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A photo of Kendra as a four or five year old roller skating with her dad at a skating rink. The whole vibe is very 90s.
Kendra Winchester and her father at a skating rink. Photo: Provided.

Hello, all! 

Kendra from Read Appalachia here again to chat about all things Appalachian literature with you. 

The day of my dad’s 60th birthday party, northern Kentucky unfurled with sunny skies. The July heat beat down on our backs through the trees. My brother and sister-in-law set up a party tent out back. Guests brought an endless number of casserole dishes, lining them up along borrowed church tables. As the evening wore on, cicadas broke out in song, trying to drown out our rendition of “Happy Birthday” as my dad blew out his candles.

Earlier that year, my dad was hospitalized for COVID. I spent the better part of a week waking up each day and wondering if today would be the day I’d get a phone call delivering the worst sort of news. Watching everyone laugh as my dad opened his presents and read his over-the-hill birthday cards aloud, I couldn’t believe we made it.

Sometimes I hear other “expatalachians” talk about how they couldn’t wait to leave their tiny towns tucked away into the mountains. At happy hours, they put on their original accents like a set of old clothes and mimic their friends and family back home. Those hillbillies—always good for a laugh.

Ten years ago, I might have laughed along with them. When I first left the region, I felt desperate to fit in, willing to do whatever it took to pass as “normal.” But over time, I came to realize that being considered “normal” meant giving up the place my heart has always called home.

Reading Appalachian literature helps me reconnect and reclaim a culture and place that will always be part of who I am. Most of the literature I studied in graduate school featured city folk doing city folk things — walking down streets I’d never heard of, let alone seen. 

But when I read Appalachian literature, I’m finally reading about a place and people I know and love. I take pride in seeing the incredible literary art coming out of the region. I recommend Appalachian books to anyone who will listen.

I want people from outside of the region to think of the Appalachia that I know. I want them to think of the people who showed up at my parents house with groceries or helped out with the lawn when my family had COVID. To think of my grandfather out picking tomatoes in his bucket hat as he muttered about the deer jumping the garden fence. I need them to understand why Appalachia is worth fighting for.

This week, I’m recommending some of my favorite Appalachian books that I’ve read in the past couple of years. There’s a little something for everyone!

 

A photo of an orange book featuring silhouettes of a girl and a boy with a round sun in the background. The title “Same Sun here” is in black script.
“Same Sun Here” by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. Photo: Provided.

"Same Sun Here” by Silas House and Neela Vaswani

As a kid, I would have LOVED reading a middle grade book about my home region. So a couple years ago when I read “Same Sun Here,” I fell head-over-heels in love with this novel. Told in a series of letters, “Same Sun Here” follows two pen pals: River, an Appalachian boy from Kentucky, and Meena, an Indian girl who has recently moved to New York City. While these two kids’ lives seem completely different, over the course of the novel they realize that they actually have more in common than they first imagined. House and Vaswani narrated the audiobook, adding their performances to their characters.

 [A photo of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” sitting on a stone shelf.. The cover features a Black person with short hair wearing a white dress shirt and a red bow tie and sitting on a church pew.
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw. Photo: Provided.

"The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw

Hands down, my favorite book from last year is “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw. Each short story features Black women and girls — all with some connection with the Black church — trying to figure out their place in the world. Each story is a polished gem, perfectly constructed to read on its own or together with the other stories in this collection.

A photo of the book “Even As We Breathe.” The cover is a mossy green with black silhouettes of pine trees.
“Even As We Breathe” by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle.

"Even As We Breathe” by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

On my trip to the North Carolina mountains for a getaway last year, I took “Even As We Breathe” by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle. It is one of my favorite debut novels of 2020. This novel features Cowney, a Cherokee man living in the 1940s. He’s just accepted a job as a groundsman at the historic Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Over the course of the summer, Cowney tries to answer the question: what will he do next with his life? I loved Clapsaddle’s understanding of her characters and the complex realities of their lives. Plus, she includes some incredible descriptions of the North Carolina mountains I still find myself thinking about.

A photo of Kendra, a white 30-something woman with brunette hair, sitting on a cement block with the Ohio River in the background. You can also see a bridge crossing the river.
Kendra Winchester looking across the Ohio River. Photo: Provided.

Back when I was visiting my family in the summer, I took my nephew to the Books-A-Million over in Huntington, West Virginia. My nephew hadn’t been living in Appalachia for very long, but during our conversation, he asked me, “Aunt K, what is Appalachia?”

“It’s the region where our family is from, bud. It’s where we are now. All of this — all of this is Appalachia.”

He doesn’t know much about the stereotypes or the history of the region. All he knew is that this was where his family called home, and that was explanation enough.

As I say goodbye as your newsletter host this month, I want to thank you all for joining me for this meandering walk through Appalachian literature. I wish I could have shared even more books with you, but we’ll have to save that for another time.

As always, you can find all of the books I’ve mentioned in this newsletter series over on bookshop.org. 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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