Reflections on a rollout: Neema Avashia shares perspective on her book’s first months

Way back when Another Appalachia hadn’t yet been published, and I was filled with doubt about whether anyone other than my family and friends would read the book, my mentor Geeta Kothari would tell me: “Your book will find its readers.” She said it with a confidence I didn’t understand. How exactly would this book find readers who weren’t people I knew? Never mind that I find books I love all the time—imposter syndrome is not subject to rational thinking, it would seem.

And yet, the three months since Another Appalachia’s release have proven Geeta right so many times that she’s gotten tired of telling me, “I told you so.” In large part, this is because of the work that folks at the Press, folks at Vesto PR, and I have all put into publicizing the book—to thinking creatively about outlets, to the litany of pitches and pursuits that are alway part of the pre-publication rush.   Read More »

Recommended reading: Four picks from WVU Press author Nicholas Stump

Nicholas Stump, WVU College of Law.

In a new feature for the blog, we’re asking WVU Press authors to suggest books, posts, and articles worth reading. First up is legal scholar Nicholas Stump, author of our Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law, a finalist for this year’s Weatherford Award.

A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl, Pluto Press (2021)

This stunning book is among the most important works exploring a truly radical, internationalist Green New Deal. (Another such can’t-miss title is The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth by The Red Nation.) In A People’s Green New Deal, Ajl critiques mainstream Eurocentric conceptions of the Green New Deal as insufficient to combat the global socio-ecological crisis and as fundamentally unjust—as the mainstream Green New Deal is conceived of within the capitalist and imperialist world system, as dominated by the Global North. Instead, Ajl examines alternatives steeped in “decommodification, working-class power, anti-imperialism and agro-ecology,” such as a genuinely internationalist ecosocialism and principles reflected in the Cochabamba agreement. Of particular note to Appalachian environmental scholars and activists, Ajl argues that transformative change “can only build from existing strengths” within the “already-existing ecological society in the interstices and shadow-zones of colonial-capitalism” including, as one example among many worldwide, “endogenous development brigades in Appalachia.” 

How To Write About Pipelines,” Sakshi Aravind, Progress in Political Economy Blog (2021)

Aravind’s blog post, much-shared and celebrated on the ecological Left, responds to Andreas Malm’s provocative book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. This subject, of course, has special relevance to Appalachians contesting natural gas pipelines through various legal and extra-legal means. While praising Malm’s prior influential book, Fossil Capital, Aravind mounts a concise yet compelling critique of this more recent work—which is marked by a “startling whiteness of the authorial gaze and voice,” in addition to similarly problematic citational practices favoring white men. Aravind notes that it is hard “to believe that one can write about environmental activism with two vague references to Indigenous people in the passing and no mention of settler colonialism,” and that any “framework of violence, non-violence, and sabotage is meaningless if one is irreverent to the long tradition of Indigenous resistance, which has fought against the exploitation of the land by throwing their bodies in the way.” Aravind later published a brilliant book review expanding on this post.Read More »

Foote: An excerpt from Tom Bredehoft’s forthcoming novel

In the space of one weekend in Morgantown, West Virginia, private investigator Big Jim Foote finds himself at the center of two murder investigations. Suspected of one killing at a local festival, he locates the body of a missing person immediately after. The cops are watching him, and Big Jim has a secret he dares not reveal: he is a bigfoot living in plain sight, charged with keeping his people in the surrounding hills from being discovered.

Coming August 1 from WVU Press, Tom Bredehoft’s Foote: A Mystery Novel has been called “a tale about humanity wrapped in the garment of an excellent hard-boiled thriller.” Jordan Farmer adds: “Part mystery, part fable but all original, Jim Foote is sure to be one of your favorite literary detectives—cryptid or otherwise.” We’re pleased to share an excerpt here.

It was a drizzly morning in April, and all I knew was that someone was standing outside the door. That was all right. Sometimes folks need a few minutes to get their courage up, to really convince themselves that they need my kind of help. My office, to tell the truth, isn’t exactly inviting from the outside: it’s just a plain metal door, bracketed by a couple of windows with the blinds closed. And the door itself stands in a little blackened brick building crouched beneath the PRT tracks, not too far from the downtown stop. That also makes it not too far from the county courthouse, as a matter of fact.

The sign on the door says “Big Jim Foote: Private Investigator,” and I know well enough that that doesn’t always encourage the curious to come in, either. Even the mailman rarely says hello. If someone really needs me, they open the door. They come in.

And, eventually, this one did.

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“It seems like everyone today has an opinion about the South and Appalachia”: Mark Powell and Charles Dodd White in conversation

This spring West Virginia University Press will publish Mark Powell’s novel Lioness and Charles Dodd White’s essay collection A Year without Months. The two authors agreed to chat on our blog about writing and region.

