I grew up in South Africa with a particular idea of what America was. What kind of a place, what kind of people. The U.S. for me—as for countless others living in far-flung places across the globe raised on a steady diet of American culture—was almost more familiar to me than my own country.
It was the place of my favorite books and TV shows and movies, my comic books and the woefully out-of-date Teen magazines my sister and I bought, cheap and in bulk, from the newsagents. South Africa didn’t get television until 1976, and it was largely primitive when I was a teenager. Mercifully, we had Beverly Hills 90210, shown on TV with the original voices dubbed in Afrikaans (Luke Perry was only lightly less of a heartthrob with an Afrikaans accent). The original English-language soundtrack was broadcast over the radio, and I would tune in religiously, ignoring the poor syncing, and reveling in this weekly dose of American high school students who looked like grown-ups and drove convertibles to class.
My idea of the U.S. was, in the ’80s and ’90s, predominantly white, a prosperous America of happy families and sparkling suburbs and incongruously perfect teeth. An America where people loved their country in ways that, to me, seemed deeply unfamiliar and strange: standing to pledge allegiance every morning, hanging flags outside their front doors. In apartheid South Africa, there wasn’t much to be patriotic about. When I went abroad for the first time at 14, my parents told my sister and me in hushed voices that if anyone asked, we were to say we were Australian.
“But why?” I said.
“Because the rest of the world hates us,” was the reply.
Growing up under apartheid is another story for another time, but the point is, here was another way that Americans were different. Americans had reasons to be proud, to feel superior. Because they were, weren’t they?
In the years between that first trip and my first visit to the U.S., I had American friends and an American boyfriend. For my master’s degree, I majored in American Studies, a whole course of study just for America. Our professor was enamored with the country and to each class, she wore a different tourist t-shirt bought on her travels in the U.S.; one for every state. Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri. We laughed sometimes at these faded old shirts, but she was passionate about America’s mythology—and I became all the more fascinated by what it meant to be an American, and how those founding myths still dominated an entire nation’s concept of itself.
I was at the American Embassy in Cape Town on the morning of 9/11, trying to get a tourist visa for a visit. By the time I got back home, the first plane had hit the World Trade Center. I never went on that trip, and I didn’t visit the country until I was in my 30s. By then, it was 2015. A lot of things had changed, in America and the wider world, but seeing New York for the first time still felt like a homecoming of sorts: It looked and smelled and sounded just like I had always known it would. So, it was easy, for the most part, to continue thinking about the country in those old ways. Big and bold, the land of dreams and personal freedom and boundless possibilities. The greatest nation in the world, and the only one that dared to call itself that. Around New York City, I visited the icons of American greatness: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the newly constructed Oculus, rising up against the skyline, a vision of the triumph over evil.
In 2017, I had an idea for my second novel, All the Lost Things, and I set off for another trip to the States to conduct my research. The novel unfolds during a father and daughter road trip, from Queens to Texas, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what my characters would encounter along the way. The people and places, the motels and strip malls and road signs. A story of failed dreams, All The Lost Things details a family breaking apart, two sides unable to reconcile and driven into chaos. It seemed to me like a particularly American story: The United States is so imagined to be a place where dreams come true; where fortunes are made; where if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, success is virtually guaranteed. Only it’s not, of course. And America is rife with countless people whose dreams will never come true for reasons that have nothing to do with how hard they work. In All The Lost Things, the young protagonist, Dolly, uses fantasy and imagination as a means of survival but also as a retreat from truth—and this too, seemed to me to be a particularly American strategy.
In New York, where I started the trip, friends made faces at the mention of the places I planned to visit.
“Flyover states,” they said.
But they asked for pictures, because these were parts of the country they’d never seen, and likely never would. This was April 2017, a few months into Donald Trump’s presidency. In retrospect, they seem like the golden days, before Charlottesville and children in cages and ever more restrictive abortion rights. But already then, there was a sense that some irrevocable shift had occurred. Not just the election of a reality TV president with a distaste for truth, but the stark revelation that there existed not one America, but two, and that each had a vastly different notion of what the country was or ought to be.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to see as I travelled through Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi over the course of a few weeks, driving on the interstate and back roads, stopping in towns along the way. It wasn’t a comprehensive visit by any means, but it was certainly a window into another side of America.
I didn’t imagine that the country would be as vast as it is or, in so many places, as beautiful. Staggeringly beautiful: the mountains, the wide open space, the endless sky.
I also didn’t imagine that so many parts of the country would be so poor, so derelict, so empty, like a vision of some post-apocalyptic world. In parts of all the states I visited, there were signs of loss. Factories shut, main streets with boarded-up storefronts, Walmart’s about to close. There were schools without children, overturned train carriages without passengers. There were homes, crumbling and broken, not the homes of the TV shows of my childhood, but ones that spoke of unimaginable and unfathomable poverty. Here, in America of all places.
Other things, too, seemed to signpost all the ways the country contains more than one version of itself. At times, it was like playing the opposites game. All the things that divide Americans most—gun control, abortion, race, religion, the economy, and of course, Trump—were literally signposted along the way. ABORTION IS MURDER bumper stickers, billboards advertising gun stores and shooting ranges, old Trump for President banners and Truckers for Trump stickers and Bikers for Trump motorcycle jackets. Churches, more than I’ve ever seen in my life, and confederate flags staked—in many parts—in front of almost every home. Sometimes beside an American flag, but mostly not.
GOD BLESS AMERICA, illuminated signs declared; GOD IS WATCHING.
In Louisiana, in the basement of an art gallery, there was a small exhibition on the prison industrial complex. It described how prisoners in that state, the majority of them African Americans, are sent to pick cotton in the fields. Later, in Tennessee, I went to see one of the old plantations. White retirees toured around the grounds on Segways, and there was a wedding being set up in the old barn for later that evening.
In a bar in Nashville, two pretty blonde singers paused between their set. “We thank God for President Trump,” they said, and everyone applauded. At Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, crowds rode rollercoasters as old-timey bluegrass played over the speakers, and in the gift store, t-shirts emblazoned with the American eagle implored: Be an eagle not a chicken!
Along the way, the people I met were friendly sometimes, and other times not. I had the impression that some were tired of outsiders passing through, casting judgment on their lives and choices. Hillbilly Elegy was a national bestseller; the Alabama-set S-Town was the podcast everyone was binge listening. Neither painted a great picture of these parts.
Almost no one I met had only one job. Almost everyone was smart and hard-working and kind. Resilient, too. Single mothers working three different jobs. Uber drivers in New Orleans still waiting for homes after Hurricane Katrina.
A lot of people appeared to be deeply unwell, in ways you don’t see in places where healthcare is free and the social net wide. I saw evidence of the opioid crisis, the obesity epidemic, mothers who looked like children themselves. A family meal at McDonald’s cost next to nothing; a single salad and a piece of fish at Whole Foods cost $50.
In spite of the country’s many problems, most of the people I spoke with still viewed America as the greatest place on Earth. All of them believed that the dream was within reach. Almost relentlessly so. Ruthlessly so.
And maybe that is the essential truth about America: there’s no giving up on it. There is always the possibility of reinvention and rebirth, renewal and change, better times and a brighter future. It is the very Americanness of America—the ability to imagine a nation so great that it stands as a beacon to all others. It’s a marvelous notion, and it may have enabled greatness, at home and abroad. But there is always a fine line between telling ourselves the stories we want to believe and deluding ourselves to the point of dangerous ignorance.
My trip ended in Los Angeles, in the newly renovated home of a woman I’d met years earlier at an artist’s residency. Perched high above Silver Lake, her beautiful mid-century home was purchased with money inherited from her grandfather’s generous estate. He had made his money in timber, or sugar, or one of the other stalwarts of America’s post-war economic expansion. His was a classic tale of the self-made man: Raised in a small Midwestern town, he had risen up from rural poverty to make his fortune—enough of a fortune to last three generations and counting. His descendants didn’t have to worry about affording health insurance and mortgages and college tuition; theirs was to be a story of plenty and privilege.
