First look: Neema Avashia’s memoir of growing up Asian American in Appalachia

In response to the renewed urgency of amplifying Asian American voices after last week’s Atlanta tragedy, we’re proud to share an excerpt from Neema Avashia’s book Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, forthcoming from West Virginia University Press. Please check back for a formal publication announcement and ordering information.

I grew up in West Virginia with one foot in the boom, and one foot in the bust. I was born in a valley with thriving industry and all its associated complications, and graduated from high school in that same valley, now saddled with dying industry and all its complications. The place I call home is the small, unincorporated community of Cross Lanes: population 9,995. A town that doesn’t even warrant a dot on the state map—a string of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and residential developments built in the 1950s and 1960s to house the employees at the burgeoning chemical plants in Nitro and South Charleston. These workers—the children and grandchildren of coal miners—found their way into a more middle-class existence than their ancestors because of the steady pay, union protections, and guaranteed health benefits that work at the plant provided. And my Indian immigrant parents, who arrived from the state of Gujarat to the United States in the early 1970s, capitalized on that same employment to create their own foothold in the middle class. Along with about 100 other Indian families who moved to the Chemical Valley around the same time, we created an Indolachian existence for ourselves, encountered West Virginians who both embraced us and rejected us, and simultaneously both embraced and rejected elements of the culture we found ourselves immersed in.

My childhood not only straddled the line between the boom and bust of the West Virginia economy, it also straddled many other lines: those between immigrant and citizen, between working and middle class, between Hindu and Christian, between queer and heterosexual. I don’t view Appalachia from within the confines of a dominant identity, or even a cohesive one. I view it through the lens of intersections that have become increasingly complex over time. I have spent most of my adulthood reflecting on those intersections, and recognizing the ways in which colliding cultures, faiths, social classes, and gender expectations have shaped me into the person I am today.

Here’s what I know: Somewhere between Donald Trump’s America and Dolly Parton’s America, there exists another America. One where immigrants and White working-class people live side-by-side. One where political ideology gets lived out in the ways that people choose to love each other, or don’t. One where Black and Brown people struggle and thrive and build community and navigate the messy terrain of intersectional identity, even as intensely minoritized communities facing discrimination and prejudice at every turn. That in-between America is the place where I grew up. That in-between America is the place we all have to understand better if we are going to find a cohesive way forward.

As a child, I don’t remember politics or philosophies explicitly dividing our community. When I ask my parents what they remember, they confirm that people didn’t often put up signs for candidates they backed in elections. Unlike what I saw at school, and in more rural parts of West Virginia, my White neighbors on Pamela Circle didn’t wear or bear the Confederate flag. They opened their homes and their kitchens to “Doc” Avashia and his family, and loved us with a depth that I’ve struggled to feel from friends or neighbors since leaving its embrace.

But in the years since I left West Virginia for Boston, pushed to do so by parents who saw no jobs and no future available to me in the state, I have noticed a profound shift in the visible health of my childhood home. The coal mines closed; the chemical plants shut down operations and moved to other states, or other countries. The poverty that already existed during my childhood has only been exacerbated. Opioid addiction is skyrocketing. Young people leave in droves for the same reasons that I did: there is not enough economic opportunity to go around. My parents and their peers have begun to leave the valley, moving to the cities where their children now reside: Austin, Washington, Charlotte, Jacksonville.

When I uncover the traumas that my brain tries to keep buried, Confederate flags and racial slurs were a regular feature of my childhood, beginning in first grade. Again and again, in sharp contrast to the warm embrace of my neighbors, I got the message from classmates and strangers that I did not belong, that I was not welcome. And after 9/11, my parents got those messages as well. Our religion, our ethnicity did not matter. Our Brown skin was proof enough of our threat. Have I just allowed nostalgia to paint a rosy haze over the virulent racism I experienced during childhood, or the moments in which the parts of my identity which set me apart were simply rendered invisible?

Many West Virginians—my dad’s colleagues at work, my mom’s friends in the Cross Lanes community, my peers at school—embraced us without question. Was this because my family and I were simply seen as exceptions, rather than the rule? Yes, we were immigrants, but we were not that kind of immigrant. According to the Facebook posts of childhood friends, we were the educated, helping the community, adding to the economy kind of immigrants––not the kind who were “destroying” America.

My West Virginia Indian aunties and uncles were not immune to the pressures of assimilation, either. Though they encouraged us to learn our home languages and practice elements of our culture, they also told us to keep our heads down. To work hard and get out. To vote for the candidates who would protect our wallets, and not to concern ourselves too deeply with social issues. It is not just my intersections with White Appalachians that have grown more complex over time; it is also my intersections with the Indian-Appalachian community of my youth—a space that both nurtured me, and also made it hard for me to fully exist.

Toni Morrison wrote, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I want an Appalachian story that includes people like me: Brown people, queer people, immigrants, radicals. That tells the story of how we navigate identity formation even in spaces that don’t condone our existence. That paints a more complicated picture of Appalachia than the one it is often allowed.

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