Hillbilly Selfie: JD Vance’s Provocative Storytelling

Note: I started writing this post about 4 years ago when I first read Vance’s memoir. Since then I’ve listened to the author read the book on tape, and I’ve seen Ron Howard’s revisioning of the narrative on Netflix.

Below are 2 photographs of the same woman. She took them both of herself, but hundreds of miles apart and there is a year between them.

One image was to flirt with her husband when she was in West Virginia for weeks and he was at home in Vermont.

The other was an attempt to find herself in a lurking depression in her own kitchen where she spent most of her time alone for 4 years.

Her husband keeps the first one on his phone. She generally keeps the second one private, but looks at it often.

Which of these images can best help us know this woman? Can either tell us anything?

So began my inner monologue about J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

One of the more fruitless debates going is whether or not someone’s memories and perceptions of his or her experience are “true.”

Did Mamaw fire a .38 Special at a family member, or was it some other type of handgun? Did she even fire it, or did she just point it at someone? Did the author see her with a gun in her hand frequently, or is the fact that he saw it at all so searing on his child’s mind that she might as well have been carrying all the time?

This not a particularly vital question in Hillbilly Elegy, but it represents the kind of detail that seems to plague some readers about this book, and about creative nonfiction in general.

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The primary reason I never finished this post was not wanting to deal with what those of us in the writing world refer to as the “they come for you when” phenomenon. I cherish being part of the Appalachian writers community, and it was immediately apparent that the community at-large was angry about Vance’s book. It was not possible to have an objective thought. The loyalty test was clear: to buy this book, to read it, to defend it in any way was a betrayal of your homeplace and your people.

It’s been years, and I’ve asked many times why this is, and I have yet to understand the depth of the anger, and what the real triggers are.

I know what people say the problems are, but I can’t get it to pencil out.

I don’t think this is “poverty porn.” PP asks nothing of you but to gawk and delight in images of human agony and distress. I think what bothers people more generally is the opposite is at play in Hillbilly Elegy. The narrative demands that you think about it.

Economic frailty is the backbone of this story, there is no doubt about that. And some critics of Elegy point to insufficient examination of the corporate and capitalist dynamics that have left some areas of the country bereft of the elements necessary for people to thrive. There is not a developed and recognized economic development strategy that is about sustainability and opportunity for people who want or need to make a home in the Appalachian region.

In large measure, Appalachia has been a colonial economy for extractive industry. My shorthand is read The Lorax. It’s not that simple in the big picture, but on some level it is that simple.

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One of Vance’s implicit points is that the region is where it is because people won’t stand up for something different. And the push back is that it’s not fair to ask abused people to push back. It’s not their fault.

And this is exactly what Vance is telling. And acknowledging. And as far as I can tell making as plain as day.

It’s not their fault.

But I think what he’s doing that goes unrecognized is that there comes a point at which, even when it’s not your fault, it is your responsibility.

My concern is some folks are unwilling to wrangle this. It absolutely without a shadow of a doubt sucks. And if you’ve read the memoir and seen the movie, you know there are no bones about it. The movie takes artistic liberties with some things — one is the turtle with a bloody cracked shell who just needs placed out of the road to heal. Another is the imagery of Vance’s mother reaching back to him from her position prone on a bed. She wants him to cling to her. She wants him to stay.

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I think there is a place for all of us in Elegy.

I don’t think it’s an all or nothing conversation, or at least it shouldn’t be.

They come for you when you say you’re grateful to J. D. Vance.

Let ’em come.

I’m not ungrateful.

In Order to Live: Writing in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers

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Anthology of Appalachian Writers Crystal Wilkinson Volume XII

I haven’t known what to say about having an essay included in the latest Anthology of Appalachian Writers. There are the simple and obvious things: This is an honor and a privilege; it means a lot to me; I am grateful.

But there are other things to say, too. Things that are more complicated and difficult.

When I saw the call for submissions, I thought of an essay I’d written five years ago while a student at WV Wesleyan College in the MFA program. I sent it in to the anthology with this note:

“This piece is about ethnic tensions between Italian and Polish immigrants in the Greenbrier Valley, WV. I recognize it might be a stretch for this anthology, but as an editor myself I know there are complexities in assembling a thematic volume or issue that really only make themselves known in the process.”

Only now, with this full book in hand, do I see how very un-stretched this essay is for this volume. In the prelude, “Everybody’s Street and Being Black in Appalachia: The Prose and Poetry of Crystal Wilkinson,” S. Bailey Shurbutt notes:

(Crystal Wilkinson says) “I’m actually haunted by the varieties of ways there are to be human in this world; and the variety of ways there are to live, to think.” The theme of madness also fits poignantly with the idea of being an ‘outsider’….

I got a bit lightheaded when I read that.

I told myself my essay was about immigrants and social class. Heck, I told the senior managing editor that. But I am reminded of Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And it takes some time to realize what your story is, and why you may be telling yourself a certain version at different points. When you see your story in a new way, you start to live in a new way.

My great-grandfather killed himself. And coming to terms with that has been and continues to be a long road. He’s been a papery ghost over my life, and only lately am I starting to put him to rest. As I’ve worked on truly seeing him, I’ve seen a lot of other things. Those things are not pretty, but seeing them is the first step to peace.

So back to my earlier thought. I am grateful. Just not exactly why I thought I was.

I hope you will order and read this anthology. It may help you see your own story.

News Release: Shepherd University Anthology Celebrates Affrilachian Writers

The 12th volume of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Crystal Wilkinson Volume has been released.  The book is part of the series of anthologies that center around West Virginia Common Read Writers at the Center for the Book and the Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence at the Shepherd University Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities. This year’s anthology celebrates the work of Affrilachian poet and Weatherford award winner Crystal Wilkinson, 2019 One Book One West Virginia Common Read author.

“This is our most diverse volume ever,” Managing Editor Sylvia Shurbutt noted.  “We’re excited about the volume in particular because it reflects so well the work of Crystal Wilkinson, both a superb writer and wonderfully good-hearted person.”  

The volume, supported by the WV Library Association, the WV Humanities Council, and the Shepherd University Foundation, contains writers from across the nation and the Appalachian region, including this year Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker, WV Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, poets  Ronald Davis, Mark DeFoe, and Randi Ward, as well as fiction and creative nonfiction writers from around the state and the country.

This volume also contains the stories of WV Fiction Competition winners, Jessica Salfia, Jordan Carter, and Seán Patrick Duffy.  Crystal Wilkinson selected the winners and wrote story critiques for all the finalists.  Her critiques of Salfia, Carter, and Duffy are contained within the volume.

The book is an annual anthology, created by editors Dave Hoffman, Natalie Sypolt, and Allison Wharton.  Copies of the volume can be obtained from Four Seasons Bookstore in Shepherdstown.  During these Covid days, call Four Seasons, Monday through Saturday, at 304-876-3486 (between 10 am and 3 pm) or 304-240-9550 (you can text that number also) or shoot Kendra an e-mail at 4seasons114@gmail.com.  When Covid restrictions are lifted the book will be available at other venues.  

The WV Library Association distributes copies of the anthology to school libraries across West Virginia.  For more information or questions, see the anthology website at https://www.shepherd.edu/ahwir/anthology-of-appalachian-writers or contact Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt at the Shepherd Center for Appalachian Studies and Communities.