Neema Avashia on Being Queer and Indian in Appalachia


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Chuck and Big John talk with Neema Avashia, author of the forthcoming memoir “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place.” You can preorder her book here (and support a local bookstore while you’re at it!) 

Neema Avashia Interview Transcript

Chuck Corra: To kind of get this started. One of the reasons why we have wanted to have you on is because, you know, I spent a lot of time talking about Appalachian stereotypes and how the region is really misunderstood and your forthcoming book. I think really tees that up perfectly in the title “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place” because it really challenges a lot of the pre-held beliefs about Appalachia that it’s totally just full of white straight, people.

I think that’s really cool. And before we get fully into that, I did want to ask you kind of to talk a little bit about where you’re from.

We do this a lot with guests, particularly from Appalachia, and I think based on what I’ve read the area you grew up in sounds fairly similar to the area where John and I grew up in Parkersburg. There are a lot of chemical plants, and a lot of like different dynamics going along with that.

So kind of interested to hear your take on that. 

Neema Avashia: Yeah. A hundred percent. So Parkersburg has a carbide plant, in the same way. That the chemical valley and the Kanawha Valley does. My dad used to go to Parkersburg for work a lot. So yeah, I mean, I think even that part of my story is a different Appalachian story than I think the prevailing narrative.

Right. Which are a lot about coal and the sort of folks who grew up in the chemicals part of Appalachia have some similarities in their stories, but also some differences, environmental destruction is kind of the same story for all of us. Right. And the really hard relationship between. Like needing to work and needing jobs.

And then the industries that offer those jobs, being ones that are profoundly destructive to our environment. I think that tension exists. Whether you grew up in coal Appalachia or chemicals, Appalachia. I think the difference is that in the case of both Parkersburg and of nitro cross lanes Institute, which is kind of the world I grew up in there was a significant community of immigrants who moved in.

 To work in the chemical industry. So in south Charleston there was a tech center, which was a union carbide research and development for the entire corporation was housed in south Charleston, tons of Ph.D. folks, both from the United States and also internationally were coming in to work at the tech center.

 My dad came into work at the plant as a physician. He did occupational medicine. So he was the plant doctor at the Institute. That story is not a story. I think people know, like, I don’t think people know that there were over a hundred Indian families in Charleston, many of whom were drawn there by the chemical industry.

 And so I think like we knew we were there, but I think that from the outside, I don’t think people we knew were there. And that was my experience all the time. When I, once left West Virginia, when I would tell people where I was from their response was. There are Indian people in West Virginia.

Like what are you talking about? All the Indian people are from New Jersey and it was just like, okay, I’m pretty sure I’m from there. Like I grew up there, but sure. Have you notion of what you think Appalachia is? It just, I think for a long time, I just sorta feel like my friends and I were like, okay, well, this is where we grew up.

We grew up. Cross lanes is a very strange place. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven through that’s what most people who don’t live there do is drive-through. You probably filled it out there. Right? It’s kind 

Chuck Corra: of this, I think I did an escape game there once because they had it. I do the 

Big John Isner: job interview there, so I know cross lanes pretty well.

I had to go there a few times. 

Neema Avashia: Yeah. So like a gas station, gas station, gas station, a couple of restaurants. A couple of housing developments, right. They really did kind of come up relative to the chemical plant. That’s a lot of its existence was like, well, we have some housing in nitro. That’s a lot for workers.

We’re going to build some additional housing and cross lanes. It’s kind of more like management. It’s, it’s a bedroom community in a way that, again, I don’t think people think about Appalachia as a place where you have bedroom communities, but Crosslands in a way is very much a bedroom community. Its existence was to be a place for people to live, but they didn’t work there for the most part.

They worked in other places. And so, yeah, that’s, that’s kind of where I grew up is in this space that I think is largely invisible in the narrative of the sort of like an externally created narrative about what Appalachia is or who lives in. 

Chuck Corra: Yeah. That’s super interesting, especially your point about how the Indian community, where you live, like, you all knew you were there, but nobody else did.

