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The holler has hidden depths: Appalachian writers are telling more diverse stories about their native mountains

Appalachia may be mere miles away from the city of Charlottesville, but it can often feel worlds apart for the people living deep in the mountains and the people living in their eastern foothills.

For the Appalachian authors bridging those two worlds, it’s a delicate balancing act. For much of their audience, their hometown hollers are foreign places, and as a result, they are painted with broad brushstrokes: “Deliverance,” “The Waltons” and “Hillbilly Elegy” have, for many, defined the Appalachian experience.

But the Appalachian experience is not singular. And who would know that better than the Appalachian natives who themselves have felt different, othered, alternative growing up in the mountains? While others paint with broad brushstrokes, these alternative Appalachians have a diverse collection of colors with which to render works that reveal something more about the breadth and diversity of Appalachia.

“It took me decades to balance my identities, and they’re not easy identities to balance,” said writer Jeff Mann, known as the “godfather of queer Appalachia.” “It’s just nice to have gotten to a point where I finally did it. I feel perfectly comfortable. My joke is that I don’t have enough energy to be anything but authentic.”

Mann is a creative writing professor at Virginia Tech and is the author of “Loving Mountains, Loving Men,” a 2005 memoir chronicling his relationships with, naturally, other men, but also with Appalachian culture.

He was one of three Appalachian memoirists featured at Virginia’s Festival of the Book in Charlottesville on March 22. He was joined by Anya Liftig and Danielle Chapman. While Liftig and Chapman both reside in Connecticut today, where Liftig is a performance artist and Chapman teaches poetry and Shakespeare at Yale University, they are nevertheless tethered to the hollers of their home in the mountains.

Tethered yet distant. In her 2023 memoir “Holler Rat,” Liftig dives into the guilt and conflict she experienced straddling the divide between her middle-class life in Connecticut and her rural roots in Kentucky. In her 2023 collection of poems “Holler: A Poet Among Patriots,” Chapman straddles racial divides through the specific lens of her Southern upbringing in a military household in Tennessee.

The trio gave an audience of dozens packed into New Dominion Bookshop, the oldest independent bookseller in all of Virginia, an idea of how their works were written, published and marketed to a world outside of Appalachia.

The very first question that moderator Jeffrey Dale Lofton — a Georgia native and author of his own Appalachia-set novel, “Red Clay Suzie” — asked the panel was to elaborate on how they came to select the covers for their individual works.

Liftig’s cover features a picture of her as a young girl perched on her mother’s shoulders peering over a scarecrow, which she told the audience was taken in a potato field in Kentucky.

“When I spoke to the publishing company about what the cover might be, we talked about the strangeness and, already, performing that I took on at a really young role,” she said. “As a little kid, I was always interested in playing roles and interested in trying to transform myself, particularly, making the inanimate animate.”

Liftig began dancing as a form of physical therapy after experiencing a severe physical and neurological injury at the age of 6. Not long into her dance career, she started commuting into New York City in order to train with teachers from the New York City Ballet and earned a scholarship to study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance when she was 15. A couple years later, she decided to focus on academics instead of dance and went on to study English and studio arts at Yale. Eventually, she focused on photography and live performance art, which often incorporates her interest of animating the inanimate, bringing everything — fish, lobsters, cactuses — to life.

Looking back on how his memoir came to feature himself front and center wearing a tight-fitted T-shirt emblazoned with “Butch County Forest Service,” Mann joked, “I definitely can’t get into that shirt anymore.”

But perhaps it was something more than a joke for a writer whose work specifically reflects on making peace with the past, accepting himself after struggling for so long to be accepted in his West Virginia home.

For all three, writing was described as a cathartic experience.

Chapman’s memoir, which took her roughly 12 years to write, originally started as a collection of poems she had composed as a way in which to cope with some of the more difficult chapters of her past.

“It was a little bit like an exorcism. Some of those characters who had haunted me came out to the page,” she said.

Her father, a former U.S. Marine, died in a scuba diving accident in Okinawa that she witnessed when she was just 3-years-old. To fill his absence, her paternal grandfather, himself the 24th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, stepped in. She described her grandfather, Leonard Fielding Chapman Jr., and her family as both “salt of the earth” and “problematic,” especially on issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Like Mann, she described her path to coming to terms with her past, her family and her heritage, learning that the power of the written word is in connecting to others even when, and perhaps especially when, you feel other yourself.

Asked by the audience how they decided what to reveal of themselves in their memoirs, Chapman joked, “Well, I didn’t know I had to do a reveal.”

But more seriously, she said she specifically explored her journey through “adolescent liberal outrage.”

“I thought I was woke before woke existed,” she said. “One big theme of the book is my arguments with my grandfather. … We had a good relationship, but we argued a lot.”

Plenty of those arguments, she said, were about institutional racism, something she saw her grandfather as supporting.

So, it was a shock when she saw his obituary in the New York Times claim “his biggest legacy was his Civil Rights legacy.”

Chapman looked into some Marine Corps records, where she found that while he served as commandant, from 1968 to 1972, her grandfather had issued an order that allowed Black Marines to wear their hair in a modified afro as well as do the first-in-air “Black Power” salute as a form of solidarity. For this, he received enough hate mail to fill 33 boxes.

“He never mentioned it,” said Chapman. “He stuck to it; he never rescinded this order. He was pretty wise. He had a lot of self-control. The amount of self-control it would take to just think, ‘She won’t believe it unless she finds out for herself,’ is pretty extraordinary.”

Extraordinary but emblematic of so many other Appalachian stories. Understanding the holler often means taking a deep dive.


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