When I was eighteen, I left my small town in the mountains and headed off to college, an hour and a half down the road. I wanted nothing more than to move beyond my hometown. I’d never heard the word Appalachia used until I went to college and discovered that my family and I were part of a subject matter that poets, novelists, and academics had been trying to describe and define for years. After two years of college, I was surprised to find how much I missed my home and family. Along with other work I was doing for courses, I was being encouraged to study the history of the people and land I was from.
I began the work of collecting oral histories with family members, especially my grandmother, and from the stories of her life I began to write poetry and short stories. I loved this work—collecting all the known history and re-created history of my ancestors’ lives, gathering folklore, and learning to name the flora and fauna. I became proud of where I was from, and I wanted to defend my family and region against all the stereotypes that I simultaneously discovered.
At the same time, other parts of my identity began to shift, emerge, and evolve. My accent was only one of many things from my past that I let go. And the more I let go, the more resistance I felt from my family. The resulting conflict wasn’t just because I no longer sounded like I was from the mountains. It was difficult to go home and speak about environmental issues when my father had spent his life trying to make a living as an independent logger. It became frustrating to have conversations about politics when I began to embrace ideas that ran counter to the prevailing republican norm of my community. You can imagine what kind of questions and looks I received when I decided to become a vegetarian. Years later, I dared to speak of spirituality in terms that I had never heard used in the First Presbyterian Church, and I can still hear echoes of my mother’s shouting. And I risked losing my family when I decided I couldn’t pretend any longer and told my mother that my sexuality did not include marrying a man.
In the years since first discovering my Appalachian identity, there have been moments when I have wanted to reject the culture that I am from because at times I have felt that it rejects parts of me. But I have also learned that I cannot let go of my family, our traditions, the language, or the landscape. I am still learning to piece those things together with other parts of myself. Although it’s an ongoing negotiation that can sometimes be a struggle, such is what creating and embracing diversity in Appalachia is about.
I am learning the art of accepting, rejecting, and integrating because I learned from my grandmother to be committed to loving and understanding difference, despite the difficulty sometimes in doing so.