Silence can be “an unfortunate and even dangerous act of submission,” editors Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray write in the preface to this collection of thirty-two essays, Walk Till The Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden in Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2015). They speak of the enormous expectation from their “workplaces, families, and the culture at large—to remain silent,” and of the “courage it takes to challenge the silence and speak” about forbidden subjects like religion, class, love, sex, poverty, wounds, and family secrets.
The authors of these essays often had to “travel far away from the boundaries of traditional Appalachia, and then circle back—always—to the mountains that made each of them the distinctive thinking and feeling people they ultimately became.” They represent some of today’s finest established and emerging writers with roots in Appalachia.
What follows are excerpts of a conversation about the essays. Participants include
- Belinda Anderson, author of four books published by Mountain State Press, who gives presentations on topics that include diversity in Appalachian literature and the history and themes of West Virginia literature.
- June Langford Berkley, a writer and public school and university teacher who traces and treasures—in essays, fiction, poetry and performances—her New England-Appalachian roots back to the 1600’s and to fifteen European countries and her 32nd grandmother, Lady Godiva.
- Phyllis Wilson Moore, who researches and writes about the literary history of West Virginia. Her research is the nucleus of the state’s first official literary map.
- Donna Meredith, author of four novels and one nonfiction book, all focusing on strong women because she yearns to become one herself.
- Edwina Pendarvis, a widely published author who teaches at Marshall University. Her works include educational research, memoir, poetry, and essays on topics ranging from gifted children to exotic dancers.
- Pat Spears, author of Dreams Chaser (2014) and It’s Not Like I Knew Her (August 2016 release).
Pat Spears: In the preface, Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray describe the authors this way: “They explore what it means to be tough, both in memory and language, as well as what it means to be generous, to reach out beyond the confines of place as well as inward to the gift of language.” That feels like the perfect summary of this smart and engaging collection of poetry and essays.
The stories that illustrate what it means to be tough range from wryly funny to utterly heart wrenching. Dorothy Allison’s “Deciding to Live,” the story of her struggle to overcome the poverty and violence of her Appalachian upbringing, is vivid and poignant. The title story, “Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean,” by Jessie Van Eerden, is alternately hopeful and hair-raising.
Belinda Anderson: Walk Till The Dogs Get Mean helped me look back. I sense that it has done so for many of us.
And the title essay gave me something else, too. Jessie Van Eerden sets the stage: “I walk till the dogs get mean, far up the road through the little houses in the black trees, past the trailers pinned with lattice and past the cinder block ruins. The dogs come out of the shadows – part pit bull, all mange, different color eyes, no collar, no chain.” Later in the essay, she writes about how her marriage had fallen apart and she found herself writing on a scrap of paper, “Walk till the dogs get mean then walk a little further.” Then she says, “This metaphor is not a neat one. The dogs aren’t neat symbols for things that terrify me and clamp me down.”
But I would have to say it was a very neat metaphor for me. I think most of us have to plow through barriers and terrors, and I found Jessie’s imagery very effective.
Phyllis Wilson Moore: When I read Van Eerden’s essay I telephoned her to tell her how strong it seemed. It is well written and magnetic. She was pleased.
Donna Meredith: The way Jessie gets past the trauma of divorce is the way all of us have to face any difficult period in our lives when we feel “frozen and bankrupt.” We have to push past the things that scare us and keep going, a little bit further every day. The essay is about claiming the bad parts of ourselves, the parts we would rather hide from: “They’re all part of me, what I’m capable of in cruelty, in mercy, in love, in hate, in anger, in clam, in creativity; they are shame and failure and fear and loneliness.”
Phyllis Wilson Moore: This collection is reflective of segments of our population not widely recognized. We are all here and we are in this together. The title is apt and intriguing. The essays I especially tapped into are by Jessie Van Erdeen, Silas House, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Currey, Sarah Einstein, R. J. Gibson, Crystal Wilkinson, and R. J. Gibson.
Belinda Anderson: It can be challenging to make essays charismatic, but shortly after starting Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, I was slain in the spirit by Silas House’s “The Forbidden Gods.” He engaged me right away, with plain but telling detail, such as “her stockings produced from a plastic egg.” (How did he remember that? I had forgotten those.) Zooming us back to a certain time were other telling details, such as his mother’s hands snagging on her hosiery, “causing small tears she repaired with dabs of clear nail polish.” All that remained to totally hook me was this metaphor: “prayers eating their ways through the ceiling.”
Phyllis Wilson Moore: Silas House’s essay about religion and gayness and family acceptance blew me out of the water. He tapped an emotional level of mine: being the odd person out and not fitting into the family. I felt pain as I imagined sitting in the church parking lot just to hear the voices and singing. Being rejected by core groups is a theme in the book’s many essays.
Belinda Anderson: While House’s religious upbringing was different from mine, his experiences as an Appalachian targeted for prejudice resonated with me: “A whole lot of Americans have bought into the media’s portrayal of the rural dialect to equate to ignorance, racism, homophobia, misogyny, outright stupidity.”
Donna Meredith: Stereotypes and jokes about Appalachia proliferate, but they just seem rather silly to me. I grew up in Clarksburg and never felt the world looked down on us, partly because my mother was adamant that there was no better place on earth than West Virginia and no better people to be found anywhere. But my classmates in the 50s and 60s all had running water and shoes, and our parents made a point of speaking correct English, so the West Virginia stereotypes that I was vaguely aware of never felt as if they had anything to do with the people I knew. The “Beverly Hillbillies” characters weren’t anything like my neighbors. Dorothy Allison says in “Deciding to Live” that the books we read growing up presented families “made over into caricatures or flattened into saint-like stock characters.” Reading the voices in these essays and other works by these authors offers a far broader perspective of what Appalachian people are like—and really what people everywhere are like. No matter what culture you grew up in, there are things you aren’t supposed to talk about.
