on what’s going on geopolitically around the country. And if that’s not enough, Garnet may or may not be able to heal people.

One of the reasons I wrote the novel is that I love magical realism. I’ll give you a brief description for your listeners. Writers create worlds that are very much like the worlds that we live in. It’s here on planet Earth, however, unusual things happen that are treated as normal. So in The Patron Saint of Ugly, when Garnet’s birthmarks shapeshift, it’s kind of treated as normal, as are her hit or miss healing abilities. And one of the goals of magical realism is to have readers look at this world that’s being created in the novel with a new set of eyes, so that when they put the novel down, and then look at their very real world, they may look at it with a new set of eyes.

And that was my goal in The Patron Saint of Ugly. I wanted to present a view of us not only to outsiders, but to insiders, that would make them look at us in a new way. I wanted [Garnet] to be beautiful, and while that’s a struggle for her to believe throughout the course of the novel, by the end of the novel, she does begin to believe that she is beautiful and that she is a saint. And one of the things I talked about at the Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Festival was that so many West Virginians, and Appalachians I think, have been crushed by all the demeaning, belittling stereotypes that we’ve endured over the last 150 years or so. We’re not immune to it. And we often don’t feel as if we’re deserving or worthy of love and respect. But we are. And that’s one of the goals of the novel — to show not just outsiders but to ourselves that we are deserving and beautiful and worthy of love and respect.

We’re not expendable, as many outsiders would have us believe.