I was on the verge of sixteen. My honors English teacher had assigned us yet another literature report, and it was my turn to choose the novel my partner and I would conduct the report on. My partner chose the previous assignment’s novel, The Coal Tattoo, by Appalachian author Silas House. I greatly enjoyed the novel, but like so many of the other books I had read (not only in this class but in general), I struggled to truly identify with the characters. However, this go-around, I was the one who chose the novel, one that had been on my booklist for some time, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I had brought the novel up before in class and received a similar response each time it was mentioned. “I don’t think you’d like it. It’s more of a ‘boy book.’” So what did my rebellious, emerging feminist, teenage self decide to do? Much to my teacher and project partners’ displeasure, I read all 214 pages of the novel—and loved it.
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist—if one so chooses to see his character as such—was the first literary character I felt an emotional closeness to. I felt more in sync with a cynical, Manhattan-born, post-WWII era, male teenager than any literary figure I had read prior to reading that novel. I felt like something was wrong with me. On paper, I had more in common with House’s Anneth and Easter. I was an Appalachian female searching for beauty in her surroundings and finding intrigue in life both in and beyond the mountains. Many years of reflection later, I realize it is Holden’s struggle with identity and alienation that made me gravitate to that character and many other characters J.D. Salinger brought to life.
Literary preferences aside, since coming of age, I have struggled, much like Holden, to maintain a healthy balance between how the world perceives me versus how I perceive myself. I never saw myself as inherently Appalachian while I was growing up. Compared to my peers, I did not have a heavy accent and my interest in urban life kept me up at night as I envied the lives of L.A. and London-based YouTube vloggers and their postmodern apartments I dreamed about moving into one day. These lofty fantasies even had my grandmother calling me her “flower child” (pronounced “flare child”), mocking my more progressive ideals in comparison to my family’s. Determined to leave behind the mountains in exchange for a skyline view, I committed to attending Northern Kentucky University (NKU)—the furthest I could go without having to pay out of state tuition—in the fall of 2016. Eager to begin a new journey near the city—“Cincinnata,” as my family pronounces it—I found that urban life was not what I thought it would be. After growing up my whole life as the aspiring “city slicker,” I was pegged as the token “hick.” People laughed as I pronounced wire as “war,” said phrases like “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” and jammed to banjo breaks and mandolin solos.
Growing up I had bought into this narrative that I was not Appalachian enough. Only until I left did I realize just how much my upbringing and heritage was ingrained in my everyday life. During my college years, I struggled with balancing my identity. There is this saying back home, “Don’t go above your rasin’,” that is branded in the back of my brain at all times. This phrase can mean many things, but, generally, it means to not act like one is better than their family and peers—including moving off to the city and leaving behind the people who raised you. I felt this immense pressure from my family and friends to come back because they were “my people.” I even considered forfeiting a full-tuition scholarship to transfer to Eastern Kentucky University so I could be closer to family and feel more comfortable around my peers.
However, I stuck it out and in the process found myself eager to belong in an urban setting. I tried to join different organizations and become more involved, but, again, I never felt like I really belonged in any of them. The fear of being misunderstood by others plagued my thoughts, consuming them like kudzu growing on a hillside. I ditched the accent so I could fit into my chosen profession and altered my vocabulary in order to be perceived in a way that concealed my identity until I was comfortable enough to reveal those parts of myself.
After graduating from NKU, I decided to stick around in the area. Although I like the convenience of the urban setting and have adapted to my surroundings quite nicely, I still long for my home. Upon taking exit 29 off southbound I-75, I am greeted with the same abandoned gas stations and restaurants; time instantly suppresses itself as I drive the same stretch of Highway 25W—a scene I know so well, I could likely drive it with my eyes closed. Cars drive slower and words stay in people’s mouths a few seconds longer. On my drive home, I am reminded of the patience those rolling mountains cast – how they do not boast judgment but, instead, humbly possess the wisdoms of nature and whisper the stories of their people quietly in the breeze.
I came across an email from the NKU English department last August advertising Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Communications Specialist position opening. I was extremely relieved to know that this region has a local organization that actively works to provides resources and host community and cultural events to support people like me; it is empowering to work alongside such amazing writers, musicians, and advocates. I am no longer intimidated by the calculations of those who do not understand where I come from. Sometimes I can not help but to let a piece of my Appalachian identity peek through when I pronounce iron as “are’n” or play a little John Hartford in my house so loud I am almost certain my neighbors can hear his melodic clogging and banjo breaks. No matter how long I live in the city or what city I live in, I will always need to venture back to Appalachia to be retaught this lesson. I am proud to say I have found comfort and solace in my newfound identity as an urban Appalachian and am working to balance these two parts of me every day.
Erinn Sweet is a writer, Communications Specialist for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and the Events & Promotions Coordinator for the Corporation for Findlay Market. Originally from Whitley County Kentucky, she now resides in Covington, KY with her wonderful partner and two cats – leaning out for love, and will lean that way forever.