By Steven Lin
Lin is the former principal at Fishburn Park Elementary in Roanoke and Check Elementary in Floyd County.
The editorial on Sunday, April 28, “Appalachia has a new story to tell, and it’s not an elegy” was a fantastic read. And while I agree with it whole-heartedly, I want to encourage us all to really think about the nuance that is required when telling the story of this region. I was in the unique position to live as an outsider in the region for a few years. I found Appalachia to be as diverse as it is innovative. The people and communities of the region should make America proud.
The criticism of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is interesting. It is understandable to take it personally when one of your own spotlights the negative aspects of your community after having moved away, as if that act was a final spurning of his community once and for all. The editorial even admits that his story isn’t necessarily untrue, but that it simply does not tell the whole story of Appalachia.
This region has long fought against a single narrative on the national level, one that envelopes themes such as poverty, coal, closed-mindedness, etc. The question then is to consider what exactly IS the story of Appalachia. If it’s not as singular as Vance’s narrative, is it singular in any other way? My argument is that, as broad an expanse as the region is, and as pluralistic as it’s people and their histories are, so too are the stories (not one story, but many) of Appalachia.
Vance’s story is as valid as the story of the schools in the Appalachia region outperforming the schools in Northern Virginia. The stories told by black Appalachians will be categorically different than that of white Appalachians. The experiences in northwest Roanoke City will differ than the experiences in the city’s southeast. The stories of immigrants from Somalia, Syria, Bhutan, etc. paint yet even more unique stories. Even the story of the LGBTQ+ community in Southwest Virginia is as varied within the community as it is different from the greater community nationwide. Undoubtedly, the urban city experiences will fundamentally differ from the agricultural rural mountain settings in Floyd County, which will in turn differ from the stories found in Scott, Russell, and Wise counties. Finally, none of this even delves into how many of these stories alter as they intersect in multiple ways.
Each individual has a story to tell in Appalachia. Each person will have scathing critiques as well as uplifting insights that hint at the strength of their collective culture. Each person is telling his, her, or their truths.
My training in qualitative studies has allowed me to highlight nuances in each person’s personal truths. Validity and reliability are established through the telling of multiple stories through various perspectives. Emergent themes from how people make sense of a common experiences (Appalachia, in this case) are strengthened through confirmations established through the telling of a collective set of narratives.
I don’t have a problem with Vance’s interpretation of his experience, just as I don’t have a problem with Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club,” or the rapper Jin’s verses about Chinatown (neither tell a Chinese-American story with which I can relate). It is true, however, that we need to elevate the stories of so many more individuals whose heritage are also based in the mountains and valleys of Appalachia.
I am not from the region, but I did work integrally with many of its communities as a school principal. I was blessed to experience the good, bad, and (yes) even the ugly. Still, what endures is a beautiful tapestry of collective truths that has moved me in ways I cannot find anywhere else, nowhere else in Virginia or nationally. The oftentimes contradictory experiences I’ve had will not allow me to put my finger on it just yet. The essence of this region has proven to be too complex to define in words. But as enigmatic as it is, there is no denying that this is all pure “Appalachia.”