Anjie Seewer Reynolds
From the Hills Themselves
“It’s like ‘I’ll throw an Apple-atcha,’” my roommate says to me, cocking her arm as if she’s about to chuck some fruit my way. She’s an Ohio transplant who married her “fella” and relocated to Eastern Kentucky, so she’s learned her stuff. “And it’s ‘Loo-uh-vul,’ not ‘Loo-ee-ville,’ if you want to sound like a local.”
I laugh. I’ve been saying “Appa-lay-shuh” and who-knows-what-else for years.
I’m at the Troublesome Creek Writers Retreat and I’ve come with humble excitement. I’ve told my fellow retreaters I’m willing to listen to anything they have to teach me about their region, because I’m not from here –I’m from the Pacific Northwest. As a result, I’ve learned pronunciations, the names of plants and animals, and stories of hearth, home, and hollers.
I arrived on Friday night and, after dinner, was the last of 13 people to introduce myself: “I’m Anjie Reynolds, I’m from Ashland, Oregon, and I’m writing a story that inflicted itself upon me seven years ago. It takes place in this region, and I’ve tried to set it elsewhere, but can’t.” After I say this, I realize I sound dramatic, even coy, or like my story is some big deal – but the truth is, when I tell them this I am breathless and scared and flushed, afraid of being regarded as an imposter or as someone who will potentially misrepresent a people or region. I’ve carried this fear for seven years. It’s why I only have 25 pages written and a full outline I’ve been too intimidated to touch.
My new writer-friends at Troublesome Creek laid my fears to rest, though. And that’s when I was reminded that, regional differences aside, and at the risk of sounding corny, we’re human beings connecting heart to heart. If you can get at that in your interactions and your writing, you just might get close to something real in any story, regardless of other obstacles.
That first night after our informal meeting, I sat in a creaky rocker in the main room at Stucky House, absorbing the historic feel of the building’s braided rug dustiness and the wet smells of winter walls turning toward spring. From the doorway of one of the bedrooms a woman stood in her jammies talking to me really, really fast. When I finally realized I’d heard “Come on now, get yourself in here!” I nodded a surprised “OK,” grabbed my notebook, and followed her into the room she was sharing for the weekend with her friend she’d known since third grade.
Inside, these ladies wanted to know about my story. I felt that timid feeling come up again, but knew I needed to share. I braced myself, settled in on a twin bed, and told them that my story was about a forbidden friendship in 1962 Eastern Kentucky. It was about the friendship between a blue girl (based on the real-life blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek) and a black girl from a depressed coal mining town. Because they’re initially bonded by feeling oppressed because of skin color, the big question in the story is what happens to the girls’ friendship when a cure for blue skin comes along and one of them can change the color of her skin – and the other can’t.
Some interesting things happened: One, both women told me they’d never heard of the blue people, or, if anything, their recollections were vague. This completely surprised me, as I’d assumed the blue people were almost a sacred group that needed protecting from what I perceived as the outside. Two, these women said it sounded like an interesting story and that I should go for it, continuing to write and research – and to be excited about its possibilities. Three, we moved on from that and sat around and shared our writing.
I couldn’t believe it.
For years, I’d built up that there would be protests from Appalachians if I tried to write this story, that I’d be turned away for my audacity. Instead, I was treated like a fellow writer following the natural instinct to write a story.
We moved on fluidly. One of the women shared the poetry she’s been writing and holding close to her heart since the Vietnam era. The other wrote strikingly funny, heartbreaking vignettes about her work in a mental institution one summer thirty years ago. Sitting there, my heart was full; I was willing to sit in that room all night like that. When they turned and asked me to share something of mine, I read a short essay I wrote a few years ago about the transition from climbing trees as a child to climbing trees as an adult. They listened intently, following with thoughtful comments about details and images.
“It was a magical night. I felt like pinching myself with such openness, authenticity, a shared love for writing, and a love for sharing writing.”
I later wrote this in my journal: “It was a magical night. I felt like pinching myself with such openness, authenticity, a shared love for writing, and a love for sharing writing.” This real interaction with these two women as fellow writers, fellow human beings, felt like permission from the Appalachian hills themselves to simply keep writing – to keep writing about anything and everything.
The whole weekend felt like that.
I took walks with other writers who helped me identify sweet gum trees and dropped gumballs, and the Jane Magnolia with its white pink petals.
I heard stories of the blight that wiped out entire chestnut populations across the region, leaving gray dead silhouettes on the hillsides. I learned the value of a cast iron skillet, the sadness that fracking in the North Carolina mountains brings to Appalachian hearts, and the pain that breast cancer brought five women in the holler of a nearby strip mining region.
The second night, I sat in a room with two other women, college writing instructors from West Virginia, and was given extensive research tips about the coal mining industry, Affrilachian literature, and writer’s workshops I might want to consider. This was after an impromptu evening of one writer’s banjo strumming while yet other writers flat footed, buck danced, back stepped (and whatever else you call it!) on Stucky’s old hardwoods.
In just 36 hours, the world of Appalachia and its humanity and its literature was popped open to me through the warmth and openness of a handful of its writers – doing more for me than seven years of research and distance. I admit I had hoped for something like that to happen, but I didn’t dare hope it would be so good.
When I left on Sunday afternoon after the retreat wound down, I slowly drove across the Jethro Amburgey Bridge over Troublesome Creek. There, I looked back in my rearview mirror at Hindman’s property, and felt grateful. I was grateful for people who opened up this place – this sense of place – just by accepting and sharing. I also made myself a promise: no matter how daunting my writing task would feel in the days to come, I would think of these 13 people at Troublesome with the fondness they inspired – and I would write because, like all writers, we’ve simply got our stories to tell.
Anjie Seewer Reynolds’ work has been published in The Writer's Workshop Review, Underwired, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others; her essays have also aired on KQED, San Francisco's NPR affiliate. She is the recipient of the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for Young Readers Literature and lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband and their two children.