Another AppalachiaNeema Avashia Confronts Growing Up Indian and Queer in West Virginia

A Brown woman with glasses and short haircut is pictured smiling next to a small image of the book cover for her memoir,

(Photo credit: Jennifer Waddell)

On a recent episode of the podcast Appodlachia, author Neema Avashia admits that her new book—the evocative and thought-provoking collection of essays, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place—is a direct response to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (which she takes pains not to name) to counteract that memoir’s stereotypes and right-wing agenda. Morgan Jerkins, author of Wandering in Strange Lands, says Another Appalachia (out March 1 from West Virginia University Press) has “nuance that is rare and refreshing.”

Avashia is the daughter of Indian immigrants originally from the state of Gujarat. The family settled in West Virginia when her father, an MD, got a job with Union Carbide. She talks about the pain of seeing the people from West Virginia she grew up with and considered family become Trump supporters, “forgetting” her own identity to do so. She is one of the few writers who is able to strike the balance of writing with compassion about Trump voters without making excuses for them. Avashia also teaches middle school students in the Boston public school system and has written about the travails of being a teacher during the pandemic. Avashia spoke with Bitch shortly before the book’s release to discuss anti-queer and anti-trans legislation, coping with loss, and how people are more than the politics of their communities.

At one point in the book, your mother says: it’s fine for you to write about other people, but why do you have to publish it? It’s an excellent question. How did you answer her?

I’m a teacher, and we talk with young people about having books that are mirrors or windows or sliding doors, Rudine Sims Bishop’s idea that young people need all of these. Seeing myself reflected in a book isn’t something that started to happen until I was in my 30s, like with Mira Jacob’s Good Talk.

The children of immigrants in this country “go first” a lot. There are lots of things that your parents haven’t experienced; they’re not going to be able to guide you through them. So having bushwhacked my way through, I can provide a map for somebody else. If you are a Brown, queer kid in Appalachia, I can make you a mirror.

Early on, a writing professor told you to write with a “clear heart,” and that captures what you do in Another Appalachia. When you first started writing these essays how did they contrast with what you wrote for the book?

The professor, Jane Bernstein, said that to me when I was pretty knotted up. What does it mean to write about hard things without shame? As a 20-year-old, I didn’t know. I didn’t have enough distance.

You’re careful to not tell stories that aren’t your own. And it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between one’s own story and those of the people you spend time with—as you found out when your relatives reacted angrily after learning you wrote about them. Do you have a rule you used to guide you in the book?

The rule is: if I’m going to implicate anybody once, I have to implicate myself at least four times over. The goal is to shed light back on me.

As a queer teacher, how are you talking to your students about the anti-trans and anti-queer legislation in many state legislatures that’s both about young people and their teachers? And also, the so-called anti-critical race theory legislation, which, again, puts the onus on teachers and affects young people?

It’s a scary time to be an educator in this country. We are lucky Massachusetts is one of the few places where these things are not in play—yet. Many of my students have grown up here and don’t believe these laws, like the “Don’t Say Gay” one in Florida, will pass. But I grew up in a place where people threw Molotov cocktails into school buses in the ‘70s because they were mad about what was included in textbooks.

As someone who lived through a lot of this 25 years ago, I’m dumbfounded. The “Don’t Say Gay” law was in Colorado, and also in Britain. I thought—

 —we were done. I don’t think we are far from the violence in West Virginia in the ‘70s. The question is: Is this the last gasp or will we keep cycling in this pattern?

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Your spouse is also a teacher. How is this affecting her?

Some of these books being banned, she teaches, like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Our kids are all on TikTok. The idea that we would ban books and prevent young people from accessing information about identity is ridiculous.

The whole idea of travel is fraught during the pandemic, but do you still want to visit the place where you grew up?

I went back in November for a 24-hour trip to do a reading. I’m headed back in April. There are still a lot of people [whom] I feel close to and new people I met through this book [whom] I’m excited to see. But West Virginia is also one of the states working to enact laws against teaching about race in schools, and has passed anti-LGBTQ legislation. People aren’t the politics of the place where they live. People are more than that.

