Book People Talk to Book People: Neema Avashia and Julie Rae Powers

Neema Avashia was born and raised in southern West Virginia to parents who immigrated to the United States. She has been a middle school teacher in the Boston Public Schools since 2003. Her essays have appeared in the Bitter SouthernerCatapultKenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.

Julie Rae Powers received their MFA in Photography from The Ohio State University and their BFA in Photography from James Madison University. Julie Rae is a part of Y’all Means All: Queering Appalachian Voices edited by Z. Zane McNeil. Additionally, they are the author and editor of a forthcoming collection of Queer Appalachian photographers. For their day job they work as an Instructional Designer.

I learned about Neema Avashia only recently, upon the announcement of her book Another Appalachia: Growing Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. As soon as I read that title I took a big sigh of relief. It was so refreshing to feel confirmed in what I already knew: there were more queer folks with varied backgrounds and nuanced stories from Appalachia. The last few years has proven that to me more and more. I don’t think I could celebrate anything more. Recently, a dear friend of mine quoted a poem and said that she felt like “our hearts have shaken hands.” I feel the same way about Neema’s collection. It touched my heart just so and I finished the collection feeling warm, satisfied, and fully held. It was such a gift to be able to have this exchange with her. 

Powers: One of the through lines of Another Appalachia that I noticed was a sense of having to straddle many communities at once. For example, your Indian familial community, your West Virginia neighborhood community, and the queer community in your present life. I have never read a book that pointed to this same type of straddling that I have experienced in my life- how all my communities feel disjointed from one another, how I can feel tugged or split between them, how I long to be wholly part of one but unwilling to let any of them go because they are so pertinent to who I am. Can you speak to that a little bit? Are you able to reconcile the disjointedness for yourself? Or is it disjointed for you at all?

Avashia: Whew! Starting with the softball questions, I see! 🙂 I think that this is probably one of the most complicated parts of having an identity that is intersectional. Belonging is ephemeral. There are definitely moments when I feel it–moments when the parts of my identity that are surfacing most quickly are met and held by the community that I’m in at that moment. This has happened to me a lot in the context of publishing Another Appalachia: I have felt so held by Appalachian folks in this publishing process, by the way that we see one another in this book. That part of me has felt fully, fully seen. But there are also a lot of moments where, for whatever the reason, when I’m in a community that represents one part of my identity, the things that seem to surface more for me are the other parts of my identity, or rather, the parts that don’t fit as neatly into that space. This happens to me a lot with regards to being Desi. I deeply want to feel belonging when I’m in spaces with other people who look like me, share my language, understand my cultural practices, and yet, I often feel really overwhelmed by the messages about gender and sexuality that I get, and how those ideas don’t align with how I understand myself. I am proud of the range of identities that I hold within me, but I certainly don’t think it’s easy for those of us who are more than one thing. And I guess that’s probably one of the biggest drivers for writing the book, in a way. I wanted to create a vessel outside my physical body that could hold all the parts of me. And I wanted readers–queer, Brown, Appalachian readers in particular–to have access to someone mapping out their identity in this way. My hope is that if more of us make our intersectionality visible, and make the straddling visible, it makes it easier for other folks doing the same.

Powers: Haha yes, jumping in the deep end has always been my style. I love hearing about your experience through sharing this book. Appalachians really are incredible aren’t they? I am struck by “Belonging is ephemeral.” It seems so obvious once I read it, but I think I’ve used my work for myself to try to find a way of belonging that is permanent. Well, that certainly changes things for me. I feel that belonging and queerness share that trait: ephemeral, mutable, ever-changing. What do you think?

Avashia: Most definitely. I think our fellow Appalachian bell hooks’ writing has really helped me to gain some clarity on this. So often in heteronormative framing, queerness is about who you are dating, who you share a bed with, who is seeing you naked. Things that are very much NOT ephemeral. And yet, hooks frames the notion of queerness as “not about who you’re having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” In that framing, queerness is just as ephemeral as belonging–constantly being shaped and informed by context, by the conditions we find ourselves in, the constraints presented to us, and the way we choose to live our lives in opposition to those conditions and constraints. It’s not a fixed, unchanging way of moving through the world; it’s mutable. It’s responsive to context. Ultimately, it’s about the lenses through which we view the world, and how those lenses inform the choices that we make.

