One of the best parts about hitting the road on “book tour” is traveling to new places, meeting new people, and hearing their ideas.
On my recent trip to Historic Rugby, Tennessee as part of the Appalachian Writers Series, I learned more about the region I grew up in from my host, Jim. Now living in Tennessee, Jim has deep Appalachian roots (eight generations) primarily in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. In our discussion of Appalachian authors, I asked him what he thinks makes a story Appalachian.
Jim said an obvious starting point, but not a guarantee, is a story written by someone from Appalachia. A strong sense of place is essential. Respecting differences is part of it, and getting the characters right is a big part of it. One cannot write about what they do not know, and if someone tries, it shows. Jim speaks of a quality he calls “mountain soul” found in a person defined by his or her mountain heritage, culture, values, and mores. Jim says, “It's not just where a person lives, it's who he or she is. A person with mountain soul can't hide it, even if he or she should want to.” He gives the example of Barbara Kingsolver. Her first two novels were set in the southwest, but her writing style clearly showed her Appalachian roots.
We started talking about how some people say “ain’t” and “he don’t” while others use language learned in school such as “isn’t” and “he doesn’t.” I shared that I speak the way I learned in English class but that where I live now, many speak differently than I.
That’s when Jim told me about cosmic possums. Maybe you have heard of them? I hadn’t. Cosmic possums are Appalachian-born people who have gone out into the world, been educated, and now are “bi-lingual.” They know how to speak proper English (as taught in school) and the accepted Appalachian lingo as well. Poet Jane Hicks first coined the term cosmic possum in her poem, “How We Became Cosmic Possums” (Suburban Appalachian Baby Boomers) published in 1998. On her website poet Hicks says, “Since then, a lot of people have used and (appropriated) the term cosmic possum.” She adds, “They get the meaning mostly right but left off my original statement about being first generation off the ridge or out of the holler.” Hick’s cosmic possum is featured in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, “The Songcatcher.”
On the long drive home from Historic Rugby, I keep thinking about cosmic possums. Was I one? Or not? My father had left the farm and ridge behind to attend college, and had returned to work in a nearby town at his own pharmacy. He always kept one foot in town, and one at the farm, returning to his home place every weekend. Had he been a baby boomer, he definitely would have been a cosmic possum. Since he is of the previous generation, I am not sure.
So where does that leave me? The use of “ain’t” and “he don’t” and “he has went” makes me wince. Still, I understand that it’s part of the rich culture down here. I don’t try to “correct” the language someone uses, unless it’s a child. Then I explain there are two ways to say it, one being right for school and one being okay in other situations such as at home.
I love being down here near my father’s family home place. I live on a ridge within view of another ridge. A fertile Valley lies between. I love waking up to birdsong, and to the sound of wind in trees. I like visiting friends who feast on fresh vegetables from their garden, and if I’m lucky, share some with me. I enjoy being outdoors and will make almost any excuse to walk in a field of grass or in a path under leafy boughs of green.
I also love jumping on a plane and heading somewhere else, where people speak the way I learned to talk in school. I enjoy talking about ideas and seeing new places. Viewing paintings in museums or visiting historic sites also appeals, and visiting Laundromats in foreign cities is a cultural experience I try to include in every journey. Yet when I am somewhere else, I always feel the gentle tug of home, of the ridges and hills where I grew up. So what am I? Part cosmic possum?
If you grew up in Appalachia (defined as a cultural region stretching from the southern tier of New York all the way down to northern Alabama, Missisippi and Georgia) do you think of yourself as a cosmic possum? Or part cosmic possum?
Out here at the tail end of the Appalachian region, or near about, this is a question worth pondering on a breezy summer evening.