Month: August 2018

Farmhouse Chic: The Rising Trendiness of an Appalachian Aesthetic

Can we talk about appropriation of Appalachian culture for a minute?
Specifically the whole “farmhouse” look as like, a thing. I saw a metal sign in Target the other day that said “Farmhouse.” I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using “farmhouse” as inspiration for a home (and there’s obviously nothing wrong with it if you actually live on a farm). I actually think the look is really beautiful. But I imagine we can all agree that giving money to a big store for a mass produced generic piece meant to imitate the look is literally textbook appropriation, especially if you’re not doing anything to support the regions where the look originates and especially especially if your politics are some of those which keep those regions poor.

I also kind of laugh, thinking about the actual farmhouses I grew up in. I wonder how some of the people who just know the look from Pinterest would feel about the raccoon that made its way into our dryer one time.

My new home is definitely not on a farm here in SoCal, though I am super excited that we have a bunch of fruit trees and raised beds ready to go, but the interior so far is pretty much just a shrine to West Virginia. It’s all from independent artists or my relatives and friends. The quilt was a wedding gift from a cousin, a combination of chicken feedsacks, my dad’s old shirts, and a quilt top my great grandma pieced. It’s a bear claw pattern for WV.

I’m not trying to be all “more authentic than thou” about it, though I know it might sound that way. I’ll admit it feels kind of nice that I get to be kind of trendy when I’m really just obsessed with my origin story.

I just really can’t wrap my head around paying money to people who pereptuate the exploitation of Appalachia to look like your house is some sterile version of one in Appalachia. If I’m being honest with myself, it bothers me that people might think they can have the beautiful parts of our culture without having, or knowing anything about, the hard parts.

A friend pointed out that the trend may at least give people an appreciation for their own heirlooms and for craftsmanship, and I see her point. Things can be good in some ways and bad in others.

Decorate your home in the way that brings you joy, but please, if your look is inspired by a culture you don’t come from, do your best to learn about and support the people from that culture in whatever way you can.

What do you think? Anyone else try to ease homesickness by surrounding themselves with things from home? What are your feelings about the rise of farmhouse chic?

The Monster in the Mirror: Appalachian Imposter Syndrome and Appropriating My Own Culture

I have to admit that what makes me the most uncomfortable in the debate about JD Vance and Hillbilly Elegy is the fear that I am like him.

Vance is racist, claiming he is “skeptical” of the idea of white privilege. The website for his nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, blames the breakup of families for a host of problems rather than the other way around. The championing of his story perpetuates the idea that a person, a poor Appalachian person specifically, can pull themselves up by the bootstraps—an idea that is precisely the opposite of what  those outside the region who are suddenly so interested in Appalachia, need to hear.

It struck me that Vance is engaging in a sort of cultural appropriation, though of his own culture, in using the story of Appalachian poverty to advance his own name, political career, and wealth, without giving back much of what he gains. But my fear starts here—he may genuinely think that he is giving back, that Our Ohio Renewal and his own political ambitions are truly what the region needs. He’s not trying to be the bad guy.

What does that make me? To quote Clare Dederer out of context, “Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?].”

I, too, left Appalachia. It was never a question for me that I would leave. Though I loved the hills, the green, the sweet sap from our sugar maples, I knew by the time I was 10 that West Virginia was the place of my childhood, of my roots, but not where I would stay. And now, two decades later, I’ve written a book. People are listening to what I have to say. I might make some money.

I feel like an imposter when I describe myself as an Appalachian author. Others who claim that title still live there. They stayed. I feel guilt when I think of my friends who stayed, who are creating art and organic farms, protesting, sticking rainbow stickers on the windows of their businesses. They’re doing the work. Meanwhile I skipped town and still get to write about it.

Do I even get to call myself a West Virginian? I wonder almost daily.

And then there’s a microaggression.

“Where are you from?” someone will ask.

“West Virginia,” I’ll say.

The answer varies.

Sometimes it’s, “Wowww,” with a smirk, as if we’re both in on a joke.

I don’t laugh.

Sometimes it’s, “But you don’t have an accent.”

