Sometimes we book lovers make the mistake of saying a single memoir can speak for an entire group of people. We pass it around at book clubs or chat about it at drinks after work. But we don’t pause and think about the larger context or the story this single author is telling. Several years ago, the hot book of the day was Hillbilly Elegy, authored by the now Senator of Ohio, JD Vance. Ever since, whenever I mention that I’m Appalachian, people will say something along the lines of, “Oh I know about that place! I read Hillbilly Elegy.”
As an Appalachian, it’s important to me that Appalachian people tell our own stories. And with a population of 20-25 million people, the region contains more different ways to be Appalachian than I can count. We have everyone from writers like Nikki Giovanni to my friend Lucy, a queer white water rafting guide turned barista. The possibilities are endless, and so are the number of stories from our region. So if you’re looking for more true stories from the region, here are some great places to start. Whether you like memoirs, histories, or anthologies, there’s sure to be something for you on this list.
Two or Three Things I know for Sure by Dorothy Allison
Most people know Dorothy Allison for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, but Allison also writes incredible nonfiction. In Two Or Three Things I Know for Sure, Allison writes about her childhood in this short memoir. Her prose is lyrical with her classic eye for detail. Through the whole book, I found myself engrossed in her writing.
Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia
Neema Avashia’s stunning debut book invites readers into her childhood home in West Virginia. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Avashia grew up with few people who looked like her. But so many of the people around her embraced her family and invited them into the community. During the 2016 election and beyond, Avashia began to see people she loved post hateful things on their Facebook. Avashia’s memoir captures the complex emotions of loving a place that doesn’t always love you back.
Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome
This award-winning book is an incredible memoir of a gay Black boy coming of age in Ohio. Brian Broome’s working-class childhood is a confusing swirl of family strife, racism, and colorism because of his dark skin, and a society not accepting of his sexuality. Broome moves on to college and eventually Pittsburgh, a place he now calls home.
Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945 by Ronald D. Eller
A lot of people outside the region have very little knowledge about the history of Appalachia and how we’ve reached this present moment. Ronald D. Eller’s Uneven Ground gives readers an excellent background in the history of Appalachia, including the different government programs and various industries that have had a deep impact on the region.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hamby writes about the modern battle with black lung disease and the miners fighting coal companies to be held accountable. The mining industry has a long history with black lung disease, which is still a huge problem for miners. Coal companies will do everything in their power to avoid giving the miners compensation and taking appropriate measures to protect their employees from acquiring the disease.
Belonging: a Culture of Place by bell hooks
bell hooks is an international superstar of the literary world. But hooks always came back to her Kentucky roots, supporting the community that helped make her who she is. In Belonging, she writes about the erasure of Black identity in Kentucky, the state’s unique history of systemic racism, and the importance of Black people feeling accepted in the place you call home.
Y’All Means All: The Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia edited by Z. Zane McNeill
With so much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation making its way across many Applachian states, supporting LGBTQ+ folks and their stories grows even more important. In Y’All Means All, queer writers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences share their unique insights on what it means to be Appalachian. Some have been able to stay in their Appalachian communities while others have made their homes elsewhere. But all of them still have that connection to the mountains and hope for a better, more inclusive, future for the region.
The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns by William H. Turner
Far too often, the histories written about Appalachia leave out the unique stories of its Black communities. William Turner has spent his career correcting the narrative. Black people were, and have always been, a vital part of Appalachia. In The Harlan Renaissance, Turner writes about Black communities, like the one he grew up in, giving readers a detailed picture of what the history of these communities looked like decades ago.
Whatever book you choose from this list, you’re sure to have a wonderful time with these true stories. For even more Appalachian Literature recommendations, check out “15 Books about Appalachia to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy” and “15 More Books about Appalachia to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy.”