Complicating the narrative: A conversation with Neema Avashia about coming up queer and Indian in Appalachia

In March, West Virginia University Press will publish Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, which examines the roots and the resonance of Avashia’s identity as a queer Asian American teacher and writer from Appalachia. It’s hailed by New York Times-bestselling author Morgan Jerkins as a book that “subverts the mainstream’s hyperfocus on white male-dominated narratives from rural America and commands your attention from the first page to the last word.” Here Avashia talks with Vesto PR’s Holly Mitchell for our blog.

What inspired you to center Appalachia in this collection? 

There’s no way I could have written this collection without Appalachia at the center, because Appalachia is at the center of who I am. I can’t write about my identity and experiences without also considering the ways in which place shaped who I am, and how I live. I think that might be one of the hallmarks of Appalachian writing—place is a character in our work as much as people are. And certainly, there was also a second factor, which is that in 2016 a book that shall not be named here came out. That book got held up as definitive in its descriptions of Appalachia, and yet the descriptions in the book didn’t resonate for me as a person from Appalachia at all. I didn’t see myself or my family or my friends or my neighbors in that book. I didn’t agree with its core premises about why Appalachia is in its current state. I felt like there was a need to expand the definition of Appalachia, and Appalachian people, being presented to the world. And I thought that potentially, telling the story of growing up queer and Indian in Appalachia would be a way to complicate the mainstream narrative around Appalachia.

When did you know the essays would not just stand alone but come together in a book?

In 2017 I went to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and had the opportunity to share some of my writing with an amazing writer, teacher, and educator named Geeta Kothari. She is such a skilled reader of work, and was able to start identifying themes in my writing that I wasn’t totally seeing yet. And the more those themes got articulated, the more I realized that the essays hung together in a way that could lead to a collection.

You utilize various essay techniques such as an instructive second-person in “Directions to a Vanishing Place” and braided narrative in “Chemical Bonds.” What drew you to these forms?

I’m really interested in the ways that lyric forms can lead us to places in our writing and thinking that we won’t necessarily get to if we only write using a traditional narrative structure. I think that constraints can really foster creativity, and that the constraints provided by various forms—whether it’s a list, like in “A History of Guns,” or a recipe collection, as in “The Hindu Hillbilly Spice Company”—helped me to tell different kinds of stories than I might have been able to tell if I’d just stuck to one structure. And I also think that as a reader, there’s some unexpected joy that I find when I read an essay collection where a writer is experimenting with form. It feels refreshing and surprising, and I wanted to create that experience for my readers as well.

I also think that the storytelling I heard as a child, both from my Indian parents, and from my Appalachian community, plays a role here.

At the same time, all of the writing is careful, clear, and truly accessible to readers. Could you talk about why that was important to you?

I’m a veteran middle school teacher. Clarity and accessibility of ideas are the bread and butter of my profession. I think that it’s just become a force of habit to make sure that if I’m articulating an idea, I do so in a way that other people can access. I also think that the storytelling I heard as a child, both from my Indian parents, and from my Appalachian community, plays a role here: In both spaces, storytelling has a purpose. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. You leave a story having understood something new about yourself, the world, or both. As a storyteller, I feel a responsibility to make sure that my narrative control is evident to the reader—that I know where we are going, and that I’m going to get them where they need to go. It also felt really important to me that anyone—one of my former students, one of my West Virginia neighbors, a person who had never been to Appalachia—could pick up this book and access the ideas, feel connected to the people, have a better understanding of where and how I grew up, and how that experience continues to shape me today. I spent a lot of time listening to stories told on porches as a kid, and I guess there’s a way in which I wanted the reader to feel that same sensation of sitting on the porch and just letting the story wash over you, rather than having to work to make meaning of the story.

Did you find yourself mainly relying on memory and a private writer’s life or having new conversations with family members and others in your community as a part of your process?

