We ride for the South. Don't you?
On East Tennessee's first chilly fall weekend, authors, scholars, and readers converged at the Blount County Public Library for the inaugural Cormac McCarthy Literary Arts Festival. Over the course of three days, 500 people streamed in and out of the public library to hear talks from acclaimed writers, see craft demonstrations, attend writing workshops, and take guided historic walking tours of downtown Maryville.
The Blount County Public Library, which celebrated its 100th birthday in October, is the largest rural library in Tennessee. Despite its high ceilings and big windows, it still manages to feel like a cozy community space. There is something for everyone here from adult education programs to an enviable youth section where a large collection of books by indigenous authors was displayed for Indigenous Peoples Month. In the festival's main room, natural light poured through large windows and onto the stage where Sharyn McCrumb, Ron Rash, and Stacy Peebles discussed the importance of Appalachian Literature and Cormac McCarthy's influence on their work.
"I think it's great that a public space like this does this [festival] under the aegis of McCarthy or just uses McCarthy as a sort of focal point or excuse to draw these other writers together and other activities and conversations," said Peebles, a McCarthy scholar and editor of The Cormac McCarthy Journal. "It doesn't need to be just a two day long academic examination of his work —there's a place for that— but this about all kinds of readers, and I think that is terrific, like all different ages, different interests in his work coming to it from different places."
McCarthy is most well-known for his later novels, some of which were adapted into Academy-Award winning films. However, he published his earlier works Outer Dark and Child of God while living in a dairy barn turned farmhouse in Blount County. In fact, a seven ton mosaic that the author made in 1971 as a part of Maryville's failed downtown revitalization efforts now sits on the library grounds.
Librarians at the Blount County Public Library will tell you that they named the literary festival after McCarthy intending to highlight his time in Tennessee and his contribution to Appalachian literature. However, they will also tell you that the name came in response to an article in the Oxford American that lamented the fact that Cormac's mosaic had been forgotten in a corner of the library's property. In actuality, the county had decided to preserve the mosaic and moved it the Blount County Library which was under construction. In response to the insinuations of cultural ignorance and neglect by outside media, the librarians organized a whole literary arts festival around the historic mural.
But at the heart of it, this festival isn't about a famous man who once lived here or his mural. This festival is about the people in Blount County who see themselves as a part of a literary community that has something to offer the world. Summer Awad, a Palestinian-Appalachian writer who co-led a workshop on writing from marginalized communities, spoke to the importance of seeing herself as an Appalachian writer. "For a really long time I wrote mostly about my Palestinian identity. I think being a white-passing person, I was always trying to over compensate and let everybody know that I was Palestinian, that I wasn't just white, that I was different from the norm in this region. And I think I worked through that and started to think more deeply about what it means to be Southern and Appalachian — it's been a really interesting shift to begin identifying as a Southern writer. I always want to point out that there are different voices here."
This sentiment echoed throughout all of the festival's panels and workshops– we are not only what people write about us. "It seems to me that the Appalachian literature– or really Appalachian Culture has been used nationally as a sort of mirror to reflect whatever the national culture needs it to reflect," said fiction author Sharyn McCrumb during the panel on Saturday. "It seems like everytime there is something in the national consciousness that needs to be addressed, we get to be the canary in the coal mine, and recently it has been JD Vance and Hillbilly Elegy because of the political unrest and so on…"
Racism and colonialism still dominate portrayals of Appalachia. Writers, filmmakers and journalists alike flock to the mountains to exercise their anxieties into stories that romanticize poverty, whiteness, and masculinity. The re-telling of Appalachia has often been weaponized against people of color and indigenous people in order to deny the existence of white-supremacy and institutional racism in this country while simultaneously erasing non-white folks from the region's history altogether. To illustrate the damage this narrative has done, poet and author Frank X Walker recounted how he has been asked how many Black people live in Kentucky, as if there were so few as to be able to count them all on one hand. Walker's career has been about making the unseen stories of Appalachia visible. He explained to the rapt audience how he coined the term "Affrilachian" after looking up the definition for "Appalachian" in the dictionary and seeing something along the lines of "white person of Scots-Irish descent living in the Appalachian Mountains."
The librarians at Blount County Public Library are well aware of the ways that certain parts of Appalachia get erased in national narratives. Rectifying that is a large part of the motivation for their work. "My vision is for us to be a literary center here for regional Appalachia." says Blount County Public Library director KC Williams. In many ways they are already functioning as a literary center. Among the books the Friends of the Blount County Library were selling in the bright entryway was Foothill Voices, an anthology of writing from local novice and amateur writers who participated in a year-long writing course offered by the library. Youth Services Librarian, Jennifer Spirko co-edited the first volume of Foothills Voices and sees both the literary festival and the Foothills Voices project as opportunities to celebrate the diverse array of stories that people in East Tennessee have to tell. "I'm straight up about as Blount County as Blount County can get," Spirko laughs. "So this is a really personal project for me to see not just the culture and literature of Southern Appalachia, but specifically with that connection to Blount County, which does not get thought of as being cultural or literary."
As Blount County Librarian and festival organizer Ari Baker explains, "We're not just a place to rent books!" This festival is just one of the many ways that the Blount County Library is engaging with members of the community. Through their Southern Appalachian Studies Program, the library functions as a community space and hosts a seed library, a quilting group, a lecture series, and the Foothills Voices writing program. Quoting the director of USC's School of Library and Information Sciences, R. David Lankes, Baker elaborates "the role of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities' –and that's what we do," says Baker. "We provide people the resources they need to create knowledge, and sometimes that looks like books, but sometimes that looks like a community space or a literary festival…"
Jennifer Spirko says the next Cormac McCarthy Literary Arts festival will likely be in 2021 to coincide with the release of the third volume of Foothills Voices. Until then, folks in Blount County will continue telling and collecting stories that complicate and enrich the dominant narratives about Appalachia as a whole. As for the librarians at the Blount County Public Library, they will be providing people with tools and resources and building out their burgeoning literary center at their rural library in the hills of East Tennessee.