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Neema Avashia grew up in a neighborhood in Kanawha County, West Virginia, as the daughter of immigrants to the U.S.
Her new book, “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place,” describes that experience.
Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams spoke with Avashia about her childhood, and how growing up in West Virginia has shaped her life ever since.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Adams: Tell me about your hometown of Cross Lanes, because it’s very present in your book. And it almost feels like it’s a character itself in some ways.
Avashia: The first thing to know about Cross Lanes is that it’s not actually a town. It’s unincorporated. It always has been. From the highway, if you looked at Cross Lanes, what you see is a bunch of gas stations and fast food restaurants. A lot of people will say, if they’ve ever been to Cross Lanes, “Oh, we stopped there to eat something while we were passing through.” It’s not like a place that people visit, necessarily, but it is a place where a lot of people live.
Once you get past the gas stations, though, it’s a lot of little communities [that] were planned communities. They were built around the same time. All the houses would have the same footprint. You can go into any house in the neighborhood, [and] it operated in the same way. I grew up in one of those little neighborhoods, and it was called West Gate.
It was an incredible place to grow up. I grew up on a street where everybody knew each other, where people left the doors unlocked, or kids just went in and out of each other’s houses and in and out of each other’s refrigerators. There was this real shared sense of being raised not just by your parents, but being raised by your community. And that really extended past my street. There was this very hands-on approach to mentoring, and cultivating community, and cultivating young people that really marked my growing up, and is such an important part I think of who I am today.
Adams: Your family moved to West Virginia because your father worked for Union Carbide. What was it like growing up in the shadow of the chemical industry, with him working for such a prominent employer at the time in the state?
Avashia: I remember from very, very little, that when the air would start to smell, I knew the smell of the chemical. I could name it. But also, I grew up in a place where you could smell the chemicals in the air. My dad would get called to the plant late at night or in the morning if there was an accident. You know, I was five when the Bhopal incident happened, and my dad went to India for several weeks as part of Union Carbide’s response. I remember the tension in the community. The same chemical was being produced in both places, and people were anxious. So I think I always had this awareness from very little, that the work that my dad did was fraught, [and] that it was what was putting food on our table.
But it wasn’t uncontroversial work. It was work that people had very complicated feelings about. And people who work there, work there because it was the work that there was to do. But I think that also, a lot of us carry the awareness that that work had consequences: It had health consequences, it had environmental consequences, it had labor consequences.
[Union] Carbide is this very complicated mix of emotions for me. The plant used to rent out the skating rink at the civic center every Sunday for families, and we went ice skating. They used to have a camp for the kids of the employees of the Carbide plant. So there were these ways in which I think being associated with Carbide was incredibly enriching, but it also came with costs and came with complications.
Adams: I know for me growing up, when I went to college in Rhode Island, that was really when my identification around growing up in Appalachia crystallized. I’m curious to hear a little bit about how you’ve shaped your Appalachian identity along the way.
Avashia: Yeah, you know, it’s funny to hear you say that, because that’s a similar thing as what happened to me, right? The whole time I was growing up in Appalachia, I was like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m Appalachian, because I’m Indian. And there are very few of us here.” And then when I moved to Pittsburgh, my Appalachian-ness became the defining thing. And people had a lot of negative things to say about the place where I grew up — which I think is really ironic now, when I hear Pittsburgh claiming its northern Appalachian identity. I think about the things that people in Pittsburgh used to say about Appalachia. I’m like, ‘How did we get this far in 20 years?’ I don’t know.
But I do think that in college, I started to sort of surface the differences between where I was living and where I was raised. Those differences have only become more and more salient. The further I’ve gone from Appalachia … I’ve lived in Boston for almost 20 years, and it still doesn’t feel like home to me. Culturally, I just feel like there is this way in which the pace at which life moves here, and the coldness of this place, both the literal and figurative coldness of this place, makes it really hard for it to feel like home.
So I feel like I’ve always existed with this feeling of like, not knowing totally where I’m supposed to belong in it. But as I have read more and more Appalachian literature, it’s actually helped me to find my way into an identity, or into a way of understanding my relationship to place that, when it was just me trying to make meaning of it in my head, I couldn’t. But then, I’m reading writers like Frank X. Walker, Silas House and Ann Pancake and Breece D’J Pancake, and starting to see these themes and patterns and trends.
[Earlier] you said Cross Lanes is a character in my book. Ann Pancake says place is a character in Appalachian literature. I think there’s a way in which, as I’ve been writing and reading, it’s helped me to find my way into where I might fit in this narrative in a way that I don’t know that I could have located at any other point in this journey. The ways in which the Appalachian writing traditions have shaped or informed the way I think about my writing, and the way I approach it, is a way in which has helped me feel closer to Appalachia than I have in a really long time.
