My work-in-progress is a novel about a post-apocalyptic Appalachia, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write about home from a distance.
There is so much expatriate literature, so much Orphic looking back from one place to another. My book, begun during a time when I could never have anticipated finishing it among the palms of southwest Florida, has become one more tiny drop in that vast ocean.
Any writing in which setting becomes character is a love-letter to place (or maybe hate mail–I guess it depends). I began my current project in that spirit (love-letter, not hate mail). There is so much that is good and strong and necessary about the mountains and valleys where I grew up, and I want to convey that. The story of Appalachia is one of persistence, toughness, struggle, but also beauty. If anyone can survive an apocalypse, it’s mountain people.
My ancestors who settled in the Shenandoah Valley were Scots-Irish, English, German. I come from a long line of people who left home. People who participated in the displacement of Native people from their homes. Some of my people enslaved other people who had been stolen from their homes. We all have a long, tangled history, our roots reaching back through thin red clay soil, tunneling back under the Atlantic to distant shores. A love-letter isn’t necessarily a panegyric. We see most keenly the flaws in those we love the most and have loved the longest. This place, its history, its present, isn’t perfect. But I love it, and I want to imagine for it a future that can begin to heal the wounds of the past and present.
Back before the pandemic, when we used to do things like gather in large groups, I went to a writing conference where I learned the term “hope punk” and realized that this is what I’m writing with this Appalachian witch book. Hope punk is similar to utopian literature in that it imagines a better future, but distinct in that it is very clear about that future not being perfect. Hope punk is more about possibility than perfection, about our potential to persist. It’s a necessary response, I think, to dystopian literature. To me, it feels like a natural lens for thinking about the place I’m from.
I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg, or if they are even both iterations of the same species, but I do know that 1) I’ve started working on the Appalachian witch book in earnest lately after a moving hiatus, and 2) I am starting to get really homesick. The homesickness took a while to really hit, I think because everything is so different here. The trees, birds, houses…we moved from the country to the city, a thousand miles south, from the mountains to the coast. My eyes and brain were so busy taking all this in–wondering about palms, investigating ibises, marveling over seashells not pulverized by the Atlantic surf–that I didn’t have the mental or emotional space for homesickness.
But it’s September now. The leaves at home are starting to change colors. Here, the palm leaves are doing what palm leaves apparently do, which is the same thing they always do. The tiny lizards on the lanai are not hoarding nuts for the winter. Jim next door assures me that it will get cold here sometimes in winter. Jim has not led me astray yet, but I can’t quite bring myself to believe him. I miss being able to step out the door without breaking into a sweat. Starbucks is pushing pumpkin spice lattes, and I cannot wrap my brain around this. What do you do with a pumpkin spice latte in southwest Florida in early September? Surely you do not drink it. Does anyone actually purchase them? Sometimes I try to imagine buying one and my head nearly explodes with the cognitive dissonance of picturing a pumpkin spice latte-wielding human strolling beneath a palm tree that could at any second drop a coconut bomb. I am not sure that pumpkin spice and alligators can or should exist in the same geographic area.
All this is to say that, as the bard much more succinctly put it, “the time is out of joint” for me here. (Also, and unrelated but eating at me, my decrepit laptop’s quotation mark key has just started refusing to work unless I smash it three times. Vexing.) I feel very displaced. But I wonder if that is in some way helping my writing, at least with this particular story.
The premise of the Appalachian witch book (I have accepted that I stink at titling things) is that in the near future, civilization as we know it has collapsed–but that this is not entirely a bad thing. The main story is about four witches born in this post-apocalyptic world. Their story is interwoven with that of their mentor, who fled her home city for the mountains during the worst of the crisis. So it’s a story that jumps back and forth between times and places, and the original witch is an expat of sorts. In order to write her story, I have had to write my home from an outside perspective.
Now, I am outside writing my way back in. I think it’s helping a bit that the story is set in the springtime. If I were here melting in the Florida heat, writing Virginia in autumn might send me fleeing north. (Side note: as a Virginian, I have always considered myself Southern, and have frequently been told I speak with a Southern twang. In Florida, I have learned, I am a Yankee.)
In some ways, this story, begun before the decision to move here even hovered as a distant possibility on a far horizon, anticipated the direction my life would take long before I knew it. The story opens with the departure of the witches’ mentor, who leave in order to give them the space they need to live into their potential, into their power. She thinks about how she has given her girls roots, and must now give them a chance to try their wings.
This move, for us, has been all about roots and wings. There is a time for both. Our roots in Virginia run deep. But it was time for wings, for a thousand, thousand reasons. And now we are testing our wings. The flight isn’t smooth, but the view, the perspective, is worth the struggle. That is what writing home means to me now–seeing a beloved place from a distance. It’s too early to say exactly how this will play out in my writing–writing, for me, is always a process of discovery, always a surprise on some level. As autumn approaches, I expect the homesickness will intensify. I want to stay open to whatever else the new shift of seasons may bring.