essay

Essay: A child of Appalachia no longer knows, as an adult, whether he still belongs

Contributing WriterMay 30, 2014 

When you're a working artist, you live for emails like this one:

It asked whether I "would be interested and available to do a reading/presentation" at the annual Seedtime on the Cumberland festival in Whitesburg.

I said I would love to, but why did I feel hesitant?

After all, it would be a paying gig and I'm a working artist with three children. Plus Seedtime is a production of Appalshop, the award-winning Appalachian arts and media center.

Seedtime's purpose, according to its website is, "celebrating Appalachian people, music, arts and culture."

The truth is that I don't know if I belong at Seedtime, because I don't know if I'm Appalachian. At least not anymore.

My parents and I lived in Eastern Kentucky when I was a kid. My mother, writer Anne Shelby, worked at Appalshop in the '70s. I remember playing on the wood floor behind her desk as she edited poems submitted to a publication called Mountain Review.

In 1978, we moved to Lexington; since then, the only address I've had in a mountain community was in the foothills of Japan, where I taught English.

Today, I live in Louisville, where I haunt coffee shops and Indian restaurants, listen to classic rock and watch sci-fi TV.

The stories I tell in print and onstage have more to do with Fukushima than Fogertown, Oneida, Gray Hawk or any of the other communities I knew as a child.

As a performer, I've worked up a couple of Appalachian tales, some of which are wonderful — the stories, that is, not my rendition of them. I can never figure out how to say them. Should I speak in dialect, in an accent like I hear from my Eastern Kentucky relatives, even though that's not what I usually sound like now?

I've heard a version of that from my own mouth on visits, but to do it onstage feels artificial. I cringe listening to recordings of my own hot-and-cold-running accent. There are some words I just don't know how to say in that voice, and at times, I appear to be channeling a hybrid of Gomer Pyle and Waylon Jennings' narration of The Dukes of Hazzard.

That said, I grew up like countless other kids in Lexington, Cincinnati and points north, spending Friday and Sunday evenings on Interstate 75, Ky. 11 or some other umbilical highway in and out of a place the ancestors called home.

In my case, that's a hilly 60-acre spread in Clay County. My parents live there now.

Their Appalachian credentials are unassailable. My dad, Edmund Shelby, is a newspaper editor who has earned numerous journalism awards for exposing corruption at the local level. My mother wrote a book of poems called Appalachian Studies. It's occasionally used in university classes called Appalachian studies.

They're among the people who love and fight for this place. I root for them from a distance.

When the old homeplace is mine, I don't know what I'll do.

One challenge inherent in sorting out feelings about the region is acknowledging there is more than one Appalachia.

First, there's the real, three- dimensional geographic place filled with actual humans. According to the intergovernmental Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states from New York to Mississippi, including Kentucky. It's home to more than 25 million people in 420 counties — though Fayette and Jefferson counties are not among them.

The other Appalachia is the myth, which can be anywhere, everywhere, all the time.

The myth of Appalachia is vast enough to include nostalgic notions of a simpler time, but mostly it offers fodder for exaggeration and disdain. It's with me in New York City or Seattle when I introduce myself to people with just a hint of trepidation.

The myth even thrives elsewhere in Kentucky. In Lexington, a co-worker once casually referred to the area around Corbin, where my dad grew up, as "Deliverance country." I don't remember my response; all I know is that I wanted to take his tie off through his nose.

There's so much wrong with Appalachia, and so much more to the place than what is wrong.

There is food and song, quilts and carvings, storytellers and story lovers.

And good Lord, parts of it are beautiful. If you haven't seen them, I want to show you the warm, green curves of the hills in Jackson County, where my grandfather came from. In the valley of the Clay County homeplace, there is only one streetlight (and, for that matter, only one paved street) and on a clear night the sky is breathtaking. Frozen fireworks.

There is something that melts inside me when I see my own sons throw rocks in the same creek under the same burr oak as my late grandmother, who was born almost 100 years ago. In those moments, I imagine her somewhere, smiling.

I like to think she'll be doing the same Friday evening, when I perform at Seedtime.

I don't know whether I'm part of Appalachia anymore, but Appalachia is part of me.

So I will offer what I think are my best stories. I will speak in whatever voice feels natural.

Graham Shelby is a writer who grew up in Lexington and lives in Louisville. He may be reached through his website, Grahamshelby.com.

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