The myth of Appalachia's homogenous whiteness has been definitively debunked, owed in part to the recent surge of Black and brown authors writing about their homeplace. Classics like bell hooks' Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place, now stand alongside more recent works like Crystal Wilkinson's The Birds of Opulence, Cherokee author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's Even As We Breath, and trans author Carter Sickels' The Prettiest Star. Continuing this ever-widening conversation on who belongs to the hills and hollers is debut author Neema Avashia's sublime new memoir, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. (WVU Press, 2022)
"Intersectional identity has a very hard time finding a home," Avashia said of the difficulty of getting a large publisher to understand the necessity of her writing. "I queried many agents who were kind and said this was a very beautiful book but they couldn't sell it. But I had a positive reception from multiple small presses."
And indeed, the collection of essays deserves the warm reception. Another Appalachia is a graceful and searing exploration of identity, community, and the contradictions of the region that the author begins to reckon with only after she leaves.
Avashia's story begins, as many stories in Appalachia do, with the chemical industry. Specifically, the Union Carbide plant in Institute, West Virginia, where her father was employed as a physician. A few years after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act opened U.S. borders to more Asian immigrants, Avashia's Gujarati parents emigrated from Mumbai, eventually settling in a suburb of Charleston. There, in the Kanawha Valley, also known as Chemical Valley, chemical plants that had ramped up production during World War II were later repurposed to produce everything from rubber additives to latex paint to detergents.
When Avashia was a small child in late 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited plant in Bhopal, India, experienced what would come to be known as one of the worst industrial disasters in history when a poisonous gas leak led to several thousand deaths. Immediately afterward, corporate headquarters called upon her father to represent the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal.
That an Indian in the U.S. would serve as the face of the company that killed Indians in India echoes one of many ironies that embodied her family's life in West Virginia. "Chemicals paved the road from my father's mythologized arrival in the United States…" Avashia writes. "My father's embrace of chemicals gave birth to my privilege. I am not confused about this fact."
During her childhood, the Kanawha Valley was home to a small but robust Indian community. Avashia's Indian "aunties"—or to use the Gujarati word, masis—raised her as their own, and showered her with love. One of the most evocative chapters in the book describes their celebration of the nine-day festival of Navarati for the goddess Durga.
"They slowly clap and slide around the circle, their motions repetitive and rhythmic. They pick up speed… The soles of their feet will bear the red marks of carpet burn… But for these nine nights, there is no pain insufferable enough to make them leave the circle early."
Despite the kindness of her neighbors, Avashia acknowledges with bracing candor that her hometown was indeed a challenging place to grow up as a queer Hindu Indian American. At school, among a sea of mostly white faces, she was othered. "I knew that I could not be like the girls in my classes, but struggled to build a cohesive identity for myself… I simply wish I did not have to explain or justify my inherited, out-of-place identity."
Although Avashia's family no longer lives in the region, she still maintains a fierce loyalty to her mountain community. I spoke with the author over the phone from her home in Boston, where she teaches ninth grade and lives with her partner, Laura.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anjali Enjeti: You write about how chemicals shaped your family's immigrant story—they poisoned people in West Virginia and Bhopal, but also provided a steady income to your family and others in the Kanawha Valley. How do you reckon with this?
Neema Avashia: If my dad had gotten fired from Union Carbide, he wouldn't have been able to find another job in West Virginia. Our family would have had to move somewhere else. His decision to represent Union Carbide had to have been incredibly hard for him, and it was hard for my family in India who didn't understand why he would do it. As a Desi man, he had to make a decision to keep himself employed so he could take care of us.
This is capitalism in the Rust Belt in a nutshell: That which is killing you is also feeding you. A lot of this country runs on Appalachian resources, but most people don't know where those resources come from. We don't make this process visible. Instead, we have an American narrative of convenience. Things just come to us.
We need to make policy with Appalachians at the center—they are some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
AE: As a Southerner, I understand the great harm stereotypes can cause an area. How have stereotypes harmed Appalachia?
NA: Ashley York made a great documentary [in 2018] called Hillbilly about this. Her thesis is that the end goal of the dehumanization of Appalachian people through stereotypes is greed, money, and capitalism. It is much easier to extract coal and natural gas in a way that endangers people, or to make water undrinkable, if people aren't seen as real people. Corporations use stereotypes to convince outsiders that Appalachians don't deserve better.
