Neema Avashia’s Playlