Neema Avashia explores community and identity in the South and beyond | Books

One of the first memories that Neema Avashia recounts in Another Appalachia: Queer and Indian coming to a mountain location takes place just outside the South Charleston Junior Women’s Club, in the mid-1980s. Neema, about 5 years old, is running around with her friends, popping salted peanuts into Coke cups to watch the brown foam bubble up on their small hands. It might sound like any other childhood memory from West Virginia, with one exception: Neema and her friends will soon be called upon by their parents to join the aarti – the final stage of the Hindu worship service in which light is offered to the deities – taking place indoors.

“First left, then right, then counterclockwise. At the end of each of us, we run a hand over the flame and then over our heads, a move ingrained in muscle memory,” Avashia writes, describing the monthly service in which attendees take a thali – a plate filled with cotton balls dipped in ghee and lit – in their hands as the elders chant the familiar words, “Om Jai Jagdish Hare.”

The scene is emblematic in this memoir on a less stereotypical Appalachian education. In 1990, Avashia writes, Asians made up less than half of West Virginia’s 1% of residents, including fewer than 2,000 Hindus from India — fewer people than her hometown’s Christian megachurch alone. Where she was born, she is never fully initiated.

Composed of 17 thematically related essays, Another Appalachia questions what it means to belong. The daughter of parents who immigrated to West Virginia from India for her doctor father’s job at a chemical plant, Avashia grew up on a suburban street called Pamela Circle, where her father’s generosity (free medical aid to neighbors ) helped them gain acceptance. “Our record player in the basement played Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on repeat, and those songs, those voices, combined with 70s Hindi film music and Gujarati folk garbas, are the soundtrack to my childhood. “, she writes.

Unsurprisingly, his childhood was full of paradoxes. One chapter chronicles his relationship with Mr. B, a white family friend who resembled a beloved grandfather. She later felt hurt to find out he was posting anti-immigration memes on social media — as if he didn’t connect Avashia’s family with political rhetoric. In another, she describes seeing her mother and other women gather in a basement to celebrate Navrati – a nine-night celebration honoring Durga, who is “the queen of Hindu goddesses, warrior of good , conqueror of evil”. It gives her a sense of connection to her own religion in a place where she is constantly asked if she was saved, but more importantly, she feels a connection to each of these women. It’s one she won’t be able to replicate later as an adult in Boston, where the community is more diverse but “the ritual seems meaningless in the absence of relationships.”

Coming out as a gay woman presented a different challenge. Avashia wasn’t sure her West Virginia Indian community would accept her relationship with Laura, another Boston educator who grew up in Brooklyn, NY, the child of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother. “Even though I was going to introduce Laura to my extended family, I was still calculating the risk,” she wrote. Fortunately, his Indian aunts and uncles “constantly proved me wrong and showed me how much I had underestimated them”. Meanwhile, drawn to Mr. B when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, she still can’t bring herself to tell him she’s gay – protecting them both in a way she’ll question more. late.

Another Appalachia asks us to question the meaning of community and identity in the South and elsewhere. Avashia clearly loves the values ​​she learned growing up in Appalachia, as she shows in a chapter recounting her dilemma with an alcoholic neighbor in Boston. Pushed to simply call the authorities for someone who so clearly needed help, she remembers her neighbors at Pamela Circle and thinks their way would be better. But she also acknowledges that acceptance in Appalachia has always been tentative at best, a point brought home on September 11, 2001, when the “insider” status her parents had worked hard to achieve disappeared. His father’s response was to buy a huge American flag sticker that read “Proud to be American” and smaller flags for the car and porch.

Avashia’s parents eventually left West Virginia for opportunities in another state, but for her, this is still her home. “I too am a mountain girl,” she wrote. “Born and raised in West Virginia, I straddle the culture of my parents and the culture of my Appalachian birthplace.”

To read a extended version of this review – and more local book coverage – please visit Chapter16.organ online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

Colin L. Johnson