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LISTEN HERE:
Women Writing in Appalachia

Edited by Sandra L. Bullard and Patricia L. Hudson
University of Kentucky Press, 2003
Hardcover, $45.00 (673 pages)
ISBN: 0-8131-2283-X

 
 

 

"I'm a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to."
                                             -- Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate


LISTEN HERE is an extraordinary accomplishment. Sandra Ballard and Patricia Hudson have gathered the work 105 Appalachian women writers in a much needed anthology. The women included were selected because they have lived a significant portion of their lives in the region; they identify themselves with the region; their lives have been influenced by the region; and/or their writings concern the Appalachian experience.

Defining the region as consisting of "the mountainous parts of Pennsylvania and southwest Virginia to West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and northern Georgia and Alabama," the editors want to remind readers of the universality of experience while celebrating land, people, culture, and place often considered outside the American mainstream.

Lee Smith, one of the region's most respected authors, examined the public's perception and concluded that, "Appalachia is to the South what the South is to the rest of the country. That is: lesser than, backward, marginal. Other. Look at the stereotypes... A bunch of hillbillies sitting on a rickety old porch drinking moonshine and living on welfare, right? Wrong."

The editors' choices provide a refreshing cultural diversity in addition to many hours of fine and lively reading. The majority of the writers included are contemporary and many will be familiar to fans of Southern, women's, and popular writing (Dorothy Allison, Lisa Alther, Kathyrn Stripling Byer, Annie Dillard, Nikki Giovanni, Gail Godwin, Barbara Kingsolver, Sharyn McCrumb, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Lee Settle, Lee Smith, and Adriana Trigani). Several "newcomers," most notably Catherine Landis, are anthologized for the first time. The inclusion of literary predecessors, Mary "Mother" Jones and Rebecca Harding Davis, provide context and contrast for the changes in the region.

Most of the women have juggled the demands of gender -- being wives and mothers, helping support their families with "day" jobs, and taking care of parents -- while also carving out time for their writing. Several have been nominated for and/or received the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Awards, and Newbery Awards. They've found critical and commercial success despite the so-called "regionalist" nature of their writing.

Lisa Koger writes, "I suspect that trying to separate a writer's work from his background is a little like trying to separate a turtle from its shell.... Remove home and its influence from my back and I will have lost not just shelter but an essential part of me."

Listen Here is an important addition to the Southern literary canon.

Sandra L. Ballard, professor of English at Appalachian State University, is the editor of Appalachian Journal. Patricia L. Hudson, a former reference librarian at the University of Tennessee, is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in American Heritage, Appalachian Heritage, and Southern Living. Ballard and Hudson are the coeditors of The Carolinas & Appalachian States in the Smithsonian Guide to Historic America series.

 

Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

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