Description – Representing Appalachia
So, the aforementioned self-critique. There’s really not a lot overtly political in my novel, but it does involve issues of oppositional voice that can both better explain what I mean by the term and also illustrate the dangers that it can present for fiction writers. In other posts, I used the term in a more narrow political sense, as in “the voice of those who oppose the ruling power,” but I think of the term in a broader Freireian sense–those who are social and culturally (as well as politically) disempowered. To dip back into the world of the Internet for a moment, you could then say those who lack access to the Internet–or lack sufficient training –are, in the cyber world, oppositional voices, regardless of their political persuasions. They’ve been rendered mute by social circumstance, and so any definition of the unwired that occurs in the wired world is done from outside this group. The “digital divide” is largely defined by those on the wired side of the gulf.
Appalachia, where my novel is set, is a region rendered mute by historical circumstance. The region has historically had very little opportunity to define itself to the rest of the country and to the world, because for it to do so would have exposed the conditions of poverty that were largely caused by industrial interests from outside the region. Maybe a bit of an oversimplification (and perhaps a romaticization), but prior to the development of big coal, iron, and timber, much of the Appalachian economy was based on small subsistence farms and barter economies. There wasn’t enormous wealth as we’d describe it, but take Sen’s formulation of development, and a strong argument could be made that the region was much more “developed” then, with more freedoms available to the population. The coal industry changed this, moving the local population into a cash economy that was designed to keep them dependent on the company store and leave them in poverty, beginning the cycles of poverty and dependency endemic in the region today.
Geography also plays a role. Because West Virginia is the only state entirely within the mountain region, it is the only state where the voices of the mountain people are the dominant ones. In states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Maryland, the dominant political voices are those from the wealthier lowland areas. And the unfortunate choice of West Virginia’s state name has even acted to erase it from national consciousness. It’s a well known joke among West Virginia residents who’ve moved to other regions that you tell someone that’s where you are from and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I have a cousin in Roanoke.”
Even now, most people I know in the northeast know little of Appalachia beyond the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Beverly Hillbillies. Every once in a while, a major film will be set in the region, like October Sky that does a decent job of presenting Appalachia, but still represents the stereotypical industrial poverty. And having gone through the Hollywood machine, they almost always present the least common denominator understanding of the region. Few, if any, books from the region make it to national bestseller lists–Jayne Anne Phillips comes to mind.
Because representations of the region are so heavily produced from outside the region, it becomes difficult political terrain for me in writing the book. I lived in West Virginia for fifteen years, and many of the places and people I describe in the book are based on my experiences recast for the needs of the book. But having grown up in Ohio as well, and having lived in Morgantown, WV, which is in many ways an atypical Appalachian town, I can’t really claim to be of the region, and so setting my novel there positions me to be part of the problem of external representation, of repressing the authentic voices of the region. I’ll come back later to ways I’ve sought to address this in the book.