For me, writing is a very iterative process, and as much about the conversations I have about the ideas in the essays as it is about the writing of the essays themselves. There’s not a single essay in this collection that hasn’t been the source of many conversations, and many subsequent revisions based on those conversations. My partner Laura, my sister Swati, my mentor Jane McCafferty, and my writing group all played a huge role in the development of the ideas at the center of this collection.

The book explores ethical difficulties—how to reckon with family ties to a chemical plant, how to be a good neighbor to a drunk driver, and how to reconcile your memory of a person and their politics online, to name a few—with nuance that is rare and refreshing. How did you work through these quandaries on the page?

I think that the page has always been a way of working through the quandaries in my life! “Chemical Bonds,” for example, went through at least 20 revisions, with significant changes in content, structure, and form, as I tried to figure out what it was I was trying to say about my relationship with my dad, with work, and with chemicals, and how those three are intertwined. I don’t think I come to the page with the quandary already resolved; I think the page helps me to work through the quandary. As a human being, I think this is a thing that we don’t do enough of—we don’t show people in transparent ways how we make meaning of messy situations and complex relationships. I guess I think that if I can do this in my writing, maybe it is a window for readers into how they navigate the messy and complex in their own lives. That said, I think it is also important not to leave a reader swimming in partially processed mess, so I’ve tried hard to make sure that I’m telling stories where I’ve had enough time, and distance, to fully process the experience before sharing it with readers.

Were there chapters you left out of the final collection? 

No—there were no chapters I left out. There are two essays whose inclusion I questioned a lot, because they don’t hew as tightly to the theme as others in the collection, but I ultimately felt like they still lived within the set of intersections that I’m navigating in the collection, so I decided to keep them in. I’d be curious to see if a reader could figure out which two!

How has your career as a teacher influenced your writing? 

As I mentioned earlier, I think so much of teaching is about distilling complicated ideas in ways that are clear and accessible to young people. This is something that has transferred into my writing almost subconsciously. I also think that much of my work as a teacher has been about building long-standing relationships with young people, and that in doing that work, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the adults who built nurturing relationships with me when I was a young person: My aunties and uncles, my Pamela Circle Neighbors, the Bs, the Morrises, Mr. Bradford. Knowing how much work this takes has really made me so profoundly grateful for the nurturing that they did of me, and that is something I really sought to honor in this collection. And lastly, as someone who is continually bearing witness to the identity development of young people, I am extremely conscious of how hard it is to form your identity in the absence of models. I didn’t have models of Indolachian queerness when I was growing up, and because of that, I think it has taken me a long time to come into a full understanding of my identity. I think that in part, writing this book is about creating another possible model for young people, and particularly, young people in Appalachia.

As someone who is continually bearing witness to the identity development of young people, I am extremely conscious of how hard it is to form your identity in the absence of models.

Which writers would you count among your influences? 

I think so much of my work has been about figuring out my own intersectional voice, what it looks like for me to tell a story that hasn’t yet been told, that the most influential writers are the ones who have taken the most active role in my own development as a writer: Jane McCafferty, Jane Bernstein, Geeta Kothari, and Nancy Zafris. I’m grateful for writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Mira Jacob for establishing a Desi-American writing lineage, and also really moved by the work of 2nd generation writers like myself who are parsing questions of immigration and race and sexuality in their work: folks like Ocean Vuong and Ayad Akhtar and Alexander Chee and Yaa Gyasi.

What books are on your bedside table now? 

Some wonderful books! Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993, The Girl Singer by Marianne Worthington, A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Unsurprisingly: queer, Appalachian, and desi!

Can you say what your next project will be? 

I’ve started working on a second essay collection that I’m really excited about. It’s tentatively titled THE BOOK OF BROKEN RULES. It’s a collection in which I explore the racialized and gendered “rules” that have been set out for me by society and culture and family, the way that I continually break those rules, and the implications of being a perpetual rule-breaker.

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