Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, is Neema Avashia’s poignant debut essay collection that brings us from growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in West Virginia, to becoming a queer writer, teacher, and education activist in Boston Public Schools. Its 17 essays provide windows into her birth city’s decline after the demise of Union Carbide, her relationships with her Indian and American natural and surrogate families, how she and her family found ways to assimilate into American culture, and her struggles with sharing her sexuality with those she loves.
Cam: What did it mean to grow up “Indolachian in the Chemical Valley?
Neema: Indolachian is a word I coined while writing this book. I was born and raised in southern West Virginia. My dad immigrated to New York for his medical residency and later became a company doctor for the Union Carbide chemical company. We lived in Chemical Valley, a place along the Kanawha River where Dupont, Monsanto, Olin, and Union Carbide all had chemical plants. My neighborhood and school were majority white communities, but on the weekends I was embraced by my community of Indian families. So my life is a complete mix of Indian and Appalachian cultures.
As an African-American, I spoke one way at school, differently at home. Was it the same for you?
Yes. I’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school, Indian food at home. Difference wasn’t embraced; it was used to discriminate. Code switching became my means of survival. Even with code switching, there was a pretty frightening level of violence.
Help me understand some of the bullying.
The first time I was slapped and called the n-word, I was six years old. The kid who hit me was in kindergarten! Racial slurs were just part of the experience. On the basketball court in high school, people would call me Mr. Myagi, ask me where my papoose was. Whatever slur they could think of.
What was your experience attending high school honors classes?
In 10th grade honors history in the mid 90s we were discussing socialism. I remember saying some aspects of socialism made sense—some people don’t have enough in our country, some people have far more than they need. My classmates began screaming I was a Pinko, and slid their desks away from me.
I think of Pinko as a word from the 50s or 60s!
I heard clearly, The way you are doesn’t make sense for this place.
When and why did you write these essays?
I really started writing in earnest after the 2016 election. The mainstream rhetoric around Appalachia was that people of the region were backwards, voted against their self-interest, and that we were all white evangelicals. I couldn’t find my family, or my Indian community, or the supportive white people I grew up with. I wanted to tell our stories.
But those stories are complex. For example, you mention a Mr. B, who was very supportive while you grew up, but in his old age he became an anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-Black Lives Matter social media spreader.
Living in Boston, I felt America’s polarization was happening live on my social media. That wasn’t true for many of my friends, who lived in echo chambers where they only heard from people who shared their views. At first, I couldn’t understand what happened. Kids I grew up with would make xenophobic posts. I’d reply, Remember me and my immigrant family who ate at your house? You’re talking about us. Eventually I realized that people at home were sold an ugly narrative to explain joblessness, crumbling towns, and opioid addiction. Who is giving people like Mr. B a different narrative?
So this is the power of story. In addition to our books and magazines, the stories our politicians, community and church leaders tell help us understand where we fit in society.
We all want stories that give us meaning. Our country has never been so polarized in my lifetime. The only way through this, and back to one another, is narrative.
It takes a village to raise a child. Tell me about the community that raised you.
All the kids on Pamela Circle went from house to house. The adults had this unique, collective parenting approach where they filled one another’s gaps. My dad struggled to teach me driving, so he asked a neighbor. When another neighbor was suffering from a heart attack, he called my dad before the ambulance, because he knew my dad would get there faster. That isn’t common today. It was a version of Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community, or Desmond Tutu’s Ubuntu. Even today, how I relate to my students is totally formed by the supportive teachers and mentors who taught me how to build sustained relationships.
Let’s talk about your writing community that helped you create this book.
I needed lots of structure and the support of numerous writers to write this book. Grubstreet was hugely important because of the accountability. Thirteen of the 17 essays were written in Grubstreet classes. I took a class every term for several years. Non-fiction, revision, generative classes. Through those classes, I built relationships that led to a writing group. E. B. Bartels, one of my instructors, helped with my book proposal. I’ve attended the Kenyon Writers Workshop three times. Those experiences gave me a big boost in confidence. I’m also close to two college writing professors, and to Geeta Kothari, a professor and editor of the Kenyon Review, who offered mentorship whenever I needed it. Finally, my Indian-American friends from Appalachia helped review drafts to see how my memories and analyses resonated with their experience.
What kind of confidence does it take to write a project of this magnitude?
It’s easy to have lots of doubts: about the quality of your writing, the importance of your story, whether anyone wants to read your story. Doubt is your nemesis! The validation that came from being in writing communities and workshops propelled me forward. Community helps you navigate doubt and push through it.
Talk about some of the challenges you had getting your book published.
I did a first round of agent queries. I got requests for full manuscripts, then these really kind messages from agents saying, Your book is beautiful, but we don’t know how to sell it. It was hard not to feel the reason I wasn’t getting any takers was that I’m a queer, Indian, Appalachian writer and there aren’t many of us, so it’s unclear who the audience would be for the book. It was hard to hear, I can’t sell you. My second round of submissions was to small, university and independent presses, who are much more likely to take risks. The response from that world was radically different!
It sounds like large versus small presses approached the same book very differently.
They may have different values. My publisher, West Virginia University Press, wants sustainability for the press, for my book, and for me as an author in the long-term. If large publishing houses can’t make money off you quickly, it seems like they’re done with you quickly. That doesn’t align with my desire for humaneness. We writers have been taught a narrative around traditional publishing as the end-all be-all, but that’s not the only way. Give yourself permission to explore different avenues for how your words find their way into the world. Think about the ways that align with your values, and try to make sure there’s a match.
Neema Avashia was born and raised in southern West Virginia to parents who immigrated to the United States. She has been a middle school teacher in the Boston Public Schools since 2003. Her essays have appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Find out more at neemaavashia.com, or on Twitter or Instagram.