This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with Nancy Brown Diggs, author of the recently-published In Search of Appalachia (Hamilton/Rowman and Littlefield). An avid traveler who has visited every continent, Nancy has lived in France, participated in language immersion/ homestay programs in Japan and Mexico, and volunteered in Ecuador, Romania, and Haiti. Her long interest in other cultures is reflected by her PhD in East Asian Studies, by her language skills—for many years she translated French, Spanish, and German for Ohio companies—and by her many books. In addition to her latest study of Appalachia, Nancy has written: Breaking the Cycle: How Schools Can Overcome Urban Challenges (Rowman and Littlefield), Hidden in the Heartland: The New Wave of Immigrants and the Challenge to America (Michigan State University Press), Looking Beyond the Mask: When American Woman Marry Japanese Men (State University of New York Press), and Steel Butterflies: Japanese Women and the American Experience (State University of New York Press). She co-authored A Look at Life in Northern Ireland, with Tanya Higgins, and My Century, with Evangeline Lindsley.
*What drew you to explore Appalachia as a subject?
Having written several books that touched on other cultures, I decided to look at one closer to my own, geographically, that is. In spite of my Kentucky roots, I never dreamed that the culture was my own. I suppose I had bought into the stereotypes that the media promoted. But the people I met were more like The Waltons than The Dukes of Hazard, more Sgt. York than Pvt. Gomer Pyle, and it’s a culture to be proud of.
* You describe in your recent book discovering your “inner Appalachian.” On reflection, what are your connections to the region and its culture?
I have deep family roots in Kentucky, and I discovered that I share so many of the values: humility, honesty, self-reliance, a strong sense of family, and, I hope, neighborliness. One reason I wanted to write the book was to counteract the stereotypes that J. D. Vance perpetuates in his book Hillbilly Elegy. I came to realize that one reason I so dislike the book is that I feel he is disloyal to his family.
* How did you go about identifying and interviewing the various Appalachian voices reflected in your book?
The experts in Appalachian Studies at Sinclair Community College were very helpful. I also contacted churches with Appalachian congregations and put an ad in The Kentucky Explorer, a monthly publication. Mostly, though, there were a lot of lucky coincidences.
For example, I learned that someone from my church had taught at a college in eastern Kentucky. She was eager to visit old friends, so she and I traveled to Hindman, Kentucky, where she introduced me to some fascinating people.
When an Orkin inspector came to check for termites at my house, we talked about the forthcoming book, and she suggested I speak to her father, a World War II veteran from Kentucky. He gave me the names of several others of his generation who were willing to tell their stories.
At a French conversation group, I met someone who put me in touch with a friend from West Virginia. A chief master sergeant in the Air Force, he had given a great deal of thought to the cultural conflicts he was experiencing with his family back in the hills. One of my best interviews!
While I was taking an adult education class on country music taught by Fred
Bartenstein, the University of Dayton’s expert on the genre, I learned that Ricky Skaggs would be performing not far away. I used Fred’s contacts to arrange an interview. I think it was Fred who also had the contact information for Japan’s expert on country music. Michael Furmanovsky, who was born in Zimbabwe of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, grew up in England, and now teaches at a university in Kyoto. People never cease to amaze me!
* Amid all the challenges faced by Appalachians today (economic uncertainty, health inequality, the opioid epidemic) is there cause for optimism about the future?
There are challenges indeed, but the experts I talked to were generally optimistic. With the closing of the coal mines, people are putting their trust in the “new economy,” and governments are investing funds in technology and training. In the meantime, communities are promoting small projects; there’s “not a silver bullet, but rather a lot of silver beebees.”
Some believe that the Appalachian people themselves are the best asset, “unmined beautiful diamonds,” as Ricky Skaggs puts it. According to one political leader, “Their work ethic is second to none. These people will crawl into the side of a mountain and never see the light of day to feed their family. Imagine what they could do for a company with good working conditions.”
Even Robin Harris, who holds the unenviable job of directing the Alcohol, Drug Addiction, and Mental Health Services Board for Ohio’s Appalachian counties, sees a ray of hope. “We are incredibly resilient in coming together and problem solving,” she says, as she sees the emergence of young leaders in the area.
As for the drug problems, new treatments, new ways of dealing with addicts, and concentrating on prevention are bringing results, as state governments confer and learn from one another. Law enforcement, too, is making inroads, according to Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine, who praises Ohio’s “bulk task forces.”
Matthew Smith, PhD (History). Public Programs at Miami University Regionals. Historian of Appalachia, the Ohio Valley, & the early American republic.