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.

 

WV Can’t Wait: This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around Redux

May 16, 2011, I wrote this in a blog post:

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it, I promise. There’s a brief backstory.

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I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed a week ago yesterday, and up pops, “Mark Wolfe is live now.” I chuckle to myself thinking that man is nothing if not LIVE, and move along.

But every now and then I realize it’s still there. Mark Wolfe is still live now. I get suspicious. What’s this creative genius doing, anyway? (Yes, he designed my blog header and the masthead for Essays on Childhood, made art for the WV Land Trust and a revamped logo for the WV Alliance for Sustainable Families…..along with hundreds of other things. It’s good to know what Mark is doing at any given moment.)

I’m not 100% sure what is happening in this video, but then I see John Barrett. John is someone who has always impressed me with his sincere and affable demeanor, his quick mind, and his commitment to West Virginia. He was on the board of directors for the WV Land Trust when I worked for them. Just rock-solid, good governance, can-do, let’s-do-the-right-thing stuff flows from John.

Now I really have to know what’s going on, because whatever it is, my gut is telling me I want to be part of it.

And then there it was. It was the last thing I expected to hear.

I was being introduced through cyberspace to the next Governor of West Virginia.

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Stephen Smith (left), 38, who ran the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, announced he is running for governor as a Democrat in the 2020 elections. Photo accompanying Jake Zuckerman’s 11/28/2018 article the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Community organizer launches 2020 gubernatorial bid as Democrat”

This can’t be real. But it is real.

And he’s not a coal baron. Or a lawyer. Or the 9th copy of the same family politician over generations.

He’s a dad. And a nonprofit executive. And a WV native. And a WV native who came back — to help.

He’s 38 years old. His relative youth is one of his greatest assets, and potentially also such for the state. When you’re 38 and running for elected office for the first time, you do not accept all the things the jaded Gollum-like creatures crawling out of their offices try to sell you. Extractive industry is not yet the precious.

I email with Stephen, we talk on the phone, and he’s real. He is a different brand — more informed by ideas of equality and partnership than most. He talked about his family, and his interest in building a movement that has legs to carry it apart from his candidacy.

He really listened to me, and he asked me questions about myself and clarifying questions about my ideas and observations.

He is not kidding when he talks about a movement that shifts power and resources from corporate outside interests and back into the hands of regular West Virginians. It will be very difficult, and as the effort progresses I am sure it will get a little bit scary. I’ve seen how established power brokers react to challenge. (Pro Tip: They are not nice about it.)

I’m excited about this, which has my attention because it’s been years upon years since I was excited about the potential to move the needle in West Virginia. I feel so strongly about this that I joined the campaign as a part of a leadership team making contacts with “ex-patriates” and trying to help make connections with friends in other states who might do the same where they are.

No matter how this goes, I believe supporting a candidate like this — the kind of candidate who rarely comes along — is a needle-moving opportunity in itself.

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I know what it’s like to believe and be disappointed, but this feels different. Maybe it’s different because I am different.  Two ideas about that:

  • It may feel different because, truly, West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot of disillusioned people in my generation and beyond tried to build a life in WV and faced challenges we couldn’t overcome. And that is in fact on me; I decided the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work. That was my choice. But gosh darn it, it didn’t have to be that way. Life is challenging no matter where you are. I needed vocal people in leadership positions to care a lot more about the future for me and my family, and they were too few or too hard to find. It’s only gotten less friendly since I departed. I am astonished by the friends who have left, who are still in the process of leaving. It’s not a few. It was a core constituency of Create West Virginia at one time. The organization never wanted to go political, and I thought then and still think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but we are at a chance-against-a-certainty-stage now. We all have to take a risk. It’s true that a ragtag gang of believers in the knowledge economy were going to lose a street fight with extractive industry, but you don’t always fight to win the battle. Say it with me: You fight to win the war.
  • I’m over 15 years older than I was when I decided to move back to West Virginia. I was a few years younger than Stephen Smith is now. I had nothing but optimism and hope in my soul for helping my home state; at some point, I lost that hope. I was severely discouraged, and scared, and I left. The power structure in state government seemed stacked against my concerns. In hindsight I think I may have retreated to recover; for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about how to get back into this fight.

Right now, that looks like serving on a leadership team to communicate with WV “ex-pats”  living in Virginia about how we can help leverage the movement for change.

If I can pass this spark to you, well, I would be delighted. Give the movement a look-see. Then consider emailing the campaign about how you can help.

There’s a place for you in this.

No foolin’ around.