I Know Exactly Who I Am: Highlighting Diverse Voices in “Appalachian” Writing

by Grey Jones, Guest Editor

Guest Editor Grey Jones with the Editor's Choice authors for fall 2019: Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin and Karen Lee Light

I once enrolled in a college course titled The Sociology of Race and Ethnic Relations. This was in the late 1980s, when I was a young and eager undergraduate student at UNC Greensboro. During the first week of the course the professor dove into the topic of racial stereotypes and labels. This was the era in which the term African American, thanks to voices such as that of Reverend Jesse Jackson, was becoming established in the lexicon. I recall her asking the members of the class, specifically those who were affected by racial labeling, to think about how they would wish to be referred. Black? African American? Her goal was that we would all respect the rights of individuals to name themselves.

I have always been someone who likes to go to the source for my information. In this instance, I wanted to talk with my fellow students, not around or about them. I took the professor’s lead, turned to the young woman seated beside me, and asked her how she wished to be referred.

“You can call me Black,” she replied. “Or you can call me African American. You can even call me by my name. No matter what anyone calls me, I know exactly who I am.”

This young woman, a heterosexual woman of color, was unaware of the power her words had on a gay white man who had also been the recipient of many adverse labels and stereotypes. With her final sentence, she changed my worldview. She was empowered, and she simply refused to be labeled by anyone other than herself. From that moment on, I would strive to claim that kind of agency. Thirty years later, I still strive. I still repeat what has become somewhat of a mantra: “No matter what anyone calls me, I know exactly who I am.”

I recalled the words of that same young woman as I read the submissions for this edition of The Great Smokies Review. The words apply not only to race and sexual orientation, but also to gender, religion, nationality, and regional affiliation. It is the latter that stuck with me as I chose the two writers I would highlight in this essay. Inspired by ten years of living in Western North Carolina and one enlightening semester in Dr. Erica Abrams Locklear’s Appalachian Literature course at UNC Asheville, I felt that many of the pieces that I read could be interpreted as refutations of regional labels and stereotypes about Appalachia. These works were neither elegies to isolation, nor odes to homogeneity. They were rebuttals to a centuries’-old othering of place and culture.

The othering of Appalachia can be traced back more than a century to pervasive stereotypes and socially constructed identities supplied by local color writers. These negative stereotypes depicted Appalachian people as isolated, uneducated, primitive, and in every way, homogeneous. The region had little chance to define its own identity to the world, since the writers who disseminated the stereotypes were by and large from outside of Appalachia. More contemporary Appalachian writers are, however, owning the narrative. They are confronting the myths that abound concerning Appalachia and its people. Charles Frazier, beginning with his first novel, Cold Mountain, creates racially diverse characters and women of resilience, defying the false portrayal of a completely male-dominated Anglo-Saxon Appalachia. Crystal Wilkinson utilizes African American identity to counter the hackneyed label of Appalachia as a racially homogenous region. Silas House explores what it means to be gay and Appalachian, affirming himself in both cultures in the process. Lee Smith questions the role of women in Appalachian culture, and leaves the reader to ponder the answers both historically and socially. Robert Gipe writes, and draws, about the opposing views of extractive industry in the region, and about the growing concern of environmental impact. These are but a few of the authors who are reimagining what it means to be Appalachian.

To this list I wish to add the names of two contributors to this issue of The Great Smokies Review: Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin and Karen Lee Light.

The first thing that I noticed upon reading Cabanis-Brewin’s Oh, the Beautiful Hills is that it is female-centric. The female characters driving the story represent diverse voices, diverse perspectives, yet each carries the strength of her convictions. Cabanis-Brewin refuses to create women who fit easily into one category. Feminists and traditionalists collide, but find space for one another despite their differences. Appalachia is portrayed as a place where women are no more homogeneous than the region itself.

The second thing that I noticed is Cabanis-Brewin’s commentary, both explicit and implicit, on extractive industry in Appalachia. When the character Hoyt Houston falls to his death into a pit surrounding his house – a pit created from his selling of “fill dirt” – his fate is not only a result of greed, but also of the sale of one’s culture. Ironically, the dirt utilized to fill holes actually creates one. When Cabanis-Brewin has one character say to another, “As if you cared about dirt,” she transforms the soil into a metaphor for Appalachia itself. Both financial interests and the extraction of natural resources have turned Houston’s home into a grave, his life depleted along with his heritage. Cabanis-Brewin succeeds in never preaching to her reader. Rather, she uses irony and metaphor to illustrate the literal pitfalls that may be encountered in the piecemeal peddling of land and legacy.

Karen Lee Light, in her poem “Match,” highlights the intersection between faith, sexuality, and Appalachian identity. The poem is a love letter to God, to beauty, and to the mountains of the region. It is also a coming out story chronicling the bittersweet triumph of speaking truth in the face of rejection. The fact that homosexuality is the subject of the work of a writer in Appalachia is a direct refutation of the homogeneous identity created a century ago concerning the region.

The narrator of “Match” and her love interest, Kat, are at times nearly interchangeable.. “I am Kat and Kat is me,” writes Light. The experience is shared. When Kat states, “I’m afraid I’ll jump off the mountain,” Light creates of the mountain a symbol of Appalachian identity. To embrace the identity of being gay is to give up the “traditional” identities of Appalachian and Christian. It is a literal jumping off, and away, from the self each has known. When Light writes, “The trees down there are so beautiful, they’d catch me,” she’s quoting her best friend, but the words have stuck with her as if they might have been her own. She knows that, even if she, the narrator, were to jump, she would land softly in the beauty of a whole, united self: Appalachian, Christian, and gay.

Despite the poem ending with what the reader may assume to be non-acceptance, perhaps repudiation, Light does not convey a sense of bitterness. She does not advise her reader to run away from Appalachia. Rather, much like another Appalachian poet, Jim Wayne Miller, Light asks that we experience a rebirth in which we evolve the ideology while maintaining the cultural traditions. She writes from a place where converging identities are welcomed and encouraged to join the conversation.

Of course, all of this is merely my response to the works of Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin and Karen Lee Light. These are merely the labels that I have given them. I could call them American writers, Southern writers, and Appalachian writers. I could call them female-centric, champions of diversity, and warriors against stereotypes. Perhaps these authors would embrace these labels. Perhaps not. They have, after all, every right to name themselves. Ultimately, no matter what I call them, I have a feeling that each of these women knows exactly who she is.

Grey Jones has lived in Western North Carolina for the past decade. This is his second guest editorship with The Great Smokies Review. He is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville and is currently in his professional year in the teacher licensure program at the same university. He hopes to use his English Language Arts licensure to facilitate high school students in their journeys toward knowing exactly who they are.