I will confess, I had no idea that South Charleston had such a large Indian community either. And I guess, you know, thinking about it, it doesn’t make sense. And I actually didn’t realize there was a union carbide plant there either. Cause my grandpa used to work at one and Marietta. That’s neither here nor there, but I think that’s really interesting, I’ll say origin story because I feel like so much of that history of Appalachia has been overlooked for so long.

 Mainly because I think a lot of, a lot of voices that are parts of different communities that weren’t like white or affluent have been marginalized, I think. And I pulled this from an article actually. Right. I don’t know if this is an excerpt from your book or not. But you mentioned kind of. The way that you framed your life.

And I think it’s really interesting. I like how you do it. You said that you straddled oftentimes two different worlds between a boom and bust in the West Virginia economy being an immigrant and a citizen queer and heterosexual, et cetera. And that you know, the stories of Appalachian stories like yours are about brown people, queer people, immigrants, and radicals, and should be told more often.

And I think that that is such a perfect way to encapsulate, you know, something that. Really hope to do by highlighting other people’s voices on this show is shows that there are those real stories. There are stories about brown people, queer people, immigrants, and especially radicals and Appalachia.

I’m kind of curious, how did you, how did you come about wanting to talk about your story about where you grew up? Because I know that it’s complicated for a lot of people. 

Neema Avashia: It is really complicated and it’s even more complicated.

I think when you didn’t learn when you were growing up that there were other people like you, right? Like I didn’t learn in school about the battle of Burma. I didn’t learn about radicals growing up – I was old by the time I knew that history and I am ashamed to say that, but I also like what happened to my education that like, I wasn’t taught these things.

I wasn’t taught about queer writers. It wasn’t like I didn’t read an Appalachian writer in school the whole time I was in school. My neighbor gave me crumb by. When I was in high school to read and I loved it and I went to school and told the teacher about it. And she was like, that book is filthy. We can’t talk about that book in school.

And I was like, that book sounds like people. I know, I don’t know if you’ve read crumb it’s I mean, it, his voice is the voice of my neighbor, right? Like, it was a powerful thing for me to be like, oh, that voice, isn’t just my neighbor’s voice. Like that voice can be in a book. I read Reese DJ pancake just a few years ago.

And when I was reading that book, I was like, oh my God, like this guy writes about home in a way that like, I feel on like a cellular level, but I never knew those stories when I was growing up. And so it took me a long time to feel like my story had any weight. Like if you never see stories that reflect you.

It’s hard to believe that anyone else is gonna want to read your story. I think when I really started to feel a sense of urgency about telling the story was actually around the publication of a book that shall not be named by a person running for office in Ohio, who should also not be named because.

I picked up that book and I thought it was a memoir. Then I got about halfway through and was like, this is not a memoir. Even if it memoir, don’t know the thing he’s describing like that’s not my thing. And it’s not the thing of anybody I know. And it, and you know, like I was watching, I was in Boston.

Right. So all these people in Boston are buying this book and being like, oh, have you read this book about Appalachia? Cause they don’t know how to say up Alexa this amazing book. And I just like was getting madder and madder. No, this book is not what you think it is. Like you’re not reading it. Right.

If you were reading it, right. You’d read that this is just. Some dudes like political philosophy, masquerading as memoir, and the philosophy is actually really horrible. It doesn’t do any justice to the people who live in this place and I was like, “well, I can keep being mad about this book or I can shut up and start writing.”

If I think there’s a different story than like I have to tell it like, otherwise. That’s the story people are reading right now. And the thing is, it didn’t mean that there weren’t other people writing other work in Appalachia that was incredible and powerful. Like all that work also existed.

None of it was the story of the people I knew, right. Or the kind of intersection that I grew up at that intersection. Isn’t a story that I feel like anyone had told. And it felt like more and more urgent and important to me to sort of like get that story down. Also because I don’t know how long that story is going to go on.