Mr. B. is one of those people, beloved by you and your family. You’re seeing these anti-immigrant memes he’s posting on Facebook but you don’t have the heart to unfriend him, so you mute him for 30 days at a time. Are you still doing that?

Mmmhmm.

If you could speak to him unimpeded, what would you say?

In some ways that essay is the speech. Can he see me anymore? Can he see my parents? Or does he understand us as an exception? If so, then what did he believe about immigrants this whole time? Mr. B. and lots of people like him are grasping for a narrative—which Trump gave them—that blamed immigrants and queer people and Muslim people and Black people for the struggles of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. An alternate narrative isn’t being offered.

Many of my students have grown up here and don’t believe these laws, like the “Don’t Say Gay” one in Florida, will pass. But I grew up in a place where people threw Molotov cocktails into school buses in the ‘70s because they were mad about what was included in textbooks.

Have you still sworn off visiting your relatives in India?

I haven’t been back in eight years. I don’t know how much you know about Narendra Modi, the prime minister, but he follows the strongman playbook. And my family members in India love him. 

Oh, god. It’s like having someone love Trump.

With Mr. B., I still want to see him. I don’t want to see my family in India. They are more than the politics of where they live, too, but we don’t have enough shared ground. The last time I was there, they were upset because India has a significant affirmative action program for folks from castes that have been deeply oppressed. My family is high-caste, and I’m like, oh…y’all are white people. They are the equivalent of white people here!

In some ways, the book is about loss. Your parents don’t live in West Virginia anymore and many of the other people you knew have moved away or died—or have become like Mr. B. Has writing about your own loss informed the way you talk to your students about it, especially now, when we have about a million deaths from COVID? Many of your students are low-income and Black or Latinx, so they are more likely to have known somebody who died of COVID.

I’ve had to lean into what I learned about community growing up. We do something called restorative circles every week, where we sit in a circle and kids check in about how they’re doing. But a heavy learning-loss narrative is coming down from the federal level: “kids are behind, kids don’t know anything.” If kids are hurt, they’re not catching up. Trying to meet young people’s needs as human beings has also created some…professional questions. Every time I choose humanity, I’m doing the opposite of what I’m being told to do.

It’s not in your book but in your other writing you’ve mentioned that, after polling your students on how to better teach them remotely (when classes weren’t held in person), you dressed up as a chicken. Can you tell me how you ended up in that costume?

I was trying anything to get kids to come to class, to get them to talk, to get them to engage, to get them to turn on their cameras so they weren’t a black box. So I’d be like, if you do X by the end of the week, I’ll come dressed as a chicken. If everyone gets this assignment turned in, I’ll be the Grinch tomorrow. The way most of us educators got through teaching online was by being ridiculous. None of us knew what we were doing. Nobody was helping us figure it out. Kids were struggling too. Joy is what we could give them.

 So it worked?

 It did work, and kids still remember it!

I love how you detailed your mother getting ready in the mornings, and how you knew pretty early that her polished femininity wasn’t something you were going to adopt. Middle school is a time of such gender essentialism; how do you talk to your students about it?

My students have read that essay. I have short hair—my line-up is a source of conversation for both young men and young women at my school. My students are further in their understanding of gender than I was at their age, when there were few visible models on TV or in books. That scares so many parents who are pushing anti-LGBTQ legislation, but it gives me hope.

In the book, you talk about the necessity of community when you were growing up in West Virginia. It seems that the idea of community has carried over to your work with middle-school students, and imperfectly into life in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, especially during the early days of the pandemic. How do you think we can foster more of a sense of community in cities?

It requires slowing down. The pandemic forced a stop. The pace in which people were moving shifted radically. Do we need to go back to the pace before COVID or would something in the middle feel better? Could we have a pace where it is okay to sit on your stoop with your neighbor and not have to do something “productive”? What I learned growing up was: real connection is about going slow. In the city, being together is about going to the bar, to a movie, to a play, or to a club. They’re not spaces where you’re spending a lot of time listening or making eye contact. I would love for us to understand that sometimes it’s okay to slow down and just sit together for a while.

 

by Ren Jender
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Ren Jender (@renjender) is a queer writer-performer and filmmaker whose writing has been published in The New York Times, on NPR, and in Slate.