Neema Avashia’s book points to contradictions resulting from a sense of belonging and identity informed by place as complicated as Appalachia.
I want to be Neema Avashia’s new best friend. That was the feeling I came away with after reading her memoir Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. The daughter of Gujarati immigrants, Avashia grew up as one of the only Indians, only Hindus – indeed, only non-white, non-Christian people – in tiny Cross Lanes, West Virginia.
It is this “inherited, out-of-place identity” that informs the essays in her book. Another Appalachia reads as Avashia’s attempt to meld the various labels – Indian and American; Appalachian and Bostonian; gender non-conforming gay woman and daughter of both conservative Hindu parents and the Bible Belt – she so frequently finds conflicting with one another. She mostly succeeds, in turns causing the reader to laugh out loud or sit in a poignant silence as they reflect on the profundity of her words.
That’s because Avashia perfectly captures the contradictions of “coming up” as an outsider in a place that has, to put it kindly, a healthy distrust of outsiders. Though a suburb of the state capital of Charleston, and lying in the state’s most populous county, the small-town experience Avashia had growing up make clear the underlying rural culture of her hometown.
Neighbors came and went from one another’s homes as family. People, including her own family, grew produce in their back gardens. The bright lights of the big city – even one as close as Pittsburgh – felt as far away as Mars, and anyone who didn’t fit the narrow mold of the majority could easily find themselves as an outsider, even if they were born and bred there.
That is something to which many people – certainly many LGBTQ people – from rural communities can relate. For Avashia, it was being queer and Indian that made her an outsider-on-the-inside. For me it was being a young gay man who grew up mostly in the Midwest. Whatever your outgroup, though, Avashia unflinchingly excavates what it feels like to call home a place famed for being insular and uninviting, yet at the same time home to Southern hospitality.
It’s a paradox Avashia mines with just the right balance of reverence and honesty. In writing about an elderly family friend – a white man serving as a surrogate grandfather figure in her life – who has gone down a Trumpian rabbit hole, she struggles to reconcile the love she feels for him with the reality that his politics drip with disdain for people like her and her parents. “My sister, presumably, was an ‘anchor baby’ at birth…” she writes, asking – with sincerity if he “think[s] of her when he reposts the hatred spewed by Russian bots and Proud Boys?”
It’s a question many of us will have asked ourselves in one form or fashion over the past five years. In that way, “Another Appalachia” is very much a book in and of its time – one that explores meaning of words most of us have long taken for granted. Avashia openly wonders whether she has any right to claim the word Appalachian, given that her family “moved to a place out of necessity, loved it hard for the time they lived there, and then moved out of necessity again 30 years later, when the work disappeared.”
The fact that Avashia continues to return to Appalachia long after her parents and sister moved to Texas answers that question. I – the Rust Belt-born descendant of Appalachian outmigrants who sought work in the factories of Ohio’s Miami Valley – would argue that few things are more Appalachian than leaving the mountains because the work disappeared. And once we have left, many if not most Appalachians dreams of returning to the hills and hollows. Just as Avashia does. If that’s not as quintessentially Appalachian as gravy and biscuits, I don’t know what is.
Still, Avashia raises a timely point. What and who gets to consider themselves Appalachian has never been more uncertain. After all, J.D. Vance never lived a day of his life in the region, yet he claimed the mantle for himself. If he can, surely a native West Virginian should be entitled to proudly declare herself a “Hindu hillbilly.”
But as a gay man who came of age in Eastern Kentucky, I know that isn’t necessarily the case. “West Virginia is the only home I know,” she writes, “though it is not a home that always loves me back.” I felt that in my bones.
But of course, when Appalachia does love back, it loves back hard and with a maternal ferocity. It is in these moments that Another Appalachia truly stands out. Rather than being yet another memoir about grievance and oppression – which, let’s be honest, with some of the racist and homophobic incidents Avashia experienced, it could easily and fairly have been – this book stands as an attempt to square that circle.
She writes with a filial warmth about her neighbors in the Kanawha Valley, of the Indian “aunties” her mother befriended and who became surrogate mothers to her. But she criticizes the patriarchal gender norms her parents often imposed on her. She talks about the basketball coach who taught her how it doesn’t matter how you shoot your shot if you make it. But she also mentions the racism she experienced on and off the court.
These people stand tall in her mind and escape from the page, their saris and braids or acid-wash jeans and Dolly Parton hair as vivid and familiar as my own neighbors down the hollow I grew up in. There are no stereotypes here. These are complicated and complex people – full of sometimes painful contradictions, sure, but also full of generosity and compassion. Or, to put it more simply, they are human beings.
Avashia is also full of generosity and compassion. That much is clear. She sends a friend’s father books to help him through his chemotherapy. She mentors her students long after they’ve left her class, attending celebrations and graduations and, sadly, the occasional funeral. And she tries to understand, to explain if not excuse why West Virginia was not always the most welcoming place for someone like her.
Going back to her surrogate grandfather, the kind old man turned Trump troll, she takes us for a walk in his shoes. There is, she writes, an “authenticity in [his] longing for a time when things were great… [m]odern American prosperity has eluded much of West Virginia. This is not up for debate.” She concludes by pointing out that politics is personal, trying to make sense of why someone like this kind old man would not see things the way she does.
It is this desire to bridge divides – between liberals and conservatives, city mice and country mice, New England and West Virginia, Indian and Appalachian – both within herself and within our culture that makes Avashia such a compelling and refreshing writer. She is more self-aware and less cynical than most of us can ever hope to be.
On a trip home with her partner, Laura, Avashia was overwhelmed by those same “aunties” her mother befriended decades before “constantly repeat[ing] the same refrain, “Ghare aavjo.” “Come home.” She wasn’t surprised that they were courteous to her, but this request was deeply touching. “‘Ghare aavjo’ was the truest expression of unconditional love I could have asked for,” she writes. “It meant that finally, Laura and I could come home to them together.”
I hope she and Laura will come home together again. It makes me proud of Appalachia, and gives me hope in our future, that we could produce someone so remarkable in her capacity to empathize without lionizing, to criticize without condemning. Appalachia needs more people like Neema Avashia. And I still want her to be my new best friend.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He is contributing editor for community engagement at 100 Days in Appalachia and currently lives in East Tennessee.