This is my new favorite Kickstarter project. I supported it; I’d love it if you would, too. I could give you the buzzwords — interactive documentatary, participatory mapping, HTML5, personal stories, data, video, all painting a portrait of McDowell County, West Virginia. But here’s the quote where they really had me:
National media portrays the residents of Southern West Virginia the way they perceive them, instead of how the community see itself. This constant flow of images depicting only poverty, drug abuse and unemployment have an effect on the way the community sees themselves and limits their capacity for action and empowerment. Hollow will provide the McDowell County community a chance to express their own ideas in a project that addresses universal issues seen across rural America.
Let me try to explain something about what it means to be from West Virginia. Those of you from Appalachia, you can nod your heads knowingly, aching visions of green hills as backdrop wherever you happen to be. The rest of you — are words enough? I don’t think words are enough. But words, they’re what I have.
Being from West Virginia. It’s a gnawing, sad understanding of the deep and real and grinding problems of your home, coupled with a fierce defensiveness whenever outsiders mention them — those people from outside, they say these things sometimes with mockery, but at least not with knowledge, not with love.
And how could they know? Because being from West Virginia, it’s the undercurrent of fear whenever you hear your state is in the news — what governor has done something appallingly corrupt, what list of health or education metrics have we come in 49th on — who, in some underground and unregarded passageway, has died? Every so often it’s something good about football, and thank goodness for the Mountaineers, but that — is that all of who we are, to you?
It’s people who are surprised when they find out I’m from West Virginia. “But — you don’t have an accent,” they say. Meaning — what? Meaning they’re only ignorant, they don’t know the unbelievable breadth of linguistic diversity in my state, a new accent every few dozen miles? Meaning, they’re trying to find some way to say, but you’re smart, and I thought everyone from the south was an idiot? Because that, let me tell you, that’s not a compliment, and it’s not okay.
Or then again, it’s the people who find out I’m from West Virginia and say, oh, I have cousins in Alexandria! As if a city I’ve never been to, in a state we seceded from in 1863, has any import for me. As if you can forge a connection by erasing my home from history.
It’s this lifelong feeling — even as I’m living in a wealthy state, with a daughter in private school, even as quite frankly I am the child of academics, awash in cultural capital since birth — that I don’t quite fit in in places that are too shiny, too neat, too polished, too moneyed. I’m happier in places a little tattered around the edges. Places without the pressure to get all the details looking right. Places where the culture isn’t screaming at me that success is a matter of being thin and blond and just-so. Places where, even though I know some things, now, about the geography of Nantucket, I don’t have to.
It’s the occasional secret smile, when you realize you’re talking to friends who are from Maine and it’s similar in the relevant ways and there are shared assumptions you can make, shared things that baffle you, even though you’re now passing for people from first-world America. When you’re at a conference table, a lovely dinner in a lovely restaurant, everyone wearing their pretty clothes, and you realize the secret (and not-so-secret) Appalachians are more than half the table, and you can be at home here among these people.
It’s the knowledge, from birth, that you’re going to move away, if you’re smart or creative or ambitious, because there’s no place for you in your hometown. It’s the guilty understanding that the reason there’s no place for you is that nearly everyone smart or creative or ambitious moves away.
It’s trying to grapple with explaining the world to teenagers groomed from birth to attend, not merely college, but a top-thirty college, teenagers who are workshopping high school application essays in middle school and have hands to hold them through every step of the process, when your mom came home from her job at the university one day, frustrated to learn that her student’s parents had tried to bribe him to stay home, offered him a car if he didn’t leave, go off to college — the state school, a few hours and a world away. A place they were scared they’d lose him. Looking at your friends’ prep school or wealthy-suburbs educations with a physically painful envy and knowing that they know your high school education wasn’t as good as theirs but also that they don’t know it, that sometimes you’ll tell stories like that that you take for granted and take their breath away. That you’ll stumble across chasms somewhere, and not know where until you find them.
It’s the absolute conviction, against all biochemical possibility, that green hills are in your blood. That a certain quietly spectacular landscape embraces you always and all land should look like it and something is missing when it, no matter how beautiful, does not. The drumbeat, the sussuration of land the way it ought to be. Here, in a place I love and never want to move away from, there’s something in the land that’s always missing.
And either you understood every word of that, or it was something quaint and faraway. And that is why this project matters: for people to tell their own stories, in their own words, about a part of America most people don’t know about, would sometimes not believe if they knew the truth. Because we’re not just a string of embarrassing stories that make it into the national press, poverty and corruption and incest jokes. We’re people and complex stories and old mountains so beautiful they hurt. And people should be understood on their own terms.
And if you are quiet and listen, perhaps we will let you.