We ate dinner dwarfed by two larger-than-life portraits of my friend’s grandfather and his wife, who gazed down upon us, triumphant and grand: American winners. In the distance, the Hollywood sign flickered, that other eternal beacon of light and another symbol of a quintessentially American dream, promising that everything you want is just on the horizon.
Image credit: Unsplash/Victor Lozano.
Asher looked up at all those stars again. It wasn’t right for such a sky to be shining above them when so many people had lost so much. But the sky doesn’t pay a bit of attention to the things that happen to us, the joys or the sorrows, either one.” –Silas House, Southernmost
I ordered the sweatshirt—the navy with bright yellow lettering—from Kin Ship Goods, the offbeat apparel store in Charleston. “West Virginia vs. The World.” I suppose I didn’t really need a new sweatshirt, although I felt compelled to get this specific one. Kin Ship only sells super soft sweatshirts and tees, with a whole line of WV-themed clothing. One place of several that feels uniquely our own.
Our. Possessive. The language of belonging to others, to someplace, even if that someplace tends to be a much-maligned and misunderstood corner of the world. That’s what it means, many times, to be from Appalachia. As the only state wholly contained within Appalachia, “West Virginia vs. The World” indeed. I attempted to, in an almost literal way, wear my heart on my sleeve, except the wording on my sweatshirt stretches over my entire torso. You can’t miss it.
In his novel Southernmost, Silas House begins with a flood biblical enough for a small borough of East Tennessee and its preacher, Asher Sharpe. “The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness for two days, and the waters rose all at once in the middle of the night …” As the waters rise, Asher tends to his soggy, wiped-out flock. Reading about the flood in House’s novel reminded me of two summers past, when, away for some training in New York City, I awoke to the morning news showing Joe Manchin III, a senator from my state, outside Clendenin, West Virginia, which, like many other places in the state, suffered severe flooding. Rains came down in such quantity and force that the creeks and streams and rivers swelled into every available hollow. From Clendenin, the cameras panned to images of Richwood, also flooded, a river through the local library, where, somehow, the library’s orange cat had been saved.
Meanwhile, Manhattan’s sun was bright, baking the flat grid of pavement below my feet.
The land in Appalachia rises and dips so close, so hemmed in, that if it rains hard enough, there’s nowhere for it all to go. “This one feels like judgement,” House writes of the flood that overtakes Asher’s little town. Reading it, I recognize that nugget, as true for the novel’s slice of Appalachia as it is my own.
Steve Almond believes in stories: “Stories don’t fall from the clouds, after all. They are invented and refined and promoted by particular narrators with particular agendas.” Almond explores what stories can do and explores darker aspect of stories through the lens of the 2016 election in Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Just as stories have the potential to lift us up, they can also instill within us rather toxic beliefs. As “the basic unit of human consciousness,” Almond implores us to understand the underlying meaning behind the stories we tell ourselves as we struggle to make meaning in our lives and from that which swirls around us. Modern life proliferates stories with increased velocity, which makes pausing on them, let along parsing them, a particular challenge. “The stories we tell and the ones we absorb are what allows us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience,” writes Almond. “Only through the patient interrogation of these stories can we begin to understand where we are and how we got there.”
Problem is, we don’t live in a time where patience is the virtue it once was. Instead, we live in a time when the patience of which Almond speaks feels particularly undervalued, where instead, speed and sensationalism reign. Our politicians tell us we’re done reading books, favoring squawking television sets. Culturally, we prize that which grabs our fleeting attention spans. This, of course, makes the exercise of painstakingly parsing stories even more important. Can we truly value stories if we casually consume them, and can we find their flaws without painstaking investigation? We careen through unexamined lives, more concerned with the idea of protecting ourselves than submitting to more difficult, more examined, and ultimately more satisfying existence.
