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A photo of the Ohio River taken from the Ohio side looking downriver. A steel bridge spanning the river can be seen in the distance.
A bridge spanning the Ohio River. Photo: Provided.

A photo of Kendra, a white 30-something woman with long brunette hair and dark glasses, wearing a velvet blazer and metallic black dress pants.Every year when libraries and bookstores burst into rainbow displays for Pride Month, I always check to see what they recommend. While I’ve discovered many fabulous new-to-me books this way, I’m usually looking for something specific – Appalachian literature. Sometimes I’ll come across well-known authors like Dorothy Allison or Silas House, but beyond that, from the books I most often see in these displays, you’d think queer people didn’t exist outside of urban centers like New York City or San Francisco.

Queer folks across Appalachia continue to push back against this assumption. Rae Garringer’s podcast "Country Queers" profiles LGBTQ+ people who make their home in rural corners of the country. And as I’ve searched for better queer Appalachian representation in the bookish world, I’ve found many wonderful independent and university presses publishing excellent titles. Belt Publishing, a Midwestern press, published “Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America,” edited by Ryan Schuessler and Kevin Whiteneir Jr. earlier this year, and West Virginia University Press published "LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia," edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts in 2019.

Queer Appalachians deserve to see ourselves in the literature we read. The first time I read the dedication of “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia,” I felt my eyes sting with tears as I tried to focus on the words, reading them over and over again: “For the ones who stayed.”

For years, I’d travel back home to the Ohio River Valley to visit the people and the place that I loved most. Yet, because of my queerness, I felt that I’d been sentenced to wear an invisible “guest” sticker whenever I crossed back into the mountains. Those five words — “for the ones who stayed” — gave me hope that maybe, one day, I would find my way home.

Literature has the power to help its readers imagine new possibilities for themselves. Where once they felt alone in the world, isolated with no way out, books inspire hope for the future. When I read queer Appalachian literature, I see people like me, in so many ways, making a life for themselves as they face similar challenges. Their bravery and resilience help me realize that I possess those qualities too.

So today, I’m sharing a few LGBTQ+ titles that will help you jumpstart your reading — or add a few more books to your already-precarious “to-be-read” pile. Either way, I hope you find a new favorite read.

A photo of “The Prettiest Star” against a white background. The cover is a black and white photo of a white man turned away from the camera. Multi-colored flags are placed throughout the design.
“The Prettiest Star” by Carter Sickels. Photo: Provided.

The Prettiest Star” by Carter Sickels

Out from one of my favorite indie presses, Hub City Press, “The Prettiest Star” follows Brian, a 20-something gay man living with AIDS in the 1980s. After his lover dies, Brian finds his condition deteriorating rapidly. With nowhere else to go, he goes back home to Appalachian Ohio. His parents don’t even want to admit that he is gay, let alone has AIDS, making Brian feel more isolated and alone than ever before.

Sickels wields the ability to get under his characters’ skin, and each viewpoint character — Brian, Brian’s sister and his mom — expresses themselves in such unique ways. The ending of this musical story will make your eyes more than just a little misty, so be sure to grab some tissues and a Bowie album, preferably on vinyl.

A photo of “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome held by a white hand in front of some very old limbs of a tree. The cover is white with black text. A photo of a Black young man is featured on the cover. The author’s name is in red text.
“Punch Me up to the Gods” by Brian Broome. Photo: Provided.

Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome

I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Brian Broome win the 2021 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. His memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” represents a master class of storytelling in creative nonfiction.

We follow Brian – a gay, Black boy in Appalachian Ohio – from childhood to adulthood as he slowly comes to understand what it means for him to live at these intersections of identities. Broome’s writing stays with you, and I often find myself thinking of particularly vivid scenes, examining them over and over again, admiring the incredible craft of this book.

A photo of the book “Southernmost” by Silas House lying on a wicker basket. The cover is a lot of blues, greens, and yellow and has a crane silhouetted off to the side.
“Southernmost” by Silas House. Photo: Provided.

Southernmost” by Silas House

House’s writing found me like a warm hug welcoming me out of the cold. My heart had been broken, making me feel unsettled and insecure about who I was and if the queer part of my identity even mattered. After reading one of his short stories, I found “Southernmost.” House’s latest novel, which follows Asher, a pastor, as he begins to learn what truly loving and caring for others really means.

This book overflows with empathy for Asher as first his church, and then his marriage, falls apart. But House’s storytelling also never lets the protagonist off the hook for his past harmful behavior. Ultimately, I walked away from this book with a deep sense of love that brings a smile to my face as I think about the novel’s last scene. (Sorry, no spoilers here! You’ll have to pick up a copy for yourself.)

A photo of  a white woman’s hand holding out a copy of “The Third Rainbow Girl.” A tattoo of West Virginia can be seen on her  forearm. The cover of the book features a beautiful forest scene with the title in white text.
“The Third Rainbow Girl” by Emma Copley Eisenberg

"The Third Rainbow Girl" by Emma Copley Eisenberg

I connected with Emma Copley Eisenberg after reading and loving her debut “The Third Rainbow Girl,” a nonfiction title that’s part true crime, part memoir, and part history. Really, it has a little bit of everything! As we move through the book, each part falls into place, helping create a cohesive whole.

Now it’s important to note that Eisenberg isn’t from Appalachia. She volunteered in West Virginia for several years, falling in love with the region, which comes across on every page. I’m always skeptical when someone from outside the region decides to write about Appalachia, but Eisenberg does it well, dedicating an immense amount of time carefully crafting “The Third Rainbow Girl.”

A photo of the book “Storytelling in Queer Appalachia” on a white background. The cover is a white speech bubble over a rainbow flag.
“Storytelling in Queer Appalachia: Imagining and Writing the Unspeakable Other,” edited by Hillery Glasby, Sherrie Gradin, and Rachel Ryerson. Photo: Provided.

More Titles:

 

I think that’s enough books for your “to-be-read” list this week! I’ll be back next week with even more bookish discussion. In the meantime, don’t forget to pick up a copy of "English Lit" by Bernard Clay. He and I will be chatting on 100 Days in Appalachia’s Instagram page about his work on November 22 at 7:00 PM Eastern Time. Make sure you give the account a follow now so you don’t miss it!

Looking for past books I’ve mentioned? You can find all of the books I’ve mentioned in this newsletter series over on bookshop.org. As always, you can find @ReadAppalachia on Instagram and TikTok, visit our website, ReadAppalachia.com, or reach us via email at readappalachia@gmail.com.

Happy Reading!

- Kendra

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