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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Midwinter roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

Titles from WVU Press appear on year-end bestseller lists from City of Asylum Bookstore in Pittsburgh (where The Secret Lives of Church Ladies lands at #1) and at WordPlay in Wardensville, WV (where LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia and Appalachian Reckoning are in the year’s top 20). Many thanks to all the independent booksellers who joined in our success in 2021!

Publishers Weekly has the first published review of Jason Kapcala’s Hungry Town: “With the grit of a western and the crackle of a murder mystery, this finely wrought effort delivers the goods.” Kapcala will launch the book at an event hosted by the WVU Humanities Center and the WVU Leadership Studies Department on February 28.

The Los Angeles Review of Books talks with Joe Trotter, saying he “has helped reshape thinking on class and race in American history.” Trotter’s book African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry is new from WVU Press.

Neema Avashia’s memoir-in-essays Another Appalachia (“defying Appalachian stereotypes, her lessons about class, race, gender, and sexuality begin in childhood”) is anticipated on Autostraddle‘s list of queer and feminist books for winter 2022. The author talks with the Queer Everything podcast.

Tom Beers, editor of Kirkus, praises Deesha Philyaw’s book in Passport Magazine: “We’re definitely seeing more diverse fiction published by houses big and small, especially great stuff from Black writers, many of them debuts. In the past year alone, I’ve loved Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” Philyaw is featured on the Craft Talk blog, where Jami Attenberg predicts her fiction “will be taught ten years from now.” City Paper covers Philyaw’s participation, alongside Brian Broome and Damon Young, in the Pittsburgh Racial Justice Summit.

Literary Hub features Andrew Keen’s interview with Kate Daniels about her book Slow Fuse of the Possible. Daniels’s launch event at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville receives coverage in the Augusta Free Press.Read More »

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 »

Early winter roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

Jim Lewis’s Ghosts of New York has been named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, one of two titles from university presses honored on the list. John Warner reacts to the Times picks at Substack, “noting little excitements like the fact that West Virginia University Press, which had such incredible success with Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, has scored another notable book with Ghosts of New York.”

Foreword Reviews has one of the first published reviews of Kate Daniels’s Slow Fuse of the Possible, which it calls “a compelling memoir about tense and turbulent experiences within an analysis relationship.” Daniels will launch the book at winter events in Charlottesville and Nashville.

Neema Avashia makes two appearances to talk about her highly anticipated March book Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in Mountain Place—on the podcast Appodlachia, and in a reading with the WVU Humanities Center. Watch for news about Avashia’s launch events in Pittsburgh, Boston, and more.

In a major essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ryan Boyd discusses Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading: “The book does not just diagnose and criticize: it is a working collection, drawing from both K–12 and college teachers in a range of disciplines.” Blum appears in Times Higher Education, and her book—which is the #1 title on Library Journal’s bestseller list for education—is reviewed in Teaching Sociology. An essay from Slate on the practice of ungrading mentions Blum’s book, saying: “As I read I found myself nodding along so fervently that my neck got sore.”
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On being a community publisher: Our year in sixty seconds

With things settling gradually into some new normal—and publishing experiencing continued growth despite the challenges of the pandemic and supply-chain crisis—the staff at West Virginia University Press are pleased to take sixty seconds to look back on a year of genuine celebration and unparalleled achievements. We’re proud of our authors’ many successes in 2021, from national recognition (the PEN/Faulkner Award, the year’s “100 Notable Books” in the New York Times) to regional accomplishments (the Weatherford Award, the Blair Mountain Centennial commemoration) to frequent appearances, by our scholars of teaching and learning, in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. Second in the series is Ian from Ghost Palace Books in Thomas, WV.

How did Ghost Palace come to be? What’s your role there?

Ghost Palace started out as four people, incidental friends, unhappy in their work, meeting behind the backs of their employers to plot an escape. They soon realized they all shared a deep, abiding love (or a mild habit, at least) of reading and, utterly ignorant of the matter, figured owning and operating a bookstore together would be just the answer to their troubles. How right and how wrong. Not long after making this decision, a global pandemic came along and slammed the door shut on the whole “economy” thing. Perfect! A sign. They all left their stupid jobs to convert half an old duplex into a retail space and, presto, a few months later Ghost Palace was open for business.

From the start we tried to organize ourselves, loosely, as a collective, and decided we would share all operational tasks equally, so my own role, really, is basically the same as everyone else’s. In practice this works out as a rotation. One week I’ll be responsible for placing and receiving book orders; another week I’ll be on janitor duty, scrubbing the toilet. I have to say, it’s nice to change things up—regularly.Read More »

Mid-fall roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

William H. Turner’s book The Harlan Renaissance continues its much-celebrated rollout, receiving attention from Inside Appalachia, WYMT television in Hazard, the Lexington Herald Leader, and the Black in Appalachia podcast. In a video posted to social media, W. Kamau Bell teases Turner’s appearance on CNN’s United Shades of America—watch this space for updates!

