Like many smart, striving kids in 1980s and 1990s Appalachia, Neema Avashia left Cross Lanes, WV – pop. 9,274 – in the western part of the state, along a slice of the Kanawha River with so many industrial plants it’s nicknamed Chemical Valley, to build a life in cities. She attended college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. For almost 20 years, she’s been a public middle school history teacher in Boston.
But, as Avashia recounts in a sweet, smart memoir Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place (WVU Press, 168p.), due for publication on March 1, in her heart she’s never stopped loving and caring about West Virginia.
This is fierce adoration. When confronted with racism, for example, Avashia writes that she wants to
pull out the birth certificate detailing my birth at Thomas Hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, in the heart of the Kanawha valley. That muddy river valley, those green mountains, those smoking chemical stacks– they are where I come from. So much so that I am writing this essay in a room in my house entirely dedicated to the state of West Virginia. The walls are decorated with a wedding ring quilt, a painting of the New River Gorge, and a map of West Virginia that dates back to the late 1880s. My light source is a lamp from the Blenko glassblowing factory in Milton, twenty minutes from where I grew up.
There is no shortage of loving descriptions like this in a tight collection of 17 essays that cover everything from Avashia’s youth basketball playing to the 2016 election. A deep nostalgia for a place that appears to be not suited for her is the subject of much of Avashia’s writing work, much of which you can find here. You’d have to love a place a lot to love it more than Avashia loves West Virginia, which, I suspect, is true for a lot of West Virginians. They really, really, really love their state.
And yet Avashia is the daughter of immigrants from India, who were isolated in a state with less than two thousand compatriots. In the 1980s, it was hard to find fellow Hindus to worship with and good vegetarian food to eat. Once a month, the family gathered to pray with families who’d “immigrated to the United States from all over India, sometimes by way of Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda” to work as “engineers or physicians” and who, because there is no “W” sound in their languages, over pronounce the state “Vest Virginia.” And Avashia is gay, a fact she struggled to reveal to people she grew up with. The cruel, devastating homophobia of Avashia’s childhood explains why:
Growing up, I never knew anyone — neither Indian nor West Virginian — who was openly gay. It wasn’t a topic discussed at school, and it wasn’t something we talked about at home or in my community. We played Smear the Queer on my street, throwing one another down a grassy hill, without ever questioning the name of the game. I didn’t know what the word “gay” really meant, aside from crude insults thrown at less-masculine boys, until I started college.
In the end, however, to her happy surprise, Avashia’s extended family, which includes a circle of honorary aunties and uncles, welcomes she and her partner.
Above all, they constantly repeated the same refrain, “Ghare aavjo.” Welcome home.
More than anything else, this was the phrase that overwhelmed me. I know my West Virginia family well enough to know that even if they were uncomfortable, they would make it through dinner in a restaurant for the sake of saving face, and for the sake of my parents. But asking us to come home to drink chai in their living rooms, to stay with them at night– that was different. That wasn’t saving face; it was love.
Avashia’s book is an ode to a place and to people, but it hits on two deeper themes that every American is called to behold.
1. How do you reckon with loving a place so much even when it appears to culturally and politically hate you? In a season of hardened hearts, it’s essential to affirm that a place always belongs to all the people who live in it, to its community. As Another Appalachia illustrates, West Virginia, a sprawling land of less than two million people spread out in tight communities along rivers and in hills, might be able to teach the rest of America something about getting along at the local level. People in West Virginia are often loyal to their neighbors even when they disagree about national politics.
And 2. How do individual Americans manage the cycles of capitalism that spring up the jobs that underpin strong communities, in place A town today and place B tomorrow? This is the question posed by our film Moundsville (PBS), that Americans struggle to confront. It does not make you a Marxist to wonder how we can take care of our fellow citizens after the factory doors close. Where Americans end up living is, more often than in other countries, an accident of the bureaucracy of business and profit. Isn’t that something we should talk about more?
The answer, Avashia seems to propose, is personal relationships. With a warm heart, she describes people she grew up with, such as Carl Bradford, her basketball coach, her Indian elders, two high school buddies named Dave and David, and Mr. and Mrs. B, an older white West Virginian couple who treat her like family, even as they embraced Donald Trump. In a chapter on politics, Avashia describes her insistence of seeing people beyond their politics. “You have to keep loving people, even if they voted for Trump,” she told me in a phone interview.
What allows that love is that Avashia and her friends and family, whatever their differences, all come from the same place.
When I learned to play guitar growing up, the music I played was Appalachian folk. When I learned to speak English, it was with a southern twang. When I learned to drive, it was on one-lane mountain roads full of hairpin turns. The food I ate away from my parents’ dinner table, where Gujarati meals were standards, was all Appalachian food: ramps and friend potatoes, beans and cornbread, taco in a bag, macaroni and cheese. The culture of Appalachia was the only culture I knew growing up, outside my parent’s culture. To me, being Appalachian meant being American. My Americanness was tied up in my Appalachianness. The more I asserted the later, the more I became the former.
Avashia is aware that her home region is special is fostering this degree of attachment. “It’s unusual outside Appalachia to be so connected to place,” she said.
Avashia’s father immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, and the family moved to the Kanawha valley in 1974 as part of a wave of Indian immigration after the passage of the Hart-Celler act in 1965. Her dad worked for Union Carbide, one of the main chemical companies in co-called Chemical Valley. It was poisonous, but also took care of people, the core contradiction of the corporate contract offered by industrial and resource firms in West Virginia. He was a company man who couldn’t rock any boats, while his daughter is a Twitter-wielding activist on the front lines of Boston public school battles. “If my father had been the epitome of the company man for Union Carbide, I was quickly becoming his opposite,” she writes. “The Norma Rae of Boston Public Schools. The Ralph Nader of school closures. The very kind of person my father expressed exasperation with when I was growing up. My father did not suffer rabble-rousers gladly, and I was starting to be the loudest rabble-rouser in town.”
Avashia’s parents and sister now live in Texas, but they’ll always have West Virginia, and “the way the mist covers the mountains each morning, then slowly burns off the rising sun. The solid comfort of grits and biscuits and tomato pie, pimiento cheese sandwiches, boiled peanuts. The complex mixture of resignation, philosophizing, and wistfulness that characterizes any rocking-chair conversation about the political future of Appalachia.”
In the place Avashia grew up and loves, the future is unclear. The factories are mostly gone. Population has been in decline. Opioids have ravaged lives. When I visited in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal, people told me they missed the stinky air. It was the smell of good jobs. WalMart doesn’t pollute as much, but it doesn’t offer $30 an hour with benefits.
The mistake people make when discussing Appalachia is to ignore the systems that have kept people in limited lives, she said. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance’s book, for example, “locates so much blame with individuals, and doesn’t acknowledge any systemic failure,” she said. “It doesn’t say: Where did these companies go?”
Avashia thinks about going back, to live and to help. Struggling communities in West Virginia need teachers. “I wish that staying had been presented to me as a real option when I was younger, but everybody told me to leave,” she said.
However Avashia’s relationship with West Virginia evolves, she’ll always live there through this love letter of a book to a place made special through deep human connection.
John W. Miller