my new favorite Kickstarter project: or, West Virginia

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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.

19 thoughts on “my new favorite Kickstarter project: or, West Virginia

  1. Thanks, Andromeda – I am not from WV, but I am a Canadian who lived in the South (North Florida) when I was a teenager, and I got sick of having to explain to Canadian friends why this was not something to be pitied for. This was also just a lovely essay about what home means, no matter where you’re from, and it touched me that way too, since I’m a long way from home now as well.


  2. I really enjoyed your post. I am not from WV, but I completely understand the dislocation one feels in coming from a more humble background than peers or colleagues. And the comfortable feeling one gets from being around people who understand. I don’t have the hills and mountains in my memory though, and you made me wish that I did.


  3. Thank you for summing up, so eloquently, my own struggles and feelings about being from WV and realizing I had to leave. I live in a wonderful, large, urban city, Brooklyn, NY. As much as I have grown to feel at home here, a part of me longs to return home.


  4. A West Virginia native now displaced, I cried when I read this. It perfectly summed up the complex feelings I have toward being Appalachian in a part of the world that just doesn’t understand. Thank you for bringing me home for a few minutes and reminding me why the mountains are in my heart.


  5. Gosh, what a lovely essay.

    Appalachia’s in my blood a bit too, actually — it’s where my mom and her parents are from. When I was a kid and dreamed of running away that’s where I imagined I’d go. Culturally I’m pretty solidly “DC suburbs,” but there’s something about those mountains.


  6. Reminds me a lot of what folks I know from places like Vermont and Iowa often say. Seems like a common thing for folks from rural places. Particularly the south and midwest.


  7. This resonates with me, too. I am from rural Illinois, and there is no place for me in my hometown. Sometimes that is just achingly difficult, because I love so much about the land, the people, and the pace of life. I know I would be ground up if I tried to go back. People bribe their kids to stay home in my neck of the woods, too. Thank you for sharing what is in the hearts of so many people.


  8. I have lived most of my life in this great state, except for one year when I lived elsewhere. In that other state, I was met with comments of ” You weren’t what I expected coming from WV.” To which I replied, “Were you expecting overalls barefeet and coal smudged on my cheeks?” I was constantly told that I could not have been from WV because of my accent (or lack thereof). I have always felt very defensive when I hear someone say something bad about this place. Sure, I can gripe about when things go wrong here, but I live here, work here, pay taxes here. When I hear people bash WV, I always want to ask them if they have ever seen this place and I don’t mean the media images of “hillbillies”. I mean the splendor of the mountains, the foliage in the fall at the Gorge, the rivers and valleys that are throughout WV. I also want to ask them if they have met the people of WV. I have visited a lot of places and I guarantee that no other place will have the warmth and kindness of the people here.
    Thanks for your post. πŸ™‚


  9. It’s not quite so bad, being from Kentucky, because sometimes people also think of horse farms. Unless you move to Indiana, where life can me as tough, so they have to mock Kentuckians to make themselves feel better. On the other hand, the culture is not really so different, so you don’t have the alien sense that you get in the Northeast or California.


  10. Beautifully written. A sentiment that I share even though I chose to move to Florida for retirement years because of the warm weather and sunshine. On our many trips north there is an overwhelming flood of joy when we come through the East River Mountain Tunnel and see that sign of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia……..Truly Almost Heaven!


  11. What a beautiful heartfelt posting. I am a displaced 7th generation West Virginian from my mother’s and father’s families. My family comes from Mercer, Summers and McDowell. Born in Bluefield but grew up in Northern Virginia. When someone ask where I’m from my answer, with no hesitation, is “West Virginia”. And yes..the next statement is “Well – you don’t have an accent!” I simply answer – try me again when I’ve been home for a couple of months. Every once in a while someone will say – I was in Apple – AA – cha once, up in Morgantown. I give an sardonic grin and say – well I’m from the south where we still call it “Appa – latcha – knowing full well that I’m the only one in the room getting the joke.
    I don’t get to go to Southern WV – or appelatcha as often as I like, but when I am there – walking the ancient trails that lead you to a hidden waterfall or sitting on a rock at the top of a ridge in Summers county – looking west and seeing the endless mountain peaks that seem to go on forever – I have a sense of belonging. I’m not sitting on the rock alone – there are 7 generations of grandmother’s with me – telling me I’m home.
    The documentary “Hollow” is one of the most uplifting projects I’ve heard of in many years. Thank you Elaine for bringing it to fruition


  12. I don’t know which makes me feel worse: those who feel they have no hope of leaving here or those who feel they have no choice but to leave.

    If West Virginia is a world away from California or Massachusetts, McDowell County is yet another world removed. I never understood how different it is until I went there myself. Maybe it wouldn’t be so heartbreaking if they’d never had anything like some third world country that never got out of the stone age. Instead, everywhere you look you see what was once a thriving community. Abandoned homes, shuttered businesses and derelict industry seem to litter every valley and hillside.

    I don’t know how to fix McDowell County. I don’t know if it can even be revived at all. I don’t know how to tell my son that the town where his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother lived is disappearing. I do know that I’ll tell him it’s Ok to stay in West Virginia because it is a wonderful place and maybe he can work to make it even better.

    I contributed to this Kickstarter because I hope this project can bring some awareness and maybe some change. In the end though, hope is what is needed most.


  13. THANK YOU!!! What a great way to get funding for an amazing project and set people straight about our beautiful old state. You are a welcomed breath of fresh air!!


  14. Thank you! Those hills truly are home and the state has many sad problems. However, it also has the most warm and welcoming people I’ve ever known. After teaching in schools throughout the tri-state area, I’d rather be in WV where children try their best, their parents care without being overprotective, and no one takes any opportunity for granted. That is one of the many reasons why I am moving back in a month.


  15. What a great post! However, I would disagree that all West Virginians move away from their home to find a place that fosters creativity, intelligence, and ambition. Being a native, myself, I know a lot great people who have stuck it out in this area and tried to give back to the place that’s raised them and has planted the seeds of creativity, intelligence, and ambition in their own lives. People who plan to provide roots for their children in the same way that their parents and community did for them. Is it challenging? Yes. Are there more exciting and easier places to be? Absolutely. But that’s what makes us West Virginianians—simple victories like getting through the work week and sitting beside our family on a sunny weekend is more than enough to sustain us. If we’re going to claim WV as our home, than let’s challenge ourselves and others to actually make it our home and sustain its beauty and character for generations after us.


    1. πŸ™‚ It’s good to know that isn’t universally true. Most (not all, but most) of the people I knew in high school and have looked up since no longer live in WV, but I’m glad that isn’t everyone’s experience.


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