Barbara Kingsolver is out with a new book, Demon Copperhead. I’ve just begun reading it. The book and awards it has received have given Kingsolver a platform to speak out about the invisible people of rural America.
In the British paper, The Guardian, Kingsolver says that people in rural America, where she was raised and lives today, “are so mad they want to blow everything up.” As she received the Women’s Prize for Fiction in London, she was interviewed about her book, but also her people.
“I understand why rural people are so mad . . .” she says. “That contempt of urban culture for half the country. I feel like I’m an ambassador between these worlds, trying to explain that if you want to have a conversation you don’t start it with the words, ‘You idiot.’”
Within the broad culture of rural America, Kingsolver identifies with the culture and territory known as “Appalachia.” Appalachia runs from northern Georgia up into Pennsylvania. Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky and lives now in southwestern Virginia.
She explains that one of the reasons she is only now writing of Appalachia and its people is that she had “internalized the shame” cast upon the region’s people by sophisticated urban America. When she, an exception among her high school classmates, went to college in Indiana she learned something she had never known before: she was a “hillbilly.” Classmates would ask her to talk just so they could make fun of how she spoke.
Ezra Klein did a more extensive interview with Kingsolver in his podcast at the New York Times. Here are several points that Kingsolver made struck me.
She noted the long history of Americans being urged, by both governmental policy and cultural influences, to move to urban areas. There are some unacknowledged reasons for the push. People in urban areas were more likely to show up on the tax rolls than their rural cousins. Cartoons of a “hillbilly” often depict a person with a fishing pole in one hand and a bottle of moonshine in the other. What urbanites tended to see as a yokel was someone who participated in a subsistence economy, of barter and exchange, where people often didn’t pay taxes because they weren’t part of a cash economy. Ergo, push the idea that city people are the ones who matter.
As regards Appalachia itself, Kingsolver describes a region that has been an exploited colony within the larger political-economy of America. There have been a succession of extractive enterprises that took wealth from the region but left the land and people damaged. First, it was timber, then coal, then tobacco. And when nothing much was left, the region became a prime target of Purdue Pharma. The opioid epidemic is the backdrop of Demon. (Meanwhile, the Sackler family, enriched by the Purdue company, is trying hard with the help of lots of high-priced lawyers to avoid any personal responsibility or consequences for their exploitation of the region and its people.)
A third point Kingsolver made in talking with Klein is that virtually all media and culture is made in and comes from urban America. The people of rural America don’t ever see themselves in what comes over the TV or in MSM news or movies. From my spot in rural America, northeastern Oregon, I get it. When I turn on OPB, that is, Oregon Public Broadcasting, it is like hearing from another planet.
Add all this up and throw in a bunch of hillbilly stereotypes and you get people who in the title of Arlie Hochschild’s 2016 book about Louisiana are “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and not happy about it.
While Kingsolver doesn’t share the political leanings of most of her neighbors, she does understand them. A guy like Trump came along and said “I see you. I hear you, I like you,” and “Unfortunately, they went for it.”
I’d love to see Joe Biden go on a listening tour of small-town and rural America to say, “I see you, I hear you,” and “here’s what I’ve been trying to do for you.” He’d catch some abuse, but he might also win back some people who have, by now, seen through Trump.
Meanwhile, one of American greatest living authors, Barbara Kingsolver, is shedding light on those who have been ridiculed and dubbed “deplorable,” asking the rest of us for some of the respect and empathetic understanding we in urban areas so often proclaim as our values.