Mark: We’ve been friends for a long time, and in what is most definitely a happy accident, we have books coming out at the same time. How did that happen?

Charles: I think we both pay attention to books about the region that stand out, so it’s natural we would pay attention to WVU Press. The books have been getting attention by the writers community for a long time, so it’s always been one of those places I’ve wanted to connect with.

Lioness is being described as an eco-thriller. How would you define a book like that and what goals did you have for it, aesthetically, politically, and otherwise?

Mark: The writer Bob Shacochis said once that he writes entertainment for people who are paying attention. I’ve always tried to work in a similar vein, writing novels that are (hopefully) exciting while also being engaged with the political moment. There’s plenty we should be paying attention to, but climate change is surely at the top of the list.

You wrote A Year Without Months over a number of years. What was it like revisiting work that spans nearly a decade?

Charles: It can be kind of bracing to look back at something you’ve written in the past and see how much distance has interposed between Then and Now. There was certainly a sense of that in this book. Though most of the essays were written over a single year, it required me to go back and retouch some of those earlier pieces so that there was a fundamental coherence that you have to have if you want the book to work as a whole.Read More »

Appalachian studies sale! Save 30% (with free shipping) on books from West Virginia University Press

To celebrate the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association, all of West Virginia University Press’s new and recent books about Appalachia are 30% off with free shipping through April 30, 2022. This discount applies to paperback editions (and, in the case of African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry, jacketed cloth).

Our exhibit at the ASA meeting will feature display copies for perusal, with all sales handled online at our website. Just use code ASA22WVUP30 at checkout. WVU Press’s sale is open to all, regardless of whether you’re attending the conference.

Discounted titles are:Read More »

African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry: An excerpt from Joe Trotter’s new book

Joe William Trotter Jr.’s book African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry is new from WVU Press. To celebrate Black History Month, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction.

When I proposed this volume to West Virginia University Press in the fall of 2019, the devastation of Covid-19 was just months away. Hence, the impact of the pandemic did not figure into my rationale for wanting to publish this book. My motivation for producing this volume stemmed from the impending thirtieth anniversary of my book, Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–32 (University of Illinois Press, 1990). I hoped to use this collection of essays to reflect on my personal and professional journey to the notion of proletarianization (class formation) in scholarship on Black coal miners in the southern Appalachian coalfields; explore the transformation of research on the topic since publication of Coal, Class, and Color; and suggest directions that the next wave of research on the topic might take. These objectives remain core elements in the book’s raison d’être, but the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of African descent represents an even more compelling rationale for publishing these essays at this particular time in the history of the region and the nation.

During the early phases of the pandemic, media reports downplayed the potential impact of the virus on poor and working-class Black communities. Evidence of widespread racial disparities in sickness and death from the disease soon dispelled such thinking. Over the past several months, growing numbers of scholars, media, and public policy analysts from a variety of fields have located the roots of these disparities in the concentration of Black people in the most dangerous, unhealthy, and underpaid work, housing, and living conditions in the geography and political economy of the nation. While these debates and discussions accent the need for historical perspectives on these racialized issues, they are unfolding without sufficient attention to African American health care activism designed to creatively combat disease, restore their own health, and insure their survival in the face of substantial trauma. These conversations also elide the precise ways that socioeconomic, labor, and environmental conditions undermined the health and well-being of the African American community in particular places at specific moments in time.

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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.Read More »

First look: An excerpt from Keegan Lester’s book Perfect Dirt

Keegan Lester’s new book Perfect Dirt: And Other Things I’ve Gotten Wrong has just been released and ships now when ordered from West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to share this excerpt, called “A Snapshot.” You can hear Keegan read from the book here.

In the city I grew up in, there was no glimpse of West Virginia. There was no place to eat the food that my father was raised on. There was no one who spoke like my grandma or grandpa or believed in magic or the improbable. There were no trains whistling at night or woods that whispered their secrets.

My father would wake me up at seven in the morning Saturdays in the fall from the time I was eight or so and we’d call all the bars in our city and neighboring cities to see if anyone had the West Virginia University football game on through a satellite feed. Then he’d take me to a bar and we’d eat chicken wings at nine in the morning. While all the surfers were out surfing and the people who brunched weren’t even awake yet, and while skaters dreamed their ethereal dreams, we watched our giants run into other giants through a grainy television screen and my dad would get choked up on beer and tell me a little bit about being a boy in Morgantown.

My father is my father but once he was only Joseph. Then he was Joe, then Fatty, then he grew into a redwood of a man and was renamed Bigs. Then he grew into all these other people and one day he turned thirty-two and a month and some change, and he became my father and now he’s my father and Big Joe because I know his secrets.