The erasure of Black people is notable in stereotypes about Appalachia, too. There have always been Black folks in Appalachia. They have worked in mines and in the chemical industry. bell hooks is from Kentucky, and passed away there. That was her home. But it's not convenient to talk about racial diversity in Appalachia, because if we do, then we have to talk about events like the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain [where Black and white coal miners protested their treatment by coal companies together] and interracial solidarity, which undermine the stereotypes.
AE: How did experiencing Hindu Indian rituals and celebrations as a child in West Virginia differ from your Gujarati parents' experiences with them?
NA: As a child I didn't get as much out of celebrations like Navarati or Diwali as my parents did. My mom can celebrate Navarati with anyone, anywhere in the world, and it would fill her with a lot of joy, because she has this whole history of experiencing it in India for the first twenty years of her life. In West Virginia, we celebrated Navarati in the middle school gym or basement. I've never seen rituals in their full original form in India.
When I moved to Boston, I didn't know anybody, so I didn't feel anything for Navarati and Diwali. What gave the rituals meaning were the relationships I had with people in West Virginia, some of whom have passed on. I have a hard time ascribing meaning to them without the love. Part of this has to do with geography, but part of this has to do with queerness.
See also: Growing up queer in Appalachia
One of the most lovely things we did during the pandemic was a Zoom Garba [a dance performed during Navarati]. This was the most connected to Gujarati rituals I've felt in a long time.
AE: A book about Appalachia, written from the perspective of a queer Indian American, feels revolutionary to me. How has Appalachia shaped your identity as a queer person?
NA: Queerness was manifesting during my childhood, but I didn't have words for it, and I didn't know what it was. In the early 1980s, I didn't know of any queer people. No one said they were queer. I can see now that there were people who were queer. But at the time, there was silence.
When I was growing up, I thought race was the most salient factor of my identity. When I felt like I was on the outside, I always attributed it to race. I tried to use race to explain what I didn't understand—like the fact that I wasn't dating. But it wasn't only race. I can see now that it was queerness.
I definitely think that if we think of "queering" in its broadest sense, as being about breaking away from binaries and boxes, then my understanding of what it means to be in a relationship with people was certainly informed by growing up in a small place. I don't have the same sense of there being strict rules that define what people are "supposed" to be to one another. Which is to say: Just as my neighbors on Pamela Circle and my aunties and uncles became family for me, I understand my role in the world as being to extend that kind of love without regard for normative lines.
For example, one of the most important people in my life is a former student: A sixth-grader I taught back in 2004, who is now approaching 30, and is family to me. On paper, we couldn't be more different: Me, a desi woman from Southern West Virginia, him, a Black man from Dorchester, the most densely populated neighborhood in Boston. But I have known him for as long as my Pamela Circle neighbors knew me during my time growing up in West Virginia, and while we don't have a word to describe our relationship—he's too close in age for it to be parental, too far away to be a sibling, too intimate for the clinicalness of a phrase like mentor—the lack of a label doesn't really faze me.
And even when I think about myself on this journey of becoming a parent to a child with whom I don't share any genetic material, there is an absence of fear that I attribute to how I was raised. I don't think biology is necessary as the foundation of transformative relationships and deep love. And that I fully attribute to the place where I was raised.
AE: There's a heartbreaking chapter about your relationship with your surrogate grandparents in West Virginia, particularly, Mr. B, who now posts anti-immigrant rhetoric on social media. How do you continue to reckon your love for him with his views?
NA: It's really hard. But we are all subject to narratives that other people create for us. I can't see a way forward for our country if we can't hold people with love who believe things that are really abhorrent.
There are fewer and fewer jobs in Appalachia—people are overdosing and struggling. Anger and blame are a place where people go when they are suffering. They're establishing beliefs in a context of [right-wing] narratives that are being offered. The left needs to create counter-narratives at an equal pace that don't involve targeting others.
AE: You no longer have blood ties to a place that raised you. Do you still consider West Virginia home?
NA: You know, something really deep has happened because of this book—I feel like I'm building new relationships with people in West Virginia. I feel even more connected to the area since growing up there. It's been lovely. Queer people in Appalachia have embraced this book. Other readers are hungry for these kinds of narratives and hungry for these narratives to be visible.
I'm returning to Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky to teach an Appalachian workshop. For me, to be one of the faces of what we consider an Appalachian writer, feels profound.
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