Who should tell our stories?

There’s a story told about old-time musician Tommy Jarrell. In the 1970’s, when people from outside Appalachia discovered Appalachian old-time music and were beating a path to sit with the old men (and women) and hear them play and learn from them, Tommy Jarrell is said to have looked at one of them and said, “Don’t your people got none of your own music?”

I was reminded of that recently because of an odd story out of McDowell County, West Virginia, where a mob apparently ran a pair of documentary filmmakers out of town. I won’t get too deeply into the actual situation (you can read about it here).

What I want to examine here is my own reaction, which was a knee-jerk questioning of why out-of-state filmmakers wanted to do a documentary in McDowell. That reaction is not intended as any reflection on the filmmakers themselves, who I understand intended to tell a positive story, or on any individuals. I only bring it up to explain what got me thinking about storytelling, ownership and my own biases.

It does feel like McDowell has been in the news quite a bit lately, and it’s been the subject of at least one lovely documentary, “Hollow”.

Poor McDowell County. It’s at or near the bottom of state and national rankings for just about everything, it seems. Health measurements, educational attainment, employment opportunities. It seems like the county has been everyone’s symbol of poor, downtrodden Appalachia. It’s been featured in independent documentaries, New York Times stories, and everything in between.

And, as anyone from Appalachia knows, the news stories aren’t always fully true, and they aren’t always favorable, and they aren’t always nice. Usually they’re neither nice nor favorable, and the truth they tell is just one part of the picture. Reporters swoop in from somewhere else, looking for a story on how poor Appalachia still is, and they can always find it. If they don’t look in McDowell, they look in eastern Kentucky, or in Grundy, or some other corner of the mountains. National news media seem to view Appalachia almost entirely through a lens of poverty and drugs. It is always held up as the poorest place. The unhealthiest place. Look at those poor, poor people.

So I would say I, and many people in/from Appalachia, have developed a chip on our shoulders about outsiders telling our stories. When I heard about the McDowell filmmaker incident, while I feel mostly sorry that they were treated so poorly and I don’t feel it they should have been, a  voice inside me also said, “why are they coming here to try to tell someone else’s story?”

I should admit right here, that voice is hypocritical. I was a journalist for a number of years. I’ve told other people’s stories for a living. It’s the conflict in my feelings about this storytelling that I wanted to thrash out here.  I know I’m not plowing any fresh ground — I’m sure many people in and of Appalachia (and other cultures) have had this conversation, argued it, wrestled it down and settled it in their minds. But I haven’t worked through my own conflicts on it yet.

So the McDowell incident to me raised the questions of who is telling our stories and who should be telling our stories?

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer.

Journalism is, at its heart, the telling of other people’s stories. The craft may be the journalist’s, but the story isn’t. This is generally an understood part of journalism. Maybe you as the journalist are telling the story of the community in which you live — then yes, it’s your story too. But when journalists tell stories about people’s lives, those are other people’s stories.

Fiction is (supposedly) at the other end of the spectrum. Fiction is your story, or at least on the surface. Is it a story cobbled together from all your experiences, including bits of the stories of people you know? Sure. Fiction writers are magpies, taking from everything. Even fantasy probably doesn’t arise from whole cloth out of the writer’s head. Surely even Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have modeled characters after real people. But, by and large, the writer can claim the finished fiction as their story.

I would assume documentary filmmaking falls somewhere in the middle. It has journalism’s facts and fiction’s storytelling skew, I think. I’ve been a journalist and I’ve written fiction, but I’m not a documentary filmmaker, so I could be wrong.

Is there a difference in how we view the storytelling “rights” — for lack of a better word — in those different modes of storytelling? Maybe.

I have a hard time imagining giving much credit to a fiction story about Appalachia written by a non-Appalachian. The only one I can think of off the top of my head that I’ve even read was John Grisham’s recent “Gray Mountain,” and I didn’t much like it (I thought it was facile and it made things too black and white).

Journalism about Appalachia by non-Appalachians has been the usual source of the chip on my shoulder. With the exception of Chris Hamby’s excellent, Pulitzer-Prize-winning series on black lung a year or two ago, much of the national-level journalism done about Appalachia gets my back up a bit. I feel like those national reporters often look at Appalachia and they see numbers and statistics and they may come visit and they see poverty and they wonder why anyone stays.

I haven’t seen any negative documentaries about the region. There’s no reason for me to be troubled by any out-of-town filmmakers.

As a journalist, I loved telling people’s stories. A lot of times, you’re giving voice to someone who doesn’t have a way to have that voice otherwise. Without journalists and photojournalists and documentary filmmakers, there isn’t anyone TO tell a lot of people’s stories. If we only allowed ourselves to tell our own stories, we wouldn’t know a damn lot about the rest of the world. I subscribe to National Geographic. That magazine wouldn’t exist without people telling other people’s stories.

But. There’s another, conflicting, maybe-selfish part of me that says Appalachians should be the one telling stories about Appalachia. That those stories are ours, ours to tell or not, ours to frame, our narrative to shape.

I have both of these beliefs in my mind, and I know they’re contradictory and I wrote this in large part to try to work out a peace between them and I can’t.