When Elizabeth Catte read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, she unpacked many troubling stories relating to her home region, Appalachia. One might say she harnessed her anger at J.D. Vance’s one-voiced, sloppy, and self-serving narrative through the salve of her own meticulous research and impassioned prose. In considering the book, Vance’s title is instructive; he considers the story of his experiences and his family indicative of an entire culture, as if the whole of Appalachia as well as Rust Belt Ohio (which he often conflates with Appalachia) should be viewed through his and only his point of view. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that a 400-plus-county region extending across many states probably has more cultural nuance than a single man’s story, and in her slender but intellectually hefty book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte identifies Elegy as one of many “bad stories” to be debunked.
When her unwavering eye is trained on Vance’s book, Catte pulls apart his flimsy arguments much the same way Steve Almond confronts other bad stories: by seeing how the narrator constructs narrative to serve an agenda. Catte unpacks narrator J.D. Vance by showing us how he wants us to read him: “He is simply an individual burdened with the dual identity of both cosmopolitan elite and hillbilly everyman, performing what he calls his ‘civic responsibility’ to contribute his talent and energy to solving social problems.” She identifies a crafted persona and cautions against his agenda: “Perhaps it is wise to consider if this humility is just a strategy.” We should beware Vance’s humblebrag lest we miss the manipulation he pulls us through, his personal pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-type memoir as the only way to “save” a region. Vance ignores any other viewpoint than his own; Catte rightfully takes Vance’s case study of one to task, unmasking the personal myth with which he underpins the entire book, and challenges its claims to cultural ethos. In this way, Hillbilly Elegy is best-seller and a bad story.
In a similar way, Catte pulls apart another “bad story” from the region, one she calls “Trump Country” pieces, journalism that privileges outside writers-as-experts on Appalachia to explain Donald Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate and later the support of his presidency. “Trump Country pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” she writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 15 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions only intelligent outsider observers could act on.” She articulates this bad story which emanates from Appalachia by using the Almond formula of seeing what particular narrators and particular agendas invent, refine, and promote. It becomes far easier to blame the working class and the poor voters in Appalachia for Trump than other, more genteel-seeming places for the Trump phenomenon, despite the impossible math. Take West Virginia, for instance. We only have five electoral votes.
J.D. Vance, while not specifically writing Elegy as a “Trump Country” piece, has fashioned himself into a news-segment Trump Country whisperer, manipulating his persona as hillbilly insider and intellectual outsider (as if Appalachia couldn’t have intellectuals inside its borders) as a clever tactic to get rich. All the while, Vance continues to improve his own position without complicating the narrative within existing “Trump Country” pieces. He is, as Catte describes, “a well-educated person with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for the region,” and he’s telling America the story it wants to hear.
When I read Elegy, it struck a pervasive false note, the same way Trump Country pieces magnify only the small part of the region necessary to tell the author’s prefabricated story without looking for intricacies that would complicate a narrative or challenging easy notions that might exist. For instance, when a reporter writing a Trump Country piece for Vanity Fair came to Morgantown, he failed to report on the patrons at the local coffee house The Blue Moose, where one might find West Virginia University professors grabbing morning coffee, or students writing everything from poems to doctoral dissertations, or business colleagues meeting up. A place like The Blue Moose might reveal an interesting range of opinions and impressions rather than just supporting the bad story that’s become an accepted one. The author doesn’t cite anyone from the university, the state’s flagship land-grant institution, a Research 1 university, where he could have talked to experts in regional history and politics. Instead, this writer chooses the seedy Blue Parrot, a local club that boldly advertises “all nude” dancers on its marquee. As you might imagine, he finds the source he’s looking for: a gun-toting Trump supporter who, for the purposes of the Vanity Fair article, becomes representative of my little corner of Appalachia. To show a potential dichotomy of views could have proven intellectually and culturally valuable. To seek only the one view that fit a prevailing outsider narrative reveals manipulation, a sign of a bad story. The Vanity Fair article came out before the West Virginia primary, where Trump did win the Republican bid, and where Bernie Sanders carried each of the state’s 55 counties, a fact often missed, or conveniently omitted, in reporting about our region. I would never argue that Trump didn’t enjoy support here, but he wasn’t the only candidate that did.
