By Pauletta Hansel
“Appalachians leave home for many reasons. But no matter where they go, mountain folks defend their people and culture,” says urban Appalachian writer Neema Avashia in her recent essay. “Fight From Away,” in the online journal Salvation South. Neema is a West Virginia-born writer of Indian descent whom I’ve been following since I missed (by hours!) the opportunity to publish one of her essays in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary journal of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative which I co-edited for many years. That piece was scooped up by another journal before I responded, and went on to be included in Neema’s highly acclaimed, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place (West Virginia University Press, 2022.) Since then, Neema’s been a little bit of everywhere, including this year’s Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman Kentucky, where I got to meet her in person, along with her wife and their incredibly cute baby. But I had never really thought of Neema as an URBAN Appalachian until I read this essay.
Neema Avashia has lived and taught in Boston (she’s a public-school civics teacher) since 2003. Based on a quick Google search, that is just about half her life. And yet she writes, “Appalachia is home. Appalachia will always be home,” a sentiment shared by so many of us transplants, including me, out of the mountains now for more than 2/3 of my life. For complicated reasons, some of which Neema and I hold in common, and others we do not, neither of us expect to ever move back to Appalachia. And so home is always a place of distance, a place of the past.
In the best of times, there is a bittersweetness to this reality, especially for those who still have kith or kin at home, and can visit when we choose, and leave when we are ready. But in times of difficulty, it can be heartbreaking—as, for example, in the summer of 2022 when the devastating floods hit most of the communities in southeastern Kentucky I had ever called home. We expatriates— we urban Appalachians— watched helpless and apart, following “posts on social media where friends described rising waters, cars washing away, struggling to find a way to higher ground and then to their homes across Appalachia.”
Neema Avashia ’s essay also reinforced for me the blessings of living in a city of so many Appalachian migrants., and in a place where the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition exists to celebrate and support our community. While I, too, find home in returning to be with other writers at the Appalachian Writers Workshop. and at the annual Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative gathering, the Appalachian Studies Conference and other such events, I have right here in Cincinnati, “people who sound… like home, and extend… care like home, and [write] stories and poems and essays filled with ways of knowing and being that [are] just so deeply familiar.” I have compatriots right here “defending our people and culture” in the communities where we live as well as in those left behind.
I encourage you to read the entire essay “Fight From Away” online now, and also to pick up Neema’s Another Appalachia, which is in stock at Downbound Books and can be ordered from any of your favorite independent booksellers.
Neema’s “Fight From Away” will soon appear in Troublesome Rising, a collection of works from University of Kentucky Press and Hindman Settlement School about that July 2022 “thousand-year flood.” (Several UACC associates, including Richard Hague and myself have work in it.) The anthology can be pre-ordered here.
Cover photo source: https://www.neemaavashia.com/
Pauletta Hansel is a core member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Her most recent book is Heartbreak Tree, poems about gender and place in Appalachia. You can find out more here.