Like what you guys know this better than anybody like West Virginia, the population is declining. The chemical industry is largely really suffering and struggling and on its way out. I’m not sure, like overtime, how much this kind of. A small cohort of Indian immigrants and their, their descendants are going to be in that space.

So if I don’t tell that story now, like what happens if in two generations or going to generation, like that’s not a community that’s there anymore? Like what happens to our story and what happens to that moment? It just felt like there were all these questions about whose stories are being told and for what purpose that made me sort of feel like, well, if I think that I, there’s a story I want to tell, and I have a purpose for telling it, I think the time is.

Big John Isner: That makes total sense that so I guess now that you mentioned kind of obviously the book that shall not be named the author that shall not be named. So in a way, I know that this is not what it’s meant to be, but in a way, it’s somewhat of a, another response to that book. From a perspective that we’ve not yet heard, is that essentially what you’re portraying here?

Like we haven’t, we haven’t really heard, we’ve heard from Appalachians. We know that, but we may not have heard from all Appalachians. 

Neema Avashia: I wouldn’t say it’s like a clap back in the sense of ongoing one for one with the ideas in that book. It’s not. But it is. And attempt, I think that word another is really important.

Right. And I think there are a lot of another’s. I think Silas House offers us another Appalachia, I think that Crystal Wilkinson offers us another Appalachia, I think Frank X. Walker offers us another Appalachia. Like I think the other is the most important thing. And it’s not like I’m saying I’m the only another I’m saying there are a whole bunch of us another’s out.

 And so when we’re, we’re looking at Appalachia and we’re thinking about who is Appalachian, who does this community entail? It entails the same people who live in all of the rest of the country. And that is not the kind of story that I feel like that particular book offers about Appalachia. 

Big John Isner: Yeah.

That’s the interesting thing is. I’m glad you keyed in on the word. You know, another, because if you start, if you look at all of the stories that we’re talking about right now, there is one that everybody can take a look at. Who’s actually from here and say, this is bullshit while all the other ones.

Have merit, like people are able to go, oh, this isn’t exactly my story, but I, I remember, you know, this was their uncle Joe, this was my neighbor, Jim, like, this is, you know, to this point, you know? So it’s, it’s interesting to hear that. I think that it does fit in and mesh really well with, I won’t call them competing stories, but just other stories, you know, from the real stories from the region.

 So I G I guess my next question would be. How different, or I guess maybe how difficult was it and it may not have been at all. How difficult was it to one, I guess, grow up with, in Appalachia with maybe different mindsets than some of the people around. I know that obviously. That’s hit or miss. How difficult was that and how difficult was it to write a book about it?

Well, I mean, was it pretty easy to come naturally, or was it difficult to sit down and think about this? 

Neema Avashia: Yeah. It wasn’t easy. I, I grew up on a really incredible street. I have, I feel like probably everyone in West Virginia feels this way about their neighbors, that I’m going to make a claim that my neighbors on Pamela circle were the best neighbors that any human being anywhere could have.

I’d fight people on that. At the best neighbors, they were incredible. They were so loving. They were home for my family in a way that like my blood relatives were 8,000 miles. My Pamela circle, neighbors who were all white, largely working-class folks. Like they were my family. So I had that, and that was my safe space.

And that was home school was a lot harder. You know, there were Confederate flags everywhere. People, I was six. The first time I got slapped and called the N-word like that stuff as it happened, it definitely happened. It happened a lot. I didn’t have anywhere to go to make sense. It didn’t have a lot of teachers of color.

It didn’t really feel like I could talk to my parents about it. Like, it was hard enough for them to navigate being immigrants in Appalachia for me to then go home and be like, oh, by the way, like here’s what’s happening to me at school. So I didn’t, so there was a lot of hard. There was a lot of hard around race.

There was a lot of heart around gender and like trying to figure out what, like what’s my gender identity was supposed to be in this space. I am an Indian girl. So like in terms of dating or desirability, like, I’m not really sure where I fit in all these paradigms. Like, what does this mean for me? You know there was a lot of like trying to make meaning of your identity in the absence of models.