In the first published review of Kate Daniels’s Slow Fuse of the Possible, Kirkus calls the book a “poignant confessional from an award-winning poet,” saying “Daniels is a keen observer of visceral moments and powerful emotions.”

New York Times bestseller Morgan Jerkins anticipates Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia on The United States of Anxiety from WNYC public radio. She names it one of two books she’s excited for the rest of the world to read, praising Avashia for writing sensitively “about that part of society which is oftentimes narrowed to deleterious stereotypes.”

Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has been longlisted for the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize. It receives attention in Deadline Hollywood, the Miami Herald, Library Journal, and Cascadia Weekly. On November 10, Philyaw will participate in an online event celebrating University Press Week hosted by Chicago’s Seminary Coop Bookstore.Read More »

Conversations with indies: An interview with Gregory Kornbluh of Cincinnati’s Downbound Books

The holiday season’s approaching, and supply-chain concerns make it a good idea to shop early. In that spirit, we’re excited to introduce the blog’s readership to some of the region’s indie booksellers, highlighting the important work they do with authors, publishers, readers, and communities. First up is Gregory Kornbluh, owner of Downbound Books in Cincinnati. Get to know Gregory in the interview below, and please support independent bookstores this holiday season!

You worked in university press publishing before you opened Downbound. Can you tell me about that transition?

I did come from Harvard University Press, but was a bookseller for a spell before that, so fortunately I wasn’t coming into this blind. I also got to work with booksellers while at HUP, which isn’t always the case at a university press. We certainly did our fair share of titles that were never meant to attract attention outside of the academy, but also had books with some potential for a broader audience. We were often fooling ourselves on that, of course; unlike you guys at WVUP, we weren’t rolling out must-read National Book Award finalists. But there are ways in which the structure of the publishing process incentivizes projecting best case scenarios for books as they work through the pipeline—dreamy comps, media fantasies, etc.—and I’ve had to train myself away from some of that. In my case, too, just being in Cambridge and haunting its bookshops reinforced some of those ideas we at HUP would sometimes have about the general book market. So, it was sort of a double bubble. Coming home to Cincinnati and opening Downbound has helped me adopt a more realistic stance towards the broader market for scholarship and serious nonfiction. I’d like to think that our shelves hold more UP titles than would be expected in a 500-square-foot shop in a midsize Midwestern city, but there are fewer than we started with. Personal commitments aside, footnotes just aren’t a hill we’re gonna die on. You’ll find us dead and happy on Board Books about Poop mountain instead.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 »

Early fall roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, an essay on John B. Thompson’s Book Wars uses West Virginia University Press to make a point about the state of publishing in an era of corporate consolidation. “University and independent publishers, operating outside the New York–centric Big Five model, create opportunities for writers to get their work out,” writes Jennifer Howard. “For instance, West Virginia University Press published one of last year’s biggest literary successes, the story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is also one of two WVU Press titles lauded in Book Riot‘s “20 Must-Read Books from University Presses,” where it’s joined by LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia. And Secret Lives author Deesha Philyaw makes new appearances this month across media—in Ploughshares, the Bitter Southerner, and as part of NPR’s coverage of the Library of Congress National Book Festival. She’ll appear at the festival on September 23.

Foreword Reviews has the first published review of Keegan Lester’s Perfect Dirt, which is deemed “powerful and insightful.” Reviewer Ashley Holstrom finds: “Places are fleshed out alongside people, with West Virginia being the book’s star.”

Chuck Keeney and his book The Road to Blair Mountain are cited widely in reporting on the Blair Mountain Centennial events of Labor Day Weekend. He’s the focus of a segment with Melissa Harris-Perry on WNYC’s The Takeaway, and is featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Facing South, West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s “Us and Them,” and the Charleston Gazette-Mail. A much-circulated AP piece featuring Keeney is picked up by media in San Francisco, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Winston-Salem, and elsewhere. The New York Times links to Keeney’s book in their coverage of the commemoration.

Also prominent in the Blair Mountain coverage is Anne Lawrence’s book On Dark and Bloody Ground, which is called “magnificent” on the Shabbat reading list from Jewish Currents, and is featured on West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in 100 Days in Appalachia, and in the West Virginia Observer, where it’s described as a “valuable tool to keep this history alive.”Read More »