Steve Almond writes in Bad Stories that “so long as our free press operates as a for-profit enterprise, its managers are duty-bound to sell whatever we’re willing to buy.” Reading this reminds me of all the Trump Country pieces I’d read in national publications about West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Trump Country pieces were what those other Americans were willing to buy. The story of the region, its role as the “other America,” is preserved in these stories. Even as the historic teachers’ strike happened, the reporters had their agendas for poverty porn. And this extends beyond journalism, to book publishing, television, and film. What continues to perplex me is why so many people are so willing to buy into this one narrative without any curiosity. Good stories often force us to reexamine our preconceived ideas. They open us through more plurality of perspectives, or surprise us with what lies beneath the surface. The typical Appalachian story unfolds to the taste of those outside our borders.
Asher Sharpe, at a crossroads when we meet him in Southernmost, changes from judgmental preacher to judged man. Raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother, he’s grown up to be a preacher according to her narrow understanding of scripture and doctrine. His mother, so steadfast in her beliefs, runs her other son, Luke, out of town by putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill him to put him out of his misery. Luke had just come out to her and Asher as a gay man. Asher says and does nothing, and it’s the nothingness of his response that haunts him later. At the story’s beginning, Asher is married to Lydia, a woman born and bred to be a preacher’s wife. In the aftermath of the flood, Lydia refuses shelter to two gay men—two gay men who helped saved Justin, her own son, from rising flood waters. The men’s home has been destroyed and they have nowhere to go. Asher does not contradict his wife, but he feels shame at her behavior and at his own cowardice. He can’t see her in quite the same way anymore. “She had grown afraid of everything,” writes House. Perhaps Asher is losing fear as he recognizes it in her.
Lydia’s litany of anti-gay beliefs, “We have to stand up for what’s right,” or some version of it, is parroted by most of Asher’s congregation. They feel their position is a moral one ordained by God.
Using the imaginative power of fiction, Silas House dares to imagine a straight, Appalachian preacher going through a significant change of heart on an entrenched issue in his faith community. House belongs to both the LGBTQ and Appalachian communities—born in the region, living and writing in Eastern Kentucky. Southernmost confronts the tensions of these two communities, and it does so through the eyes of the least likely character. It is the magic alchemy of fiction writing—and fiction reading—which allows us entree not just into what is but what could be. This, perhaps, feels most significant about Southernmost. In a novel, unlike in memoir, we can see the world how it could be. Where J.D. Vance tries to imprint his own experience on others, Silas House invites us to imagine what actually changes a person’s beliefs. House explores what makes people change and grow through Asher.
Against the idea of faith used as judgement, Asher confronts his flock: “He plucked his Bible up from the pulpit and held it in the air. ‘You can use the Word to judge and condemn people or you can use it to love them.’” Later, Asher sees his own role in the judgment he saw in in his church: “He thinks about the man he had been, just a couple years ago. Judging and preaching and telling others how to live, filled up with the weight of thinking he knew what God wanted.” Some characters change. Asher Sharpe converts to a whole new mode of understanding.
Reading House’s novel, I began to understand Asher’s journey, in part, as the unraveling of a bad story, one deeply entrenched but not impossible to pull apart to find a new, better understanding. And in fact, Asher articulates the magic that reading does: “For most of his life Asher had devoted all his reading to the Bible, of course. That had been expected of him, to read the Bible and nothing else. His congregation had hired him because he had not been to seminary. Only recently had he realized the way books could give a person wings.” Being inculcated with only one set of stories—in Asher’s case only reading the Bible—narrows the view. But by embracing how stories help grow our understanding, he imagines them as wings—that which allow a body to soar.
Steve Almond asks of us, “What happens when we treat hope as a sucker’s game?”
House gives us gives us a sideways answer: “When people lift their voices at the same time, when they join together to pray, God pauses.”
For Elizabeth Catte, it’s about recognizing what’s in front of us to notice: “Appalachia’s images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom.”
Even problematic books increase our understanding. While I did not enjoy nor agree with Hillbilly Elegy, it opened my eyes to a narrative of the region I call home. It’s one I don’t always want to see or confront. I felt I was being duped. Despite lacking in the artfulness I admire and seek out in the books I read, the let-me-tell-you posturing behind the story struck me as a snake-oil-salesman tactic. But I cannot ignore that this story exists and that it speaks to others.
I believe the books we’ve previously read can influence the books we come to read. An impression of Elegy comes from my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not in style, of course, but by the “invented” quality of the character Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has fashioned himself into the man he believes will win over his beloved Daisy—a prize, it’s important to note, not worth winning. Gatsby commits himself fully to his own myth making. While lacking in the charm and better qualities of the fictitious Gatsby, JD Vance channels the powerful force of mythmaking, crafting himself through story into a one-of-a-kind hybrid of Appalachian country boy and Yale-educated cultural elite. With just enough truth in each, he stakes his claim through persona and story, as invented as James Gatz into The Great Gatsby.
He ultimately fails because for his narrator to work, I recognize that my own story and voice would have to be silenced. It goes back to his subtitle, which says his story is the story of a culture in crisis. He takes the mantle only for himself. There’s no room in Vance’s narrative for an educated woman of Appalachian roots to return to the region and to carve out a life where she hopes to help others. My way, I suppose, is both too simple and less best-seller-worthy. It does have two benefits: authenticity and honesty. I live and work in Appalachia, and I have deep family roots here. My story is one of many stories that make up this place. I continue to read Appalachian writers and stories of this region because place shapes people. I yearn to better understand this place that shapes me. I hope to make a positive mark on it.
One of the things I liked best about Southernmost is that Asher Sharpe and other characters are people I could know. Eastern Tennessee is not West Virginia—we share some cultural overlap, and we also have our particulars and peculiarities, as different parts of a whole. However, House’s description of the tight community, the landscape, and the slow-changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people struck a chord of recognition as I read. Soon after the book’s release, many writers and readers of Appalachian literature began talking about the significance of Southernmost. Often, the praise for the novel includes the adjectives “brave” and “important.” The book was not reviewed in The New York Times despite House’s good literary reputation and the articles about Kentucky—particularly Appalachian Kentucky—he’s written for the Times’s op-ed section. House continues to support other writers from Appalachia and to speak from the heart about the region’s struggles as well as its splendor.
If Almond shows us how to parse bad stories, which perhaps leads us to recognize good stories, and Silas House serves as example of the importance of region, story, change, and growth, then Elizabeth Catte reminds us that stories are about power. She issues a directive to Appalachians to “write about your people as an act of power.” If not, stories will end up in the hands of those who might craft them into just the kind of bad stories Almond also warns us of. Catte implores us to write about our people to establish our own ethos and to overcome the source of bad stories about Appalachia:
It reflects how credibility falls easily to those given the privilege of defining who or what Appalachian is. It also shows the rewards that fall to individuals, universally men and exclusively white, regardless of the company they keep. It is the power to grant yourself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects. It is the power to have your work selected as emblematic of a cultural moment by individuals and organizations that didn’t care one iota about Appalachia until their gaze could fill the region with pathologies.
“People believe what they need to believe,” writes Almond. “Our stories about the world arise from the panic of our inner lives. Beneath our lesser defenses—the swirling rage and paranoia and indifference—are human beings somehow in pain.” In two very different ways, Silas House and Elizabeth Catte channel that pain. It’s in these stories that we learn how we might change a narrative’s trajectory for the better. Not in the easy, Pollyanna-ish ways of sloganeering and whitewashing, but in the harder way of living through the difficulties of our lives and crafting authentic stories from experience: what people might mean when they say they “speak truth to power.”
When we write or when we otherwise imprint our stories into the collective narrative we might call culture, we can choose acceptance and equality and authenticity. We can choose hard-earned redemption. While we can’t flee the past, we can imagine beyond it. We can imagine joy, even through the grim. There is a way, even, to rescue that most tenuous of feelings—hope. The stars above may be indifferent to our plights. We do not have to be like the stars. We have the ability to open books.
Image credit: Pexels/eberhard grossgasteiger.