That was hard. I’m a lot older now. And so I can sort of hold the hard imbalance with like a lot of, a lot of really loving people who just like the relationships I have from growing up. I still have, right. There are people who are still in my life and still so important to me. I think a lot of people who grow up in other places don’t have those kinds of relationships.

So I guess I sort of take it with like, you know, You keep the nectar, you throw away this thing a little bit. There was a lot of nectar that I feel like I was able to hold on to when it came to writing. I think some of the hardest things to write about weren’t the things that happened in the past. I think some of the hardest things to write about were actually the things that started to happen around the 2016 election, where people who had shown me and my family, a lot of love growing up, started to say things and do things and post things that were really painful.

 And like, I felt like they clearly couldn’t be seeing us, like, there’s no way that when they were posting, they were seeing how that was going to land on my brown queer immigrant body on my parents’ brown immigrant bodies. Like I knew they weren’t seeing us, but it was also really hard to be like, how can you not see us?

Like you, you saw us, you know, us, you know, the things this person is saying. That is, you know, phobic and hateful and homophobic. Like, you know, that we are all the things that you’re now posting negative comments about trying to parse. That was probably the hardest thing because like holding people who you’ve loved so deeply with like deep regard and also asking really hard questions about why they’re making the choices they’re making.

Writing my way through that I think was really, really difficult. And I tried so hard to like hold people with empathy the whole way through. But I feel like I will always like in my head be thinking like, did I, did I do enough to like, hold them with empathy as we like work through this really hard thing that I think is really familiar for a lot of folks.

 I don’t think I’m the only person who has had that experience of the sort of watching people you really care about. Start to have beliefs that you’re like, I don’t, I don’t understand where this is coming from. And I can guarantee that you forgot who I am. If you’re saying these things or you forgot our relationship a little bit, if you’re saying these things, I think that’s a very shared experience for a lot of folks. And it’s, I think was hard to write it while you’re also still trying to make sense of it. 

Chuck Corra: I’m glad you shared that story because I think it’s really helpful too, to hear that and to understand that for me, because we have so many people, so many listeners here are either people who’ve moved outside the region for one reason or another who still live in the region, particularly people who identify.

LGBTQ who are still to this day kind of struggling. Either it is maybe with family or just the environment that they live in Appalachia with people who aren’t accepting of just who they are. And I think like, you know, something we really try to do on this show is both pushed back against the stereotypes and show that like, these are problems that happen everywhere in the country, but it is still also a problem in Appalachia.

And I’m kind of curious. How do you approach your story in your approach? Like reconciling with that too, to tell your story, because you know, everybody’s epileptic story is different, but I feel like everybody’s stories are also pretty complex and it seems like you would have a pretty unique perspective.

Neema Avashia: Yeah. I mean, I, I feel like I definitely am not trying to tell anyone’s other story, that story other than my own, and like my own is even like narrower, more niche than. My friend, who’s also Indian who grew up in two blocks over from me, but like is straightened whatever, you know, like I’m clear that, like, I, I can only tell a story that like is really specific to like the set of intersections I grew up at, which may overlap with some other people’s intersections, but also may not.

What’s been kind of powerful for me is like, as I’ve written the essays in this, and as they’ve gotten published, it’s been really powerful to get messages from people being. I saw myself here in this essay and another person is like, well, I saw myself here and I saw myself here and it’s like, oh, if I’m writing at the, at the intersection of like six different identities and you see yourself at one of those, that’s still more in some cases for people than they’ve ever seen themselves in a piece of writing before.

Right. So that I think has been really powerful with. I don’t have to tell everybody’s story, but if I can be really honest about telling my story and all the different pieces of it, maybe you can see yourself in one of those pieces. Maybe you see yourself in those pieces. I like a woman tweeted at me like queer.