Powers: Once I understood that, my queerness became even more freeing. Recently, a friend and I talked about how finishing a large project like a book can feel thrilling, but there is also an aspect of grief in the release that is hard to articulate. I’m not sure a lot of creators talk about that. What was your experience finishing Another Appalachia and releasing it into the world? How did you feel? Or currently feel?

Avashia: I had a lot of anxiety in the lead up to releasing the book. I worried about how it would land for people. Had I held folks with enough empathy? Had I described my experience in a way that would resonate for folks, or further establish my status as a giant walking anomaly? Would people think I was an imposter?

And then the book came out, and the response was just this overwhelming outpouring of love, both from folks I know, and folks I don’t, folks at home, and folks away. So all that lost sleep really was for naught.

I’m sure there will be grief that I experience at some point relative to the book, but at present, I think my overwhelming feeling is one of joy. There’s a book in the world today that announces my queerness, my Indianness, and my Appalachianness to the world, and that posits that those three identities can indeed be held within one body. Before March 1, 2022, that particularly story wasn’t in the world. It’s hard not to just feel joyful about the fact that it now exists, now offers a mirror for young people who might be grappling with similar questions.

Powers: Where do you go from here? What do you hope for from this moment, in regards to writing, community, queerness, etc?

Avashia: As the end of June nears, I think that I’m finally done with the most intensive part of launching a book. My sense is that there will continue to be opportunities to engage with readers in the fall, but that the intensity and pace will become more manageable, which I’m looking forward to! In many ways, it feels like Another Appalachia is no longer mine; it’s in readers’ hands, for them to do with as they will, so I’m excited to see the way it continues to be received once I’m doing less to actively promote it.

I’m teaching at Hindman Settlement School later this month in their Ironwood Writer’s Studio, a new program for young Appalachian writers, and I am very, very excited to be in shared space with Appalachian youth, to read their words, and to help model how writing words can also help us forge paths towards our most authentic selves. And I’m thrilled to get to do the that work in the company of wonderful writers like Marianne Worthington, Robert Gipe, Frank X Walker, Chris McMurray, and Melissa Helton.

I’m also looking forward to having some added brain space to work on my second essay collection, tentatively titled THE BOOK OF BROKEN RULES, which continues to explore questions of queerness, and the ways in which queer identity has allowed me to live against expectation in so many facets of my life, while also exploring what the ramifications are of always being the person who asks why, and then just proceeds to live another way entirely.

Overall, I’d say my hope for this next year is for more words, more opportunities to connect with good people, and more time spent in Appalachia.

Neema Avashia is the daughter of Indian immigrants and was born and raised in southern West Virginia. She has been an educator and activist in the Boston Public Schools since 2003 and was named a City of Boston Educator of the Year in 2013. Her first book, Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, was published by West Virginia University Press in March. It has been called “A timely collection that begins to fill the gap in literature focused mainly on the white male experience” by Ms. Magazine, and “A graceful exploration of identity, community, and contradictions,” by Scalawag.

Julie Rae Powers received their MFA in Photography from The Ohio State University and their BFA in Photography from James Madison University. Their photographic and written work has focused on family history, coal, Appalachia, the queer “female” gaze, the butch body, and queer chosen families. Their work is collected by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan; they have been awarded the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in 2016 and 2020 and were selected in Critical Mass’ Top 200 for 2021. Julie Rae is a part of Y’all Means All: Queering Appalachian Voices edited by Z. Zane McNeil. Soft Lightning Studio, an inclusive photo book publisher created and ran by Julie Rae published The Home We Know by Ben Willis, which was featured in the Washington Post and is collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library. Additionally, they are the author and editor of a forthcoming collection of Queer Appalachian photographers. For their day job they work as an Instructional Designer.