I wonder what they would think if they heard the codeswitching I do when I go home.

Sometimes it’s the classic— “Oh, near Roanoke?”

The rage I feel confirms that yes, I am a West Virginian.

Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “I feel particularly free to rebel and to rail against my culture. I fear no betrayal on my part, because… I was totally absorbed in mine…. In leaving home I did not lose touch with my origins because lo mexicano is in my system. I am a turtle, wherever I go, I carry ‘home’ on my back.”

Like Anzaldúa, my home, my culture is in my blood. I carry West Virginia with me everywhere. When I write the parts that are ugly, I write it as if I were writing about my self. But Vance thinks this too.

Saying that ignores a lot, though. It ignores the fact that even in Appalachia, Vance was still a white man. Though he certainly faced the hardships of poverty and familial addiction, when he left—when he did overcome those (and good for him for doing so!), he got to be a white man. He can imagine that the problems of poverty and addiction are self-imposed because when he left Appalachia, the privileges he did have allowed him to leave poverty and addiction behind.

In my Appalachian childhood, I was a Jewish girl. Though the intersectionality of my identities did not make things as hard for me as it did for my black peers, I was still told regularly to my face that I would go to hell. I was harassed on the school bus. I was sexually assaulted.

I won’t gloss over my own privilege. My own white skin and access to education allowed me to climb the social and economic ladder when I left the region too. But the intricacies of my identity have led me to think critically about the roots of issues (spoiler alert: the good ol’ capitalism/patriarchy mashup), rather than blame the people I grew up with for them.

Anzaldúa says, “So yes, though ‘home’ permeates every sinew and cartilage in my body, I too am afraid of going home. Though I’ll defend my… culture when they are attacked…I abhor some of my culture’s ways.” The ugly parts I share as if I own them, yes, but I try consciously to make it clear that those ugly parts result from the fists of capitalism that have grabbed at our hills for so many decades. Though I may recall the effects they have had on me, I will not blame them on my neighbors.

And what about the beauty? Isn’t that what appropriation usually is? Taking the things that are beautiful and profiting from them, without giving back to those you took it from? Because really, most of my writing about Appalachia is a love letter.

It’s not as simple as “giving back,” Vance has shown me. I will have to give back correctly—making sure, as I do in my writing not to do so in a way that blames Appalachia for its poverty and all that stems from it. I will be intentional with my financial contributions, supporting organizations, candidates, authors, and artists who advocate for the region in meaningful ways. I will be intentional with my words, remembering and portraying the agency, the grit, and the resistance so emblematic of my home among the hills.

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A Year of Uke: Lessons from 365 Days of Strumming and Humming

I received my ukulele for my birthday last year, which means I’ve been playing for about a year now. In that time I’ve gone from strumming my first simple chords to fingerpicking some pretty complex melodies. A year with the ukulele has taught me more than some songs, though. It’s changed the way I think about music and myself.

People Can (And Will) Be Sexist About Anything

It doesn’t take much Googling ukulele stuff to find people talking condescendingly about the young women who have happily adopted the uke as their instrument of choice and perform fun covers on YouTube, making fun of them for being cute and quirky, and subsequently dismissing the ukulele as a serious instrument. I occasionally find myself embarrassed when telling people that I play the ukulele, not wanting to be lumped in with what is seen as some cutesy trend.

To anyone who has engaged in this crap, I’ll say a few things:

  1. It’s pretty fun to be cute and quirky. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
  2. You’re being sexist. “Quirky is a thinly disguised usually-gendered complement-insult. It’s used as a way to simultaneously be attracted to someone and patronize them.
  3. You’re being sexist. Dismissing women for doing “easy” things is bullshit. You can pick up on the basics of uke quickly, it’s true, but many of the women sharing videos are incredibly talented.
  4. You’re being sexist. After learning a few basic chords, playing the ukulele is at least as complicated as playing power chords on a guitar, and I don’t see nearly as much genderized critique of the punk bros doing that.
  5.  You’re being sexist. Dismissing a whole instrument because it’s seen as being associated with a certain gender just shows how rigid you are about stupid gender roles. Get over it. Or don’t. You’re missing out.

