Books

Q&A: Neema Avashia on her book ‘Another Appalachia’

“I really want readers outside of Appalachia to have more empathy and proximity to people whose lives they're actually deeply connected to, but they don’t even know it.”

Neema Avashia
Neema Avashia. Provided

Writing a book about growing up queer and Indian in Appalachia, Neema Avashia wasn’t sure how broad of an appeal her story and reflections on her experiences would have. 

But since her work, “Another Appalachia,” published in March, the Boston Public Schools civics teacher said she’s received an “incredible” response, from people both inside and outside the region she thinks of as home. 

The book of essays was a nonfiction finalist for the 2022 New England Book Awards.  

“There’s been a level of support for the book and visibility for the book and appreciation for the ideas in the book that crosses that border between Appalachia and the rest of the United States in a way that’s been really lovely,” Avashia said. 

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Below, Avashia shares more with Boston.com about her essay collection, what she hopes readers will take away from it, and how she hopes her story will interrupt stereotypes those outside of Appalachia have about the region. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Boston.com: Can you talk about how you ended up with this structure of individual essays, rather than a typical memoir narrative? Why did that feel right for you? 

Neema Avashia: I feel like with memoirs often there’s an expectation of a much higher level of cohesion. That there’s an arc that the writer is going to be able to take you through over the course of the book, and that in some ways, they sort of figure out the answer to a question by the end of a book. And I just think in my life, that’s not me. 

I feel like I never have answers; I always feel like I have questions. And so I think the essay is a form that is very well suited to the way I think. The way I answer those questions today and the way I would have answered them 10 years ago and the way I might answer them 10 years from now might all be different from one another. And that’s OK. There’s sort of the permission to evolve in your thinking that is inherent in an essay. Even within an essay, from beginning to end, you’re allowed to evolve in your thinking. That is just more suited to how I continue to make meaning of this experience of growing up in Appalachia and now living away. 

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Because it’s also still in progress. This isn’t a thing in my life that’s done. … So I think in a memoir, this would feel like this was a chapter that had closed. And I think it’s an open chapter for me. 

Throughout the book, you grapple with the complexities or layers of what it means to have grown up queer and Indian in West Virginia. But at the heart of the story, what really jumped out to me is there is this undeniable or unshakable love for your home, for your home state, and for the community that became family there. Almost like the love is simple, but there are these complex dynamics nested around it. 

How did you tackle balancing and sharing those two aspects of your experience in telling your story?

I think part of what I was really conscious of when I was writing is the external perceptions of Appalachia, which are often super flat and super stereotyped. People in Appalachia don’t get a lot of grace from mainstream publishing, from media representation. It is very hard to feel like you’re getting the full level of nuance that actually exists in the region. 

So that was one of my big drivers when I was writing. I can show you complexity, but I can hold that complexity from a place of love. That’s possible. People can have hard beliefs — and we all have this in our lives I think more and more now. I don’t think it’s just people in Appalachia who are struggling with what the political ideas are of people who live around them. That is a pretty common experience at this point; we’re pretty polarized as a country. And I think that polarization doesn’t serve any of us. 

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So [I was] trying to model what it looks like to hold people with love, even when you don’t agree with them. Or to hold people with love even when you have questions. That it’s not so clear as, ‘OK, I don’t agree with you so I don’t love you anymore.’  

I feel like that’s a really important stance to model in this time. I think that we are losing that ability as a country to see people as more than what they post on social media or as more than who they voted for. People have really gotten reduced and flattened. I think the pandemic really intensified that in some ways because you weren’t actually even seeing people. You were just seeing their online presence or seeing this really flat representation of them. 

So that ability to hold people in their full humanity, like you said, it’s simple. But love is actually really messy and love is hard. And really, when you love people, you don’t not love them because they’re flawed. You love them with their flaws. You acknowledge their flaws. And you say, ‘Yeah, these things are true about them and also here’s this other stuff about them that I really appreciate and care about in them.’ 

So I think that was my hope. To say that place is actually the place I think we need to get to. Of holding all of the things about somebody together and figuring out — what does it mean to love someone even when you don’t agree with them? 

Do you know if Mr. B read your book? Have you gotten a response from him or any of your other neighbors from Pamela Circle since the book published?

I have gotten a response from some of my neighbors. Two of my neighbors were at my reading [in October] in West Virginia. And other neighbors along the way have reached out. 

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I haven’t heard from Mr. B about the book. 

I think part of the calculus that I was doing here was thinking about some really complex personal relationships here that are also mirrors for the complex relationships many of us have and weren’t a thing that I saw people talking about. I think those questions of what do we do when people’s politics end up so far from our own? It’s a pretty universal experience, but it’s not one I was seeing people grapple with in creative nonfiction. And so it felt like, ‘OK, this is a space where this is going to be hard and this is going to test an individual relationship.’ But it’s actually a conversation I think we need to be having nationally. 

Do you have a favorite essay in the book?

I do. I have two. One of my favorites is “Nine Forms of the Goddess.” … I really loved just the ability to honor those women. My other favorite essay is “Be like Wilt.” Both of those essays — having the ability to make space to honor people who just played such a huge role in shaping me has felt really lovely.