There’s a great wealth of stories to be told in Appalachia. Every one of those stories that gets out to the wider world (or gets told around in the mountains) is a good thing. It’s a story that might not have been told otherwise.

Sometimes you can be too close to a story. I think even the storytellers from Appalachia benefit from going away for a while. You can’t always see clearly what you’re closest to. Willa Cather said that Sarah Orne Jewett gave her a most useful piece of writing advice when she said, “One must know the world so well before one can know the parish.”

I believe this is true. I grew up in Appalachia, wanting to be a fiction writer, astounded when I found Lee Smith and discovered you could write about this place.

But I had to leave it to figure out what I wanted to say. I tell myself that, when I’m doubting the choices that led me out of the mountains and wondering what to do next. I had to leave to realize how much I love it, and I had to leave to get perspective on it and to see it.

I still don’t know that I see it true. I’ve probably built up a rose-colored Appalachia in my mind, vision clouded by missing the things I love, not seeing as well the things I don’t.

I was at a writing workshop a while back, and a friend introduced me to a man who’d written a popular non-fiction book about Appalachia (and no, he was not from the region) by telling him I wanted to write about Appalachia too. And he said “oh, what do you want to write about it?” and I had no answer. It was rather mortifying.

Appalachia is so big. You could write about so many things.

But at the same workshop I heard great advice to narrow that down.  One of the panelists was from New Orleans and sometimes sets his novels there, and I asked how he avoids cliche and stereotype in writing about a place that so many others have written about already.

He said you just have to write about your New Orleans. You can’t worry about everyone else’s New Orleans.

I think that’s good advice. I’m trying to follow it in fiction-writing, writing about my own Appalachia and not worrying about everyone else’s. (Although maybe I’m worrying about everyone else’s by the very act of wondering who should be telling Appalachia’s stories.) Trying to describe my New Orleans. My own people’s music.

That’s all a bit of a tangent, but in my mind it relates to the question of who is telling our stories, and who should be, and whether the answer is different depending on the mode of storytelling.

There have been great stories and documentaries on Appalachia, and on McDowell, and I know some have come from Appalachian people, or those with Appalachian roots, and I’m sure some have not and have still been great. I don’t at all want to sound like I’m criticizing any of the filmmakers and photographers and writers who are telling great stories about Appalachia.

As a writer and journalist, I think the journalists and the filmmakers have the right to tell the stories that they can tell, the ones they understand, the ones they research, the ones they respect, the ones they convince those stories’ owners to let them tell. And after all, who am I to tell anyone how to tell their story? If a person in Appalachia, or anywhere, wants to tell their story to someone else, there’s not a thing wrong with that. It’s a good thing. Who am I to say “we” and “our” anyway? Appalachia’s population may be dwindling but there are thousands upon thousands of people who all have the right to tell their stories any which way they please. There are many we’s and ours — “many Souths,” I heard a history professor say the other day in a lecture on the Civil War, and you could as easily say “many Appalachias.”

But — and again, I know, it’s completely contradictory, and I know how it feels to see a juicy story ripe for the telling and wanting to be the one to tell it — there’s a part of me that just doesn’t see why anyone who isn’t from or connected to Appalachia wants to tell stories about Appalachia. (It’s the same way I don’t get why men would be gynecologists. Why would you be interested in something that isn’t yours?) Why wouldn’t they want to tell their own stories? Why wouldn’t they focus on their own New Orleans? Don’t they have their own music?

I think part of the answer might be in the same thing that makes me love Appalachia — not just the love that comes from my personal connections, but the love for how fascinating and conflicted and dark and light and rough and beautiful its history and culture can be.

If you came from a place without that culture, without that connection, some flatland suburb somewhere with six-lane highways and shiny cul de sacs and Target stores and no deep sense of being from and of a place, maybe you’d look for other stories in other places to find a connection.

I think about what it would be like to come from somewhere like that, someplace without such deep roots, and part of me thinks, look at those poor, poor people.


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4 Responses to Who should tell our stories?

  1. Casey says:

    So happy I found your blog. I live in exile from my mountains 🙂

    You might be interested in this article I co-authored about perceptions of the sheriff….


  2. Traci Dolan-Priestley says:

    I write about Appalachia in my fiction, and here’s my take on stereotype – it’s rooted in truth. I do know people without teeth and who limp for one reason or another. There are drug dealers and drug addicts and good cops and bad cops and corruption, but why? I suppose when I tell these stories it’s about the deeper questions, at least, I hope it is. But like you, if I see someone writing fiction about Appalachia who isn’t from here, I wonder how authentic it could be. This makes me a huge hypocrite considering my first novel was about Poland during WWII. You get my drift.

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  4. Appreciate the article. Being a singer/songwriter from WV (McDowell) I wrote a cd called Creekboy Blues about my childhood. There is such a richness in our heritage and it was only later in life I accepted it. I recently was at a conference and met folks who were learning mining songs in College as part of a cirriculum. I told them where I was from and ask that I could be there guide to the heart of those songs if they cared to visit. Only blank stares. Throughout my writing I still try and need little attempt to integrate my experience as an Applachian into my compositions. Glad to have read your blog and look forward to more.

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