Annnnnyway. Moving on from my rant.

There Doesn’t Have to Be An Endgame

When I played instruments as a teenager, it was always about getting somewhere. Perfecting the solo for jazz band. Forming a band with friends and playing shows. It was always about playing for other people. Maybe it’s just the difference between being a teenager and being an adult, but I practice the ukulele for its own sake now. It’s like I finally get the inherent value of making music, which has helped me understand the advice I’ve read about writing for writing’s sake more deeply. If I play for or with other people now, it’s to enjoy it in the moment. I like learning hard songs just for the satisfaction of it, not because I plan to put on a show or become a YouTube sensation. It’s pretty cool to have a hobby that I enjoy just because it’s fun and it makes me strive for that with writing and my other interests too.

It’s All About Family

I got into ukulele because my mom and stepdad started playing and they were having such a good time with it. Now, when they visit, playing with them is the best! It’s so great sharing a passion with my mom, talking about what we’re working on, sending each other chords for songs. I’ve got the kids in on it too, and it’s amazing when they jam with me on shakers and kazoos! Playing music as a family is seriously one of the best things I can imagine.

This next year, I’d like to play uke at a strum. I’m sure the energy of playing with a group of people is fantastic. I plan on working more on my fingerpicking and on my ability to improvise. This instrument has brought me closer to the joy of music for music’s sake and I’m so thankful.

Do you play an instrument? What does it mean to you? Tell me in the comments!

 

To S’Mores!

S’mores.

Summer.

Summer.

S’mores.

The words even sound kind of alike, at least if you pronounce the food the way I do, as if it weren’t a contraction: Suh-mores. Some mores. My husband laughs when I say it, insisting it’s “smoores” all squished together.

However you pronounce them, s’mores and summer are inextricable. I love everything about the treat– the whole process. I love holding the stick over the flame, waiting patiently for golden brown. I was never one to burn my marshmallow on purpose. No way.

I love moving clockwise around the campfire to avoid getting smoke in my eyes. “Smoke follows beauty,”  someone said once when I was a kid, and I took it to heart, feeling a tiny smugness when I again had to squint, believing, like kids who are told constantly that they are beautiful and wonderful do, that there was something unique and special about me, something so inherent that even the elements couldn’t deny it.

I love the way the chocolate melts when the marshmallow touches it and the way the grahm cracker breaks, crumbling in your hand or on the plate as you take a bite, the crunch contrasting with the chewiness and the gooey goodness. All of it. It’s all so fun and delicious and so a part of my favorite season that making s’mores has become almost a sacred ritual. So when I learned Trader Joe’s has vegan marshmallows, I was pretty excited.

Making s’mores with my kids is the best, as is doing anything with them that I loved to do as a kid. We went to a party when I was little. The kids were in the woods roasting marshmallows and the adults were somewhere else and I felt very grownup being allowed to stay with the big kids for this ritual. Before walking away, my mom told me I could have three marshmallows. I remember so vividly the miscounting I did that night– one of my first and only memories of being truly sneaky. “One,” I would say to myself after three or four marshmallows. “Two,” I’d say after a few more. The funny part is that I bothered counting. Instead of just breaking the rules, I had to lie to myself. I was already very much me.

It makes me wonder, too, about my children– their personalities, their inner worlds and monologues. What are they saying to themselves? It makes me think too, about the differences in our childhoods. How old was I at this party in the woods? How far was the campfire from the adults? Am I misremembering the sense of independence because I was so little or was I really out in the woods by a fire without any adults nearby? This article has been making the rounds in my circles this week, and it makes me think again, as I do pretty regularly, about parenting right now, in this place and time. Would I let my kids roast marshmallows with older kids out of my sight? How old would they have to be? Is my hesitation about this a sign of different childhood settings, different times, or some combination of those?

It isn’t about them eating too many marshmallows, I’m fairly certain, so for now, I will give them s’mores. Some more. Some more s’mores.

How do you pronounce s’mores? Do you have any memories of being sneaky as a little kid? Tell me about them in the comments!