West Virginia University Press published LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia, edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts, in 2019, and now they have added to the conversation with Storytelling in Queer Appalachia: Imagining and Writing the Unspeakable Other edited by Hillery Glasby, Sherrie Gradin, and Rachael Ryerson. Storytelling in Queer Appalachia is an important work to have on the bookshelf for those interested in Appalachia, queer studies, or anyone wanting to contribute to a more equitable world.
Full disclaimer: The iconic rainbow cover caught my eye; I saw “queer,” “Appalachia,” and “storytelling” in the title and clicked to buy without noticing it was a scholarly work. I thought this was an anthology of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction like the Mann and Watts collection.
And I’m glad for that.
As Hayes’s article, “A Letter to Appalachia,” which opens the collection, states, “It’s time to talk about queerness” (19). As a nation and a culture, we are certainly doing that more than ever before. We’ve just had a U.S. president openly declare he has transgender Americans’ backs during his first address to a joint session of Congress. We have more queer characters in TV and movies, and their queerness isn’t always just a cheap device to further the plot.
Hell, I picked up two queer books at a southeast Kentucky Dollar Tree: one is a coming-of-age story of a transgender teen who is transitioning before she goes away to college, and the other is a YA love story between two male characters. Just right there in the Dollar Tree, in a place where there is no state-wide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, in a place where “conversion therapy” (AKA church- and state-sanctioned torture of queer kids) is legal.
These local and national moments that acknowledge our human existence matter greatly.
But while queerness is being discussed and examined more openly, one area often overlooked is how this all plays out within the geography and culture of Appalachia. Queer folks in Appalachia are ignored by both queer discourse and by Appalachian discourse (bautista 148), and this book helps fill in some of the neglected discussion. Many readers will be able to connect to the anecdotes in the essays, either having experienced them or witnessed them.
That seems to be goal #1 of the collection, to show how the concept of “Appalachia” (our own ideation of it, and also the notions outsiders have of it) is a myth, that there is far more nuance, complication, and beauty in the messy specifics.
Melissa Helton lives, teaches, and writes in the hills of southeast Kentucky. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Review, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Shenandoah, Cutleaf, Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Norwegian Writers Climate Campaign, and more. Her chapbooks include Inertia: A Study (2016) and Forward Through the Interval (December 2021).