I'm just back from the States. Did a bit of rummaging through archives and came across this random selection of old family photos.
There is a challenging pivot point between observations made as an 'insider' and those from an 'objective' outsider. Often the person on the inside is too close to the subject to speak comprehensively about a given matter; however, the outsider risks generalisations and fills gaps with assumptions based on limited knowledge. (I think this is where good journalism marries the two; a competent journalist can give voice to the insider who would otherwise not be heard.)
There is a tradition of memoir told from both perspectives. We have inner monologues about a person's life in a given place that provide a slice out of time picture. We also have the other extreme such as Black Like Me that tells a story from a perspective that could only be manufactured. Everything here is valid; I don't have any criticism for one or the other as they tell the story in different ways. However, there is another layer on top that involves the expectations of the audience and their inherent bias and suppositions. Hillbilly Elegy was promoted as a portrait of Appalachian life and culture. I had read several reviews (from national publications; I should also read reviews from regional papers), that touted the book as a view into the lives of Appalachians. This is simplistic and not something I think the author intended. It's possible to attempt such a book; it's just not what this book is. The risk of promoting or reading it with that purpose in mind though is that, of course, one gets a skewed image of 'those people' (in the same way that you can't read a book about a Chinese family in Chicago and know all about Chinese people).
What it does relate is a simultaneously tragic and hopeful story of one man's experience growing up in Ohio and Kentucky. Much of it resonated with me; I wasn't raised in the same poverty or difficult family situation as he but it was always something a few doors down. If you're from Appalachia, you are never far from poverty; however, most people are also distant from extreme wealth as well so I think, at least in my experience, there was a certain type of equity (you didn't think less of neighbours or relations because they had less as long as they were upstanding good people). The picture J.D. Vance relates in his book chimes with that but the tragic trajectory of his story brings us into the present where people are giving up hope and aspiration.
The book has called on me to reflect further on whether I still look at West Virginia from my perspective as an insider or now from outside. The several times I've been back in past years to my parent's (and grandparent's) hometown, I've visited a place in decline and decay. Almost the only people who are left are pensioners and apparently younger people are mostly on welfare. There seems to be little life or industry to the place or people (the county has the highest unemployment in one of the poorest states in the nation). I remember, as a child, seeing this same place as a more vibrant and interesting. How much of this change is what happened in the place or what has happened from my change in innocence and experience? I can sense the damage to the place brought by years of exploitative industry—to both the land and the people. There is this evident decline in spirit, like a draining in colour visible in people across the state (witness the ill health, obesity, and prescription drug addiction).
I also struggle with leaving 'home'. Vance now lives in San Francisco; I'm on the other side of the planet in Sydney. Like so many Appalachians, we've felt compelled to leave in order to make sensible lives for ourselves. For some of us, there will always be a gnawing call back to the hills and this feeling that we've abandoned them. The opportunity for careers there are limited; but, equally, the opportunity to bring healing to a damaged place and people is overflowing. I hope that people can read the book and look past their own suppositions about the region; it's not simply a huge swath of land populated by rednecks. It's clear that, especially with the election of Donald Trump and the shock that followed in the wake of this, much of the country does not understand the social and economic situation of people in Appalachia. To think 'they' are just a bunch of lazy people on the dole is to misunderstand the promise that was given that they could work hard and obtain a decent life. For millions of people in the region, it's not that this isn't a given—it's truly out of reach. Appalachia has this knockabout history of poverty and despair; that's the picture that's been in the travel guide for generations. But, I'm not entirely sure how true that's been on the whole when jobs could be had and there was some way to keep one's family fed. Now, we need to hear and retell these stories. We need, both on the inside and out, to consider closely what is happening as there is always some means of empowerment in this. We need the truth of what has happened—but, again, as I said in my last post, we also need better stories about what is possible. Perhaps, regardless of where we are, 'The Expats of Appalachia' can write both into being.