Ghare aavijo–come home, say Neema Avashia’s adopted aunties and uncles, echoing “Country Roads,” the well-loved John Denver song. The home she is called back to, however, is not always an easy place, but rather multifaceted and complex, as seen in Avashia’s debut essay collection, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. Neither solely a place nor solely a people, home is rather some mysterious amalgamation of the two, a union bound by music, sports, ritual, and food.
Home is just one of many themes Avashia explores in these 17 essays, 11 of which have been previously published, including two in this very journal. Other questions, as the title suggests, include identity, sexuality, and a larger sense of place. Specifically, she writes of Appalachia, which appears both as the region many of us have come to know and love, and as a place about which there remains much to discover.
It is all but impossible to write about either Appalachia or India, much less both, without talking about food. Another Appalachia is no exception. Whether it be the “wonder that is Tudor’s Biscuit World” where a teenaged Neema would devour “a hash brown smothered with bottled cheese, sandwiched between two halves of biscuit…the only vegetarian item on the menu,” or the four-course Gujarati meals her mother prepared on a nightly basis and often shared with neighbors, Another Appalachia is replete with mouth-watering tastes and smells. “The Hindu Hillbilly Spice Company” is a particularly well-wrought example of how two seemingly distinct cultures and cuisines blend into a hybrid that could only exist in this particular corner of the world.
This same essay also reveals a flip side to hybridity–the desire to assimilate (or lack thereof). Avashia remembers being embarrassed by the lemon rice her mother packed for her school lunches, a mortification made worse by its packaging—Ziplocs marked with the symbol for hazardous waste, brought home from Union Carbide by her thrifty father. The desire for acceptance creates tension, not only over packed lunches, hairstyles, and clothes, but also over larger issues of race, class, and sexual identity.
One way to carve a space for oneself in America is through sports, and so as a child, Avashia develops an obsession with the region’s favorite, basketball. Despite a lack of either height or natural ability, she channels all her energy and free time into the game. In “Be Like Wilt,” which she once read at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, she describes the “temporary but overwhelming sense of belonging” at her first baskets, then goes on to say that her “Heart and Hustle” basketball trophy is “the award I cherish most.”
Beyond sports, the narrator finds belonging both within and beyond the small Indian population of Charleston, West Virginia. Throughout the book, we see how her white neighbors, the Bs, become her surrogate grandparents, their biological counterparts having remained in India, while “Nine Forms of the Goddess” beautifully illustrates the various ways different members of the desi community have adapted to life in their expatriate mountain home. In fact, her Indian aunties are among the first to accept her relationship with her partner, Laura, something she hides from parts of her white community, including the Bs.
Indeed, although West Virginia feels to Avashia like home, the place she dreams of, misses, and knows most about, her relationship to it, specifically its people, is complex. “The Blue-Red Divide” and “Our Armor” express this particularly well. In the first, for example, she writes:
Was my family only acceptable because we were viewed as an exception? Would we have been experienced differently, embraced less quickly, if my parents hadn’t assimilated so willingly? Is minority presence in a community only acceptable when we make up less than 1 percent of the overall population?
“In truth, I’ve always felt uneasy in my relationship to the word ‘Appalachian.’ Does it apply to everyone who grows up in the stretch of land that runs from Alabama to New York? Or do you not count if you are Brown, Indian, the child of immigrants who moved to a place out of necessity, loved it hard for the time they lived there, then moved away out of necessity again thirty years later, when work disappeared?”
In truth, I’ve always felt uneasy in my relationship to the word ‘Appalachian.’ Does it apply to everyone who grows up in the stretch of land that runs from Alabama to New York? Or do you not count if you are Brown, Indian, the child of immigrants who moved to a place out of necessity, loved it hard for the time they lived there, then moved away out of necessity again thirty years later, when work disappeared?
I am a shallow-rooted pine tree in the middle of a stand of white oaks, trees whose underground root system grows faster than the trunk and branches aboveground. I, on the other hand, can be toppled by little more than a strong gust of wind during a midsummer storm.
Laura Dennis is a writer, mother, musician, and college professor in Southeast Kentucky. Her nonfiction has appeared in MER VOX Quarterly, Kentucky Philological Review, and Bethlehem Writers Group, where she was the Spring 2020 Featured Author. She also edits the Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN) blog and is co-editor of book reviews for Mom Egg Review.