When we speak of Appalachia and Appalachian culture, it is crucial that we understand that we are never talking about a single unified idea. Appalachia is an enormous area and is comprised of many different kinds of people. What is more, Appalachian culture is constantly being fed and redefined by in new ways. The artists and writers who depict Appalachian culture reflect this complexity. This is one reason the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is always highlighting writers who speak from their Appalachian background in ways that refine what we mean by Appalachia. The 2019 Weatherford Awards from Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association reflect the continuously growing perspective on Appalachian culture. The 2020 awards included Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll for non-fiction, a book which includes a number of UACC affiliated authors. The award for poetry went to Rose McLarney for her collection entitled Forage. The fiction category went to Michael Croley’s debut collection Any Other Place. I spoke with Michael Croley, now an Assistant Professor at Denison University in central Ohio, about his collection of short stories and got a sense of where he is coming from in writing such a unique collection of stories of Appalachia.
Michael Croley’s collection of short stories deals with the peculiar work of identity within contemporary Appalachian life and culture. Often focusing on deceptively simple points of contact, the short stories reveal antagonism at play on Appalachian life that are extremely familiar to many readers and entirely unique to his personal perspective on Appalachian identity. From the opening story in Croley’s collection, Any Other Place, we are placed at the center of the overlapping of cultures that is central to so much of Croley’s fiction. In the short story, “Slope,” a man is in love with a woman who lives in Paris, a woman ostensibly attached to another man from Algeria, and in the course of an ordinary phone call, the woman asks, “Isn’t it strange? Growing up there.”
“There” is Kentucky, and our protagonist, Wren, replies “Of course it is now, but not then. It was my childhood, and it was as happy as most, I think. Happier, probably.” As I said, these lines are deceptively simple because the observation that growing up there, in Kentucky, is strange now, but it wasn’t then seems to be a common theme of the urban Appalachian experience. One could even say that Appalachian identity is not a “thing” until its strangeness is made apparent from outside. For Wren, the feeling of strangeness is compounded by the fact that he is Korean-American.
The complexity of Korean-American identity as it is expressed through the world of contemporary Appalachian identity comes quite naturally for Michael Croley. He explained to me that “my mom is Korean and met my father while he was in the army” The couple settled in Corbin, Kentucky, Croley’s hometown. He told me that to him “Cincinnati was the big city,” and he left Corbin at 18 to study at Western Kentucky University. Croley says his childhood in Corbin “seemed idyllic.” But he also told me that his Korean identity, written in his features, did impact his experience growing up in Kentucky: “I always felt a little on the outside,” he explains. “I got to a point where I half-expected things to go side-ways at times.” These experiences find expression in his fiction as his characters live with what at times appear to irreconcilable identities. Yet, from the perspective of these characters, their identities are simple features of who they are.
Croley told me that “split identity was critically important to me as a writer.” The overlapping of identities was formative to him growing up where “there were no other Korean or Asian people in Corbin.” Yet his Appalachian identity would take on more meaning once he left Kentucky. He explains that “outside Appalachia, my accent marked me more than anything else, and this is something I never thought about.” Once Croley found himself in parts of the country where is Asian identity did not stand out, the linguistic color of Appalachia took on more meaning.
As Croley said, “The book became an expression of all of these experiences.” Croley’s influences are plain on several levels. The most obvious are the ways one remains unaware of how we are perceived by others, how our cultural markers are hidden to us until others name them, often against our will. Other levels reveal the ways that “place” exposes us as we move from one to another. Croley told me that his stories often treat the “ways places force identities on us even if we don’t want it.”
At times, Croley’s fiction reveals how people can find themselves out of place in ways that are specific to the 21st Century in that geography itself seems to lose meaning. The short story “Smolders” opens with a young man standing in a familiar place, but he is traversed with outward signs that signal no place or anyplace: “He wore a pair of cutoff khaki shorts and Che Guevara tee shirt he got from a street vender on a school trip to New York in the fall. In his care was a mason jar full of moonshine his uncle has given him as a graduation present.” He is home, but the signs that identify him are signs disconnected from places. They point toward specific contexts without reference to those contexts. I would suggest that the brilliance of Croley’s fiction lies in the how he situates what is most familiar in ways that are always marked by a feeling of being on the outside. In this way, we as readers always feel a little on the outside in a manner not unlike the way he describes his own life.
Michael Croley’s collection of short stories, Any Other Place: Stories, published by Blair Books, is the 2019 winner of the Weatherford Award for the best books about Appalachia for fiction and the 2020 James Still Award winner for writing about the Appalachian South. In promoting Appalachian culture, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is uniquely aware of the multiple voices that continually redefine what we mean by Appalachian culture. Croley’s work stands out as one of those literary voices who remind us that “Appalachian” means many different things, and that we are constantly being made new by the world beyond the mountains and hills.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.