I got an email from a person who’d found my blog. She’d seen The True Meaning of Pictures about Shelby Lee Adams photography in Eastern Kentucky and Country Boys a film that referenced hollow. She wanted to know what a hollow (aka “holler”) is.
I don’t know where she lives, but she said she’d never visited Appalachia. I told her my thoughts. Hollows are small valleys nestled between hills or mountains. Not to be confused with mountain folk who live on the mountain—perched right on the sides or tops and where no roads lead directly to these places—just a driveway. Hollows have a road in to them, often narrow and clinging because they follow the side of the hill or float alongside a creek bed. They take you deeper and deeper until the small compounds of hollow folks reveal themselves a few miles in. One thing’s for sure: if you find yourself unexpectedly on a hollow road, you are indeed lost and well off the beaten path. Hollow roads don’t fork off main roads, but off secondary roads. You can follow a hollow road that will take you to another hollow road, or a creek road, or often as not, to a dead end. Sometimes, if you follow a number of creek roads you’ll make your way back to a secondary road. Eventually.
You’ll find as many direct dish TV antennas on the hollow homes as you will stars in the sky. Because there is generally less light pollution back in the hollow, counting stars, by the way, is a favorite pastime, and a wealth of quiet means you can hear the blood pulsing in your ears as you ponder the stars. Most people who live in the hollows appreciate the quiet, the dark, and the privacy. Hollow folk are as complex as any others in the world. You will find stereotypes, but then on closer look, well, by golly, they’re not, are they? And you will find some sophisticated and urbane residents, those who feel they have won the lottery because they own a hollow home and a bit of land.
A fellow West Virginia native remarked to me recently that there is no such thing as Appalachia. It is merely a name someone else gave us, without our permission. He feels no more Appalachian than he feels he is French. But he does feel he is West Virginian in the sense that someone feels like they’re a Kentuckian, or a Virginian or a Georgian. There’re many who feel they are indeed Appalachian, and whatever that means to them is what it is. They might agree that Appalachia is a political name placed on the mountainous area of 13 states—West Virginia the only one wholly engulfed by the geographical area known as Appalachia. They might also say, Well, it’s a done deal. It means connection and those in the Appalachians of Georgia or New York might feel they have something in common. And a good argument is that however we acquired the moniker, it’s pretty much here to stay.
But I like this gentleman’s rejection of being called an Appalachian. It is the very nature of folks from Appalachia to throw off the definitions and naming rights of folks outside the area. Rebellious? That’s us!
A writer friend of mine who has ancestors from this area seems to reject any hint of being Appalachian, especially in her writing. She would be correct in that it keeps us from being seriously considered as authors and writers if we come from here. In fact, I was at a conference in Columbus, Ohio, this past August. There was a panel of New York editors taking questions from the audience. One lady approached the mic and asked, “Which do you find more important, the idea of a book or the quality of writing?” Only one editor answered. He said, “I’ll publish a book from Appalachia if the writing is good enough.”
Well, it’s not hard to figure the hidden message in that statement: a well-written book from Appalachia is a rare thing. It is the stereotypical attitude that we in Appalachia lack education, taste, and class (although we are often considered low class or no class, and sometimes just poor white trash). Let me see now, from which higher degree of the three I earned shall I pontificate? Oh, and by the way, we’re humble, too.
Dumb ass editor, is what I think.
A few days ago there was an article in The Charleston Gazette covering the West Virginia premier of We are Marshall. I remember when that crash occurred in 1970. I was sitting in my folks’ living room with a boyfriend. The television was droning as aural wallpaper to our smooching and carrying on. A news bulletin riveted my boyfriend’s attention and slowly it dawned on the both of us the scope of the tragedy. Neither of us knew anyone personally in the plane crash, but Huntington is but 30 miles from us. We were deeply shocked.
Making this film, with some of it shot in Huntington and on Marshall’s campus, is a big hairy deal to us. They rarely film in West Virginia because they say we have no infrastructure to support filming. I have mixed feelings, as I know this state is one of the best kept secrets in this world. Finding us may be our ruination; it may speed us to homogenization. On the other hand, the money is always welcome to all of us, as there is so little to spare.
In the article, the director and others in the film were quoted as saying there is no place in the world like West Virginia, and especially its warm, friendly people. He repeated it: I mean, folks, there is NO place like West Virginia and her people (paraphrase). The article brightened my day and should brighten the days of most of us here in West Virginia.
Appalachia appeared before me in a number of ways this past year. And West Virginia. When I told an editor from Harper Collins where I was from, I thought: Now she knows. She’ll place me on the slush pile. She did not, I’m surprised and delighted to say. Stay tuned.
Sometimes, we seem to be bidden to pay attention to something that shows up a tad too often for coincidence. Maybe what I need to understand is that being from the hills and hollows of West Virginia and Appalachia means it is my job to define the one small area where I lay claim. And that's about all any of us can do.
By the way, it’s pronounced Appa-latch-ah, not Appa-layshuh.
Happy New Year to one and all.