 They see a woman who grew up in West Virginia. She’s a lot younger than I am, but she’s like, I’ve never felt so seen as I just did in this like, piece of writing that you shared, right. Well, shoot, like, okay. Like it’s not all of your stories, but some pieces in there really hit for you. I think that’s all I’m going for.

Like, I want some pieces to hit for everybody or for, to hit for as many people as it can. And most importantly, I want. For the folks who are like sitting at the most marginalized of those intersections to maybe get a chance to see a little bit of themselves reflected and a story that they haven’t gotten to see before, where like the word Appalachian and the word they see, or Indian go beside each other and the word Appalachia and the word queer go beside each other and the word Appalachia, and then the word radical, like go beside each other.

We can put those words beside each other again and we can put two of them together or three of them together, and four of them together. All of them can still be held under the umbrella of Appalachia. Because I think even for people growing up in Appalachia like that’s not a word I always felt like I could claim.

 I w I born and raised in West Virginia and I was like, am I Appalachia? And actually, there’s a whole essay at the end of the book. That’s like, do I get to keep this? Like, can I claim this word? If my family is only here for a generation? And I think, yes, I think yes, but I think it is a thing that people struggle with.

If there’s one dominant definition of what Appalachia is and you don’t fit it or match it. I think a lot of the time people end up asking questions about themselves and like feeling like they’re the imposter, as opposed to asking a question about what, like maybe this definition is kind of broken and maybe we have to blow up the definition and, and expand it and allow for it to hold a broader set of identities than.

Popular culture or media or whoever is allowing it to currently hold. 

Chuck Corra: I love that. I love that term blowing up the definition of Appalachia. I think that is a fantastic way of putting it. Yeah, 

Big John Isner: that is really good. I do want to say though, you’re so you are hitting on points that you’re trying to portray because for instance, Technically on my mom’s side, I’m a first-generation Appalachian.

So I struggled with that too. Like for the longest time you know, I told people that, you know, well, my family’s from Connecticut, you know, and then that was really, I didn’t know if we actually claim it or not, you know, it was one of those things. So I totally relate to that. And I can relate to the fact that you know, you talk about your family being so far away.

We had zero families in West Virginia. So, you know, our neighbors became our family and it was, you know, it’s one of those things. So, I totally get where you’re laying down. That’s and that’s what I say, you know, going back to that book, the other book is you can look at that and say like, this is bullshit, but even if I mean, you and I.

Pretty far opposite ends of a spectrum, right? I’m a white guy, right? I’m I’m straight. Most of the time you think, oh, their stories would never match, but you know, right there, I’m talking about two of the, you know, huge points that you’re making and we do match up, we do match. And I think it’s because Appalachia is so unique that it has a lot of people who may not look the same, or it may not, may not identify this.

But their stories 10 to at least somewhat look similar. And I think that that’s always been the greatest part about Appalachia is like, there’s always been this unique, common sense, you know, between people, even if they don’t know it 

Neema Avashia: at the time. Yeah. I mean, I think since not living there, I feel like I have really been able to sort of clearly identify that.

The way that place shapes identity in Appalachia is something completely different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. As for me, places are important. A character in my book is any of the people are like, a place is a person in a book in a way. Growing up where I grew up is so much about who I am, the geography of where I grew up the context.

Like that’s a ton of my identity, as much as my relationships with individual people are that sort of boundedness to place, I think is a thing that a lot of people feel like that’s why you have like, things like Expatalachia. What other region of the country has a word to describe people who don’t live there anymore, but like have this profound sense of loss and nostalgia and connection to the place where they grew up.

Expatalachia – it is a thing because we are also bound to place and to people in ways that I think are really powerful and real. You know, as I think, I think there’s a lot, the rest of the country could learn from Appalachia in terms of like what it means to like, be in relationship with people and be in relationship with place.

 And I just don’t think that is the way Appalachia gets framed right now. Like I think I’ve logic has blamed. I don’t think I’ve left. You get seen as a teacher. And I actually feel like so much of who I am. I was taught by that place. That I think makes me so much better, like as a human in the world.

