By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
“When I was in high school in Hinton, West Virginia, which, in the 1970’s was definitely not a place to be queer, I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as I could,” Jeff Mann says in a high mountain drawl you could drown in.
We’re talking about growing up gay and living life as an out, gay man in Appalachia. The persistent notion that you cannot live an authentic life in Appalachia if you are LGBTQ, that you have to move in order to thrive, is one of the ideas that Mann and Julia Watts are able to address in a recent collection they edited together.
Watts chimes in, “There is this sort of idea that there is one way to be Appalachian and we’re all super conservative, backwards … But that is only one of the stories.”
Released by WVU Press this spring, “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia” expands our understanding of the LGBTQ experience in America. The book first started as an idea of Abby Freeland, the Fiction Editor and Marketing Director at WVU Press, whose mission is to publish diverse voices and stories from the region. Mann, who has published poetry, essay and memoir teamed up with Watts, who has written more than a dozen novels, most of which explore the lives of LGBTQ folks living in small-town Appalachia. The queer experience in Appalachia is an area of deep expertise for Mann and Watts, both professionally and personally.
This June 28th marks the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, when drag queens and lesbians, gay men and transfolk at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, fought back after an early morning police raid. It set off a week of riots and demonstrations, sparking the modern gay rights movement. The stories of Storme DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson inspire the LGBTQ community to this day.
But there is the idea of a singular gay narrative, that all gay stories come from urban centers like New York and San Francisco, which is not reflective of the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ community. “I think in this anthology, you’re getting better representation of different stories and different viewpoints,” Watt says. “You see pieces by [LGBTQ] people who have stayed in the region. They may have moved to a more urban part of the region than where they were raised, but they still stayed.”
Just as Appalachia can be stubborn and narrow-minded, it can be welcoming and fierce; it is a tinderbox of story-telling and gathering of family and friends. It is, as all places are, many things, some of them contradictory. “That oral tradition of people sitting around talking … I think a lot of the reason that I’m a writer is because I spent a lot of my childhood sitting around listening to people talk,” Watts said. “Those voices stayed in my head.”
With literary luminaries like Dorothy Allison (best known for her brilliant coming of age novel, “Bastard Out of Carolina” ) and the great poet, Maggie Anderson contributing, it’s an all-star line up of queer Appalachia.
The scope of the work is broad. Some of the works are mournful, like Anita Skeen’s poem, ‘The Quilt: 25 April 1993.’ Some are funny, as poet Savannah Sipple uses her sharp quill for some delightful takes on “WWJD.”
Novelist Silas House delivers one of the most relatable coming-of-age tales in his short story about two high school friends who sneak away from their small town for a night at a drag show in Lexington. Rahul Mehta’s story of a young, gay, Indian-American man who feels out of place in New York and also his childhood home in West Virginia is a blast of fresh air.
The collection stands as a testament to the survival of Appalachian LGBTQ folks. Not everybody leaves. Even those who left were shaped by these mountains and rivers and hollows. For Mann, it is impossible to leave behind.
“I can look out my front windows and look at the green mountain across the valley,” he says. “When I drive to Virginia Tech to teach, I can take backroads on the way home and I’m out there in my little pickup truck with my country music on, driving through the pastures and the forest. It gives me a real sense of belonging.”
Plus, he inherited the family house in Hinton that he fled as a young man. He and his husband spend a lot of time at this house at the trailing end of the New River Gorge because he is a gay man whose heart is, as Mann himself might say, in the hills and hollers.