My mother was born Kathleen and grew up Kathy in South Florida. Stunningly beautiful her whole life. She was a class president and a prom queen and once someone took a picture of her while she was jogging and they put it on billboards. Then she became a nurse and took care of babies who were born too small during the crack epidemic, babies who were too sick to live on and, despite everything dying does to the body, she’d tell these babies you must continue on, you must live on, you’re meant to live on and she would hold these babies in her reed basket arms, telling them she loved them, long after everyone else had gone to sleep. You are loved and you are loved and you are loved. And sometimes she named the babies. And some nights I imagine her sitting up in bed looking out at the night sky recalling names of these babies she named until running out of stars in the Western Hemisphere. And one day she drove across America until she arrived on a beach shouldering the Pacific. And a few years later she became Mom.

And then I was one of the babies born too small.

And so I was raised by these people in a place that was like neither of the places they came from, and I never took to the language of the place where I was raised.

Sometimes I like to imagine my father moving from West Virginia to Colorado to California. I imagine everyone telling him forget. And I imagine him closing his eyes, trying to forget. I imagine him taking his clothes off, putting new clothes on, and then opening his eyes as someone whispers to him Forget everything you’ve ever known if you want to be one of us.Read More »

The labor history of Appalachia’s essential workers: Previewing John Hennen’s new book

The union of hospital workers usually referred to as the 1199 sits at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights. John Hennen’s A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers, coming November 1 from West Virginia University Press, explores the union’s history in Appalachia, a region that is generally associated with extractive industries but has seen health care grow as a share of the overall economy. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 briefly focused attention on the history of labor-management conflict in the state. A cross-section of mainstream and progressive media drew a crooked line to the teachers’ rebellion from earlier battles between coal operators and miners, especially the Mine Wars of 1913–1921. This attention to a significant part of the state’s working-class history was welcome and a long time coming. Some academic and independent historians have studied and written that history for decades, but the contributions of regular working people are still too often airbrushed out of the standard narratives of American history. As I write these words, the world is grappling with how to survive the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. The curious phrase “essential workers,” although it has been around for a while, has now become part of our daily vocabulary. It reflects an awareness, finally, that the workers who feed us, protect us, clean up after us, drive us around, deliver our stuff, teach our children, and care for the old, the sick, and the injured are not just assistant people. They are “essential.” Will our appreciation for essential workers inspire a structural realignment in America’s distribution of wealth? Or is it just a transitory thing, which soon enough will fade back into the old reality, that the more essential the work, the less the pay?

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a healthcare workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969 and 1989. That union had a history dating back to the early 1930s, where the original New York City Local 1199 was founded by a Russian immigrant with radical ideas. His name was Leon Davis. His radicalism was defined in part because of his political affiliation. In the early 1930s, when he began organizing pharmacists and drugstore workers, he was a Communist, active in the Trade Union Unity League. But he was also radical in the greater sense, in that he believed that marginalized workers in the hospital industry—Blacks, Puerto Ricans, poor Whites, women—were human beings who should be recognized, respected, and paid a decent wage. They were pharmacists, nurses, nurse assistants, janitors, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, cooks, and dishwashers. Davis believed these workers were entitled to a dignified and comfortable life as much as anyone else. That was a radical notion. No other unions in the 1950s, when 1199 began organizing hospital workers, wanted much to do with them.

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The Harlan Renaissance: An Interview with William H. Turner

West Virginia University Press is thrilled to be publishing William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, which has just been released and ships now when ordered from our site. Turner, who was also a contributor to our 2019 collection Appalachian Reckoning, considers this book the summation of his life’s work studying African American communities in Appalachia. Here he talks to Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Alex Haley, the author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gave you advice and encouragement to write this book back in 1990. How did it all come together over the 30 years until now?

WHT: When I met Alex, he was already familiar with me from a book I’d coedited with Ed Cabbell back in 1985 called Blacks in Appalachia. Alex told me that book would only appeal to sociologists or folklorists and that he didn’t think that it spoke to real Blacks in Appalachia, or what he called, “your grandmama on the porch.” He went on to say, “Bill, I hope you never write any more bullshit like this. Write something that your mother and her people in your hometown can read and appreciate.”

In the ensuing years between Blacks in Appalachia and The Harlan Renaissance, I grew a lot, I met a lot more people, I listened a lot more, and I tried to write this book with a different voice. The result is a book that’s somewhat memory, somewhat history, somewhat sociology, but I hope that as a package it’s a voice that tells a down-to-earth review of my journey but also reflects a group’s biography—the journey of lots of folks who grew up like I did in eastern Kentucky.Read More »