 And yeah, it seems just so unfortunate that people are missing out on what, what learning really there is to have. 

Chuck Corra: Yeah. I would completely agree with that. And I would say. If there, if you can point to like one good thing that came out of the book that shouldn’t be named it’s that it has spawned creativity from other people to provide their own stories and responses to it that have been some of the best books I’ve ever read and, and leaps and bounds better than that one.

I think, you know, the point you mentioned earlier, which is really true about how you didn’t know about any Appalachian authors and you never read about them in school. And I was thinking the same thing and wondering to myself, cause I don’t live in Appalachia anymore.

I didn’t have a good perspective on West Virginia and rejected being from that reject the identity. And I’m wondering, like, you know, had I had, I had the opportunity to read some of those books, like about, you know, Dr. Bill Turner growing up the center of a, of a black hole miner or, or your story or any, any of these other stories that come out of there that tells something different than what we’re being fed from like a mainstream media.

You know, I think generations of Appalachians may have more fondness and pride for it and willingness to invest more in it, making it even better. So I think about that a lot, especially when you mentioned that and so I hope that that, that becomes the case because I think stories like yours are extremely important to be told.

And on that, I know that we’ve touched on your book tangentially a little bit, but I did want to ask you a specific question about it, which is what was your favorite story or part of it that you wrote because I’m sure you had a lot of nostalgia kind of dialing back to, you know, growing up and, and sort of going through your history.

So it was like your first. 

Neema Avashia: My favorite essay and the book is one that’s called be like wilt. It was published in the bitter southerner a couple of years ago. It’s about my basketball coach from growing up. There were no girls basketball teams in the eighties in cross lanes. If you wanted to play ball, you were playing on a boy’s team.

So add that to the list of like other intersections but this amazing basketball coach named Carl Bradford. Picked me for his team when I was in fourth grade and he picked me every year for his team. And when I aged out of the league, he made me come back and be the assistant coach for his son’s basketball team.

 And I wrote an essay about how he convinced me to shoot granny style and a basketball game. So I could score my first basket that memory of just wanting so much to make a basket and not being able to do it the way the boys were doing it. And this culture was. It doesn’t just have to be one way like there’s another way you can do it and it’ll get you the same goal.

So just do it that way. It was my favorite story to write. He just was an incredible, incredible mentor in my life, and being able to kind of crystallize that story in more than just my head, I think is my favorite moment in the book. 

Big John Isner: Well, we love good basketball stories here. This is how sometimes they basketball podcast.

 If in a P you know, our listeners can tell you how great I was when I was a starting basketball player 

Chuck Corra: and sort of all my points, granny style. 

Neema Avashia: Exactly. Right. Have you, do you ever think you’d read an essay where we’ll Chamberlain, an Indian girl and you know, basketball at the Crosslands Methodist church?

Big John Isner: speaking of soul, I know it’s not published yet, but it is available for pre-order. Is that? 

Neema Avashia: Yes, it is. It’s available from pre-order straight from West Virginia university press or from any local independent bookstore shouts to Taylor books and Charleston.

And if that’s a, if that’s a place you feel like going, I always, always love going back there, but yes, it is available for pre-order and it’ll be out in March, March 1st, 2020. 

Chuck Corra: Awesome. I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m very excited about it. And I do you really appreciate you coming on and telling a little bit about your story about Appalachian you growing up there because I think that we need more people like you telling their stories to that so that people will listen to this show, or also just people who want to know more about Appalachia, get a full picture of what another Appalachia than the one you may realize or may think about.

Looks like. So I really appreciate you sharing that and coming on.

Neema Avashia: Thank you both for having me. And I’m going to put in a quick plug, but I think we should make another Appalachia t-shirt for the collection. So she’s just going to throw that out there as an idea. 

Chuck Corra: I like it. I like it a lot. Cool. Thanks so much.

Appodlachia is a product of 18 Husky. The show is produced by Chuck Cora. None of the views expressed on this show are a reflection of the views of either Chuck or big John’s employers and never will it ever be.

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