Adams: We’ve talked a little bit about the Appalachia part of the title, and even a little bit about coming up Indian, but I’m curious to hear more about coming to terms with being queer.
Avashia: It’s important to remember that when we were growing up, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic. Any visibility around queerness was really tied to HIV and AIDS. And so the narrative was incredibly negative, by and large. It was either negative or it was invisible. I think the dominant experience I had around queerness, growing up, was of silence.
I remember the first gay West Virginian I met was actually when I was in Pittsburgh, and I was 19. I helped to bring a piece of the AIDS quilt to campus. The closest section of the AIDS quilt was in Wheeling, West Virginia. I remember talking to the man who brought it, and really pretty naively, just being like, “I didn’t know any gay people in West Virginia when I was growing up.” And he was like, “Well, they were there. You might not have known they were there, but they were there.” That was probably the defining experience. For me, it was just this notion of invisibility.
I think it took me a lot longer to figure out my identity because I didn’t have models. It was really easy for me to attribute feeling like I was on the outside to race, because like that was the most visible marker of difference. But in retrospect, I can see that race was one layer, but queerness was another. Coming to that identity, or understanding myself as a queer person, took me a lot longer because of the absence of models.
Part of what motivated me to write the book was that there are young, brown, queer people in West Virginia and Appalachia right now. I want them to know that there are people in the world who look like them, and who came up the way they’re coming up, and who struggled to ask those questions and make meaning for themselves. I hope that having access to this book makes the road a little bit easier.
At the same time, I feel like there were also things about growing up in Appalachia that allowed me to think really differently around ideas of community and family, that are much more in line with queerness. Ann Pancake’s gonna come up again, because she talks about this idea of “the kinship economy.” [There’s] this way in which Appalachian people are in community with each other that is not based on family lines, but based on, “I see you, you see me, we recognize a need, and we try to support each other.” We don’t let definitions of, “This is my relative, and this is not my relative” be the thing that trips us up. That idea is quite queer in nature — choosing your family.
Figuring out who was my chosen family is such a part of queer experience. And yet, it was also deeply a part of my Appalachian experience. It’s not different. It’s actually very much the same. My blood family lived 8,000 miles away in India. My neighbors on Pamela Circle are my family. They chose me and I chose them, and that had nothing to do with blood. It had to do with choice. I think it’s this funny thing. There was invisibility in some ways, but also there are certain ways of being in Appalachia that are really resonant to how I experience the world as an adult.
Adams: Obviously, you’re very Appalachia-focused. I’m curious about how that changed your perception, even just over the course of writing this memoir.
Avashia: Growing up, what was so interesting is [that] no one ever said that it was possible to stay. Teachers in my life, my parents, just everyone was like, “You gotta go. There’s not going to be work here, you have to go.” And so I took that as the word of the adults in my life.
And I went into the world. I realize how much there was about Appalachia that is so lacking in the rest of the country. There is a part of me emotionally that still feels really connected. I can also look at the reality of being a queer brown person and think about the consequences that would come [from] living in a place where my story is not one that is valued — and one that is criminalized in a lot of ways. That’s a really hard thing to hold. It doesn’t diminish my love of place or people, but it makes it really hard to think about choosing to go into a space where there’s such an active effort to erase me.
At the same time, I have been so overwhelmed during this process by the ways in which folks in Appalachia have embraced this story. I’ve built new relationships with incredible Appalachian writers. There are queer activists who reach out to me on the regular, looking for ways to connect and share the work that they’re doing.
This summer, I’m going to be teaching in the Hindman Settlement School’s young Appalachian writers’ workshop. There’s this really emotional feeling about the idea that young Appalachian kids are going to see me as a face of Appalachian writing. That’s kind of mind blowing, because it’s not something I could have ever imagined growing up. The idea that a young person would see me and be like, “Okay, if this person is brown, and queer, and they’re from Appalachia, and they’re writing their story, what space does it make for for the young people come after us?” I just feel really lucky to be able to do that. It’s such an important difference in the way that these young people are gonna get to experience what it means to be Appalachian versus the definition I understood when I was growing up.
Adams: What’s the most important thing that you want Appalachians to take away from your story?
Avashia: I really hope that Appalachian readers who read this book feel like it holds them, feel like their identities are honored and valued, that the communities they live in are respected. I mean, I think the title says this, right? That notion of another, it’s not just that I’m “another.” It’s the idea that Appalachia is much more than the narrative it is given by mainstream media. I hope that for Appalachian folks, when they read this book, they feel me pushing and pushing and pushing to expand the way people understand the place that I come from, and a place that I really deeply love and people who I really deeply love.