Eddy Pendarvis: When I was a kid, there wasn’t much of a concept of Appalachia as a region, so there wasn’t that awareness of how people outside Appalachia viewed people inside the region. I thought the Grand Old Opry and Minnie Pearl were corny beyond words, but I didn’t even identify them as having anything to do with eastern Kentucky or southern West Virginia—they were just country, from wherever; but I didn’t see anyone I knew as like them. We lived in coal camps until moving to Pikeville when I was nine. The miners seemed serious to me, and I never thought of them or any of us in the camps as countrified. I didn’t even realize I had an accent until I was in high school; but nobody ever made much of it. In college, someone pointed out that there is a short “e” sound.
June Berkley: In “Outsider Appalachian,” Melissa Range speaks of her teacher accusing her of talking funny, a condition that she is sure arose from her voracious reading.
Donna Meredith: Melissa’s essay considers the role of language in marking us as members of the tribe or as outsiders. Reading expands our vocabularies and exposes us to speech patterns that others in the community may not share.
June Berkley: A primary consideration that came to me as I read was the unhappiness shared by a majority of the writers as a result of their childhood experiences, most of which seem to be very painful.
Donna Meredith: A large cluster of essays dealt with growing up gay or lesbian. That experience wouldn’t be particularly different—or less painful—outside of Appalachia back in the 50s or 60s—unless you lived in NYC, perhaps.
June Berkley: Dorothy Allison (“Deciding to Live”) expresses the belief that putting it all down was purging. The point of view held by my own family: there are many things not to be discussed. Perhaps the harshness of conditions on the frontier and in the mountains and in the countries our ancestors were obliged to leave were simply too hard to bear in language. If you didn’t say it, it might not be true. Or it might not come true. Only language might make it real. For those of us who are writers it has been said our kind have a particularly close connection to the subconscious. Perhaps this connection obliges us to say what others fear even to think.
Pat Spears: Reaching inward to the gift of language is a perfect description of Connie May Fowler’s “Rose.” In an early passage, she sets the tone for the narrative with “[m]ine are stolen memories, gathered in a haze of cigarette smoke and the slosh of bourbon poured too freely, memories proffered through tears that filmed my mother’s eyes but did not fall.” Later in that section, she says, “I see my Appalachian-born mother with unnatural clarity.” She allows us to view her entire journey with that same wonderful clarity.
While “Rose” explores what it’s like to belong to a place you’ve never known, “Above My Raisings: A Narrative of Betrayal” lets us see the anger and confusion of being in a place where you don’t belong. Both stories speak to the heart of who we are and what constitutes home.
I didn’t grow up in Appalachia – I am a sixth generation Floridian – but I grew up in rural north Florida with some of the same realities of poverty and isolation. To me, one of the things that makes this book so appealing is the way in which it illustrates the emotional pull of place.
June Berkley: Regarding Bell Hooks’s essay “A Constant Morning,” Hooks’s belief that “every human soul needs to be free and that the responsibility for being free requires one to be a person of integrity” seems to me to be one of the most important statements in the book. In Appalachia a man’s word is as good as his signature on paper. Because of our isolation in general in Appalachia, we have never relied so heavily on the written law, but like our Anglo ancestors, tribal in nature, we settle things without the benefit of calling the sheriff. In fact, to many people calling the law is admitting that you can’t manage affairs yourself.
Donna Meredith: Yes, Hooks expresses appreciation for “wildness” and independence, “not being hemmed in by rules and laws.” It’s interesting that she found the “segregated world of [her] Kentucky childhood” the place where she “lived beyond race.” The world, she says, has forgotten this history of black farmers who lived in relative isolation in harmony with nature. She also notes “the link between the desecration of the land as it was lived on by red and black folk and the current exploitation and shared destruction of our environment.”
Shifting directions, Jayne Ann Phillips’s piece, “Outlaw Heart,” particularly spoke to me as a writer.
Belinda Anderson: It resonated with me, too—more about the otherness of being a writer than the otherness of Appalachia, a sort of mystical otherness. This passage spoke to me:
“Writers focus perpetually on the half seen, and we live in the dim or glorious shadows of partially apprehended shapes… Perhaps we’re difficult to live with as adults, but often we were precocious, overly responsible children—not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. …So it is that we children who become writers evolve into a particular genus of angelic spy, absorbing information, bargaining with ourselves, banking on the possibility that we might one day intervene in the dynamics of loss, insist that sorrow not be meaningless.”
Donna Meredith: Yes, that passage stands out for its beauty and accuracy. Only after my mother’s death did I realize how much I knew about the family that my brother had been unaware of, both because she confided in me as the oldest and the only girl, and also because I observed more of family dynamics.
I don’t know if others think of writers as “angelic” spies—or the nasty creatures who insist on seeing the truths other people prefer to keep hidden. But as Dorothy Allison points out, it is purging to tell the truth: “Putting those stories on paper took them out of the nightmare realm and made me almost love myself for being able to finally face them. More subtly, it gave me a way to love the people I wrote about—even the ones I had fought with or hated.” Jayne Ann Phillips concludes her essay along the same vein: “This, then, was how language worked. And if it could save me, it could save us all.” Writing and stories allow us to reclaim the parts of our life that have been hidden, to walk past those mean dogs that keep us from fully appreciating the possibilities the future holds.