Matthew Ferrence is department chair and associate professor of English at Allegheny College, and the author of the memoir Appalachia North (WVU Press, 2019) and All-American Redneck: Variations on an Icon, from James Fenimore Cooper to the Dixie Chicks. He talked with Margo Orlando Littell, author of the Appalachian novel Each Vagabond by Name, about his memoir. The following is an edited selection of the conversation.
MARGO ORLANDO LITTELL:
Appalachia North examines both the familiar landscape of northern Appalachia and the unfamiliar territory of life post–brain tumor. What inspired you to join these subjects? Regarding northern Appalachia in particular, what do you think makes you a good guide into this little-described region?
I grew up never thinking of Pennsylvania as part of Appalachia, even as I was aware and proud that I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains. Later, I came to realize that I was wrong about both of those ideas. Pennsylvania has been part of Appalachia officially and culturally pretty much forever, and western Pennsylvania is not mountainous at all: instead, it’s built from the erosions of the Allegheny Plateau. For me, this relocation of my place connected with the unsettled nature of learning to live in the wake of brain surgery and radiation therapy—in a condition of repair and recovery but in a perpetual state of not-what-I-used-to-be. In writing Appalachia North, I examined the ways I have eroded and been misplaced. I realized I can find ways to think differently about what I have always been, recognizing what it means to proudly identify myself as a northern Appalachian living in a body forever changed by forces beyond my control.
You say of your children, “I fear they will find no home, no place to seep into their souls and settle their minds.” Do you feel a rightness in rooting your children to Pennsylvania?
I certainly hope the boys will feel connected to a landscape that matters so deeply to me. But—and I hope this is a recognizable tension to other Appalachians—the love can sometimes feel like a simultaneous blessing and curse. Living in northern Appalachia means you live with the good and the bad, the parts of it that feel exactly right and the parts that are rough, decayed, desperate, wounded. I’m partly afraid that I’m teaching them to love a complicated place, which might lead to a future tension: will they feel unable to leave, even if they want to? Will they feel guilty if they choose to leave? But I do feel a rightness in the rooting, which is a desired state of being. To be unplaced at all, that would be the worst thing.
You describe the fear accompanying your decision to treat your brain tumor with radiation, and how the nature of dormancy is unpredictable, a constant threat. Your comparison of this dormancy to the seventeen-year dormancy of Pennsylvania cicadas is particularly evocative. Cicadas seem very Appalachian—a marking of time from the land itself. Has this symbol affected your ideas about your journey toward recovery, and home?
I agree that figuratively (and even biologically) the periodical cicada is so Appalachian. It’s the cycles. It’s the startling recognition that seventeen years have gone by, and they are still here, and they will always come back. That’s a wonderful marker of magic and hope. The cycles of our ground are never-ending, whether that’s mountain orogenies or extractive industry boom-bust cycles or cicadas or life-death itself. My journey back to a sense of home is related to a shifting perspective on those cycles, on discarding the oh shit the monsters are back and trying to see it as a welcome back you tenacious creatures. The latter bit is what I want to see all the time, but I can never quite shake the monstrous. I can never stop being startled by cicadas . . . or Trump signs . . . or decaying houses . . . or brain tumors . . . or the gift of friends who drive you to radiation. Some of those are the rotting bodies, the stinking squish of the Appalachian cicada, and more or less the way I grew up already knowing how to think of the region (since everyone in America “knows” to disdain such places). The other way of thinking is that magic I mentioned, that the cicadas are bursting out in life, that they have a will to survive. And it works. Their death and rot is part of the natural cycle of nutrient repletion. To me, that’s the bright side of a sense of being Appalachian, that we won’t give up or give in to those who want us to rot over and over again.
You describe the pickup truck you once had as “an antidote to middle-American respectability.” Do you feel that the sense of proud rejection of that respectability is an Appalachian trait?
Having the truck felt in part like a way to remind myself that I wasn’t quite the same kind of person as the non-truck-driving college profs. At the same time, it felt like an homage to my family farm, and that part of my background, the Appalachian in me. Mostly, I like having a truck. It’s useful. Trucks matter to my sense of self, somehow. They’re fun. Part of that fun is because of what they signal, I think. They expose the absurdity of disdain people in certain circles might feel for trucks, Appalachia, rural America, all of that.
Being Appalachian—and being from that middle-space, double-exile Northern Appalachia I write about—means you see the way large groups of Americans really do have overly implied, knee-jerk lack of respect for the people of rural America. There’s a way to drive a truck that is a big middle finger back at that disdain—I think of coal-rolling, Cummins diesels here. But there’s also a way to drive one that says, I know what you think of me, and I know that me being in this truck sends a little bit of confusion your way. I feel pride, too, at demonstrating that our home region is complicated, not worth giving up on; struggling, but worthy of itself and of respect in general.