Poem in Appalachian Review


A slim package came yesterday in the mail. The Spring 2020 issue of Appalachian Review, which includes my poem "Almost Heaven, or Mixed-Race Roadtrip Following the Fall of Saigon." Past contributors to Appalachian Review include Pinckney Benedict, Wendell Berry, Wiley Cash, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Silas House, Fenton Johnson, Barbara Kingsolver, Maurice Manning, Ann Pancake, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Neela Vaswani, Frank X Walker, Crystal Wilkinson, etc. etc., so I feel I'm in excellent company. 

The journal used to be called Appalachian Heritage, a name that too many people, according to its website, associated with "a simplistic view of Appalachia as a place frozen in a quaint, bucolic, homogenous past or, at worst, a particular ultra-conservative brand of politics and identity." Hence, the name change. 

It's a shame that the word "heritage" has come to carry so much ugly baggage. But it's worse than a shame that so many people have used the word "heritage" as a weapon and an excuse. As in, "The rebel flag is nothing but a symbol of my heritage." Or "This country's in danger of losing its heritage, so keep your hands off my rifle." 

Are there BIPOC folks in Appalachia? Of course. I was one. But we're not what people picture in their minds when the phrase "Appalachian heritage" is bandied about. My white hillbilly grandmother always referred to her Black friend Belinda as just that -- "my Black friend Belinda." When I was a child this same grandmother often joked that I was "Made in Japan." (I suppose "Made in Saigon" just didn't have the same ring to it.)  In her mind and in her world, the default race (just like the default bread) was white. Anything different was worthy of mention. 

My poem in this issue honors my grandmother, but it doesn't exalt her. I don't think she ever quite knew what to make of her "Oriental" daughter-in-law or her three dark-haired half-breed grandchildren. I don't think Mawmaw (that's what my siblings and I called her) ever flew on a plane but once. And that was to visit her daughter in Hawaii. For reasons I'll never know, Mawmaw took me along. We must have been quite the sight. A wiry red-headed Scots-Irish mountain woman and an 19-month-old decidedly nonwhite baby. I don't remember a thing about that trip. But in photos, on those tropical beaches and among the native Hawaiians, only one of us looked like she belonged.


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