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Indian-American author Neema Avashia on her book ‘Another Appalachia’ and growing up queer and Hindu in W. Virginia

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Neema Avashia
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The author and her family in West Virginia.

In the 1970s, Indian-American author Neema Avashia’s parents moved to West Virginia and became one of seven Indian immigrant families in the neighborhood. Avashia, a queer and Hindu kid, stood out among her white peers, but her family soon became a beloved member of the Appalachian community.

But Avashia, who is now a civics teacher at Boston Public Schools, felt her story of growing up in Appalachia wasn’t reflected in mainstream narratives around the region.

As J.D. Vance’s lens of Appalachia in his book "Hillbilly Elegy" grew more popular, she wanted to provide an antithesis to a singular white male look at the region. And she did, with her memoir "Another Appalachia" that’s a love letter to her home just as much as it is an exploration of her identity and inner conflicts.

Avashia talked about what frustrates her about popular writing around Appalachia, growing up queer in a precarious time and place, and how moving away helped her gain perspective on her Appalachian identity.

You can buy "Another Appalachia" at the West Virginia University Press’ bookstore. It’s also available to borrow at the Louisville Public Library.

KARTHIKEYAN: Thank you so much for your time Neema. We've had a lot of literature that gives you a sense of different experiences of Appalachians from authors like bell hooks, Crystal Wilkinson, Silas House, and you grew up queer and Indian and Hindu in West Virginia. What narratives about Appalachia that you were seeing out there didn't speak to you or many other people's experiences?

AVASHIA: So the main narrative that I was seeing were ones that really sort of showed Appalachia as white, as straight, as Christian, as male, in many ways. J.D. Vance's book, "Hillbilly Elegy," when it came out in 2015 very much cemented that narrative, I think. And I don't see anyone I know here anywhere.

So what does it mean that the book everyone is holding up as definitive doesn't include stories of immigrants in Appalachia, doesn't include Black people, doesn't include just so many other people who were in my world? They just weren't visible there. For us to get to a place where Appalachian people are centered in policy, we have to be able to move away from these stereotypes. These stereotypes really dehumanize people. And it makes it really easy to ignore people when they're not being treated as fully human.

KARTHIKEYAN: I want to hear more about growing up queer in West Virginia. And it's a very interesting, and also very depressing time, when we were at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and the narrative around queerness was largely defined by HIV and AIDS. What was that experience like?

AVASHIA: The predominant experience I had with queerness growing up was one of silence. It wasn't necessarily a feeling of resistance as much as a feeling of just deep conflict about, “Here are the messages that I'm getting from both spaces.” From Desi spaces, messages about what femininity looks like and what relationships are supposed to look like. And from Appalachian spaces, there are other messages, and I don't feel like I fit either.

I thought all of my feelings of not belonging or not fitting were actually about race. And as an adult, when I look back on it, I'm like, oh, no, that actually wasn't the case. I mean, race was part of it. But queerness was actually a really big part of what was happening, and I just didn't have the word for it.

KARTHIKEYAN: You have this physical distance from Appalachia now, your home in West Virginia, and you live in Boston now. And you have such a deep tender love for West Virginia in your writing. But you also have this exodus that you talk about that's brought on by people in Appalachia being told, "You have to get out of here if you want to be something." How has that physical distance from your home really changed the way you remember your past and your identity in retrospect?

AVASHIA: I had heard that my whole time growing up, I hear, "You can't succeed if you stay here, you have to leave, you have to leave, you have to leave." And it's only in going away that I've been able to be like, "Well, is that actually true? Or do you want me to go away because if I go away, it makes it easier for you to do bad things?"

So the place that I'm from, I think I had to go away a little bit in order to be able to ask that question and to see that question differently. That if you decide to go away, going away doesn't mean forever, you can come back. Also, if you go away, it doesn't mean you can't fight.

We're still allowed to be Appalachian or semi-allowed to care about this place. Right? Leaving doesn't mean you revoke your card and can’t engage in the conversation in the same way. So how can we even leave? How do we message young people that there are so many different ways to think about your relationship to Appalachia? And I feel like in some ways, that's my book saying like, I had a lot of uneasiness about "Could I claim this identity? Am I allowed to be Appalachian?" And by the end of it, I was like no, I obviously am.

Divya is Kentucky Public Radio's Capitol Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.