I think it’s felt lovely for them. Mr. Bradford’s family has been to a bunch of my readings. I think it really has been meaningful for them to see their dad reflected on the page in that way. 

I get people reaching out to me …  someone who grew up in the same community I did but was younger than I was, sent me a message and was like, ‘I love recognizing these aunties and seeing them in the book and how you described them was really beautiful.’ So I think visibly being able to honor people is a really lovely thing. That makes those my two favorite essays.

Was there an essay that was most challenging to write? Why?

I think “Chemical Bonds” for me is the hardest essay in the book. I knew even when I was little that my family’s relationship to chemicals was different, or that there was something weird about it, something strange and complicated about it. I knew that from when I was really young, but I didn’t know what that essay was about. 

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One of the very early drafts of that essay was like a chemical catalog that was all about the different chemicals that were in our house all the time in these different ways and the ways they were being used and how strange it was to grow up with such comfort and familiarity with chemicals. 

And that’s not what that essay is about. It took me a long time to figure out what that essay was about, which is that it’s really about my relationship to work and my dad’s relationship to work and how those relationships are different because of our different levels of privilege. That my dad didn’t have a safety net, so he wasn’t making choices. He was just constantly doing because he had to. Because he was the safety net for the rest of us. 

Whereas I, because of the safety net he built, I can take different risks, I can ask different  questions, can push in different ways because I know I have a safety net under me. 

Figuring out that that was actually what the essay was about took a really long time. It took like 20 drafts to be like, wait a minute, what is this really about? Yes, Bhopal is this huge industrial disaster. But this essay isn’t really about Bhopal. … It’s about choice and how choices can be circumscribed depending how much risk you’re able to take. 

What do you hope people picking up your book for the first time take away from it? 

It’s different depending on who the reader is. For readers inside Appalachia, really a big goal is that they see themselves mirrored. That they can see themselves in the book and they can see places they love and questions that they have reflected on the pages. 

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For people outside of Appalachia, part of what I really hope happens is that their stereotypes get interrupted. And I actually think that even if you don’t go further than just looking at the cover of the book, that’s kind of going to happen. Because my Indian family standing in front of a grist mill is not what anyone is imagining when they think about Appalachia. 

I think that because people don’t have a good understanding of Appalachia, they don’t often think about how our choices in New England impact people in Appalachia. Like, where is the source of our electricity, where is our power coming from? All that coal is being mined somewhere else. And the people where that coal is being mined are deeply affected by the environmental conditions around them. But we don’t have to think about it here. We hit the light switch, and we don’t think about where the power comes from. So I really want readers outside of Appalachia to have more empathy and proximity to people whose lives they’re actually deeply connected to, but they don’t even know it. 

As an educator, what do you hope your students or young people could gain from reading your story and your experiences?

There was this amazing professor named Rudine Sims Bishop, and she talks about how books can be mirrors, windows, or sliding doors. And when I was growing up, I didn’t have mirrors. There was no book that I could pick up and be like, ‘Oh, I’m in this book.’ I would try to make mirrors for myself. I would pretend that I was Jo March or pretend that I was the X-Men or try to find, how are we similar to each other? I was looking for them. But there wasn’t actually a mirror. 

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I think it makes it a lot harder to figure out who you are when you can’t find yourself in the world around you, when you’re not represented on the pages of books, when you’re not on the screen. You really just feel like you’re by yourself. There’s no map. There’s no path that’s in front of you; you’re just kind of blindly trying to figure it out. 

I think that, in writing this book, I hoped to make a mirror. For queer Appalachian kids, for brown kids, for queer, brown Appalachian kids. Whatever intersections you’re sitting at, I wanted kids to be able to see themselves and be like, ‘Oh, this is a mirror that didn’t exist for me before, but now there is one.’

And that has definitely been the response I’ve gotten from young people who I’ve talked to. There are a set of questions that they’re seeing reflected in this book that helped them navigate the questions that they have in their own lives. 

How did you settle on the title, ‘Another Appalachia’?

It wasn’t the original title. The original title, because I’m a very petty person, was ‘A Hindu Hillbilly Elegy,’ which is also still the title of two essays in the collection because I couldn’t let it go. Because there is a way in which I want this book to push on ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ I mean, it’s not the same kind of book, and it’s not going to be on The New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks, and that’s fine. 

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But I think there is this idea of counter narrative that I was trying to surface. My very, very wise editor was like, ‘We’re not going to call your book that. You need to let your book stand in its own right.’ And he was right. And so then it was a question of, ‘OK, well, what is a title that’s going to get at what this book is about?’

And the word ‘another’ became really important because that’s kind of the point, right? The point is there shouldn’t be one book that people hold up as a definitive explanation of any place or any people. But that is what happened with ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ I lived here when that book came out, and I watched people up here scoop up that book and be like, ‘Now I understand.’ 

I am just inherently opposed to the idea of definitive texts that say, ‘We can tell you everything you need to know about this place.’ And so ‘another’ doesn’t mean this is now the definitive text. ‘Another’ means there are a whole bunch. This is one. But there are so many other stories also in this place, and no one book should be held up as the definer.

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