Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Rachel M. Hanson’s nonfiction piece, On Returning to Appalachia

John: One of the things this piece does really well is evoke the sense of place that seems so strong in the South—stronger, say, than in a place like Phoenix. Do you think contributes to the feeling of solidarity and belonging that Southerners feel?

Rachel: That’s a good question. I think place and solidarity can often go hand-in-hand, no matter the location. I chuckled when I saw Phoenix as an example because, as much as I love Arizona, Phoenix is omitted from that love. That said, I bet you could find a bunch of folks who love the area and feel for it just as many southerners feel for Appalachia. When I think of Appalachia and solidarity though, I think about the ways in which it’s been a region overlooked—the poverty rates in the area are significant. Place matters of course, land and water and the mountains—it’s almost a spiritual experience to be here for a lot of folks—the connection to the place, but there is also something about being dismissed that I think contributes to a feeling of solidarity in the region. And now, of course, there are parts of Appalachia that have become very popular, Asheville for example, and locals and folks who have been in the area for generations are finding themselves unable to afford to live here. People are getting priced out and it’s egregious.

The neighbor’s statement that there is no shame in a trailer park is interesting—if there weren’t an atmosphere of shame surrounding them, it seems that the denial of it would be unnecessary. Is this your feeling as well? And what do you think the cost of this repressed shame might be?

I think this also ties back to your first question—living in a trailer park community can offer solidarity… But overall, the shame, like so much shame under capitalism, is felt when those from the outside look in and pass judgement. There are exceptions to this of course. And I can really only speak for myself here, but I think that trailer park communities represent class distinctions, and class distinctions are all about creating divides between the people. We all need to eat, sleep, have shelter, but what we eat and where we sleep are very much determined by history (generational poverty, for instance), opportunities, access to education, race, and gender.

Is all of this talk of toughness just an example of Stockholm Syndrome? That these people inhabit a rigged system in which their failure is almost pre-ordained, but that they have been gaslit into loving?

I think there is a lot of pride in the south, some of it is quite bad. It’s no secret that Appalachia is predominantly white, though this place was and remains an important region for Indigenous peoples, and there are many Indigenous people and people of color who do call Appalachia home, which is important to note. But when I think of that bad kind of pride, the first thing that comes to mind is pride in the rebel flag (which is seen all across the country, not just in the south). That pride blows my mind. I sometimes think that people who sport that flag on their cars and in their yards (while rioting at the Capital), might be trying to hold onto a past that said it’s okay to have disparate values in regards to people, by which I mean racism. But if one replaces the word “racism” with “historical pride” it seems like an attempt to publicly white-wash the past—“I’m not racist, I just have pride in the history of the region.” It’s semantics of course, and it’s gross.

The other kind of pride I think of though, far from that white supremacist kind, comes from the feeling of having achieved something, a better life, in a place where that’s not always easy to pull off.  There are plenty of people in Appalachia who have worked hard and beat the odds stacked against them, and though I tend to believe those stacked odds never should have existed, I do think there is something to be proud of nonetheless. Finding pride in a changing south—like “Hey, this is our past and there is a lot of ugliness in it, but here are some things to be proud of now. We are tough, we’ve withstood a lot, and we want to be known for that, and we want to be this place to be one of inclusivity, not racism. And also, we live in a beautiful place, so we can be proud of it. So I don’t know if I’d say Stockholm so much as trying to come to terms with a place that’s historically done wrong, been overlooked, and is also a place that is deeply loved by many who grew up here.

As William Faulkner said, The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Is that the feeling you get from the South? Are we are all still living out the mistakes of bygone years? And if so, is there a way to get away from this cycle, or do we just have to make the best of it?

Wow. That’s a very big question. I tend to also think that the past is never dead, no matter how much we might wish it were—both on a personal level, and on a level of living in the country that forgets or buries shame. I’d say America as a whole, not just one region or another, is truly bad at facing the collective shame we feel for the wrong we’ve done to people here and in other countries—present and past, and I’d say there is a big part of the population that rejects the notion of shame altogether. It’s just so much. I tend to feel this more here in the south because this is where I grew up, and the south comes with a specific set of issues, but I’d imagine I’d feel similarly had my childhood been in New York or Indiana or California or New Mexico.

How do we break the cycle instead of re-living bygone mistakes? I don’t know if I have that answer. I write. I tell stories because I believe stories matter and can contribute to change—you can reach a lot of people with a story. Money can also change things, which is a very capitalist thing to say, I know, but it doesn’t make it less true. Investing in people, in education, in healthcare, in food security, and in housing without labeling it as charity or handouts or welfare programs, but as a human right can certainly alleviate some past and present inequities. People want to matter, and they want their homes to matter, so I guess my thought is how can we, collectively, make each other feel like we matter and have value? I think we can do that while still being critical of the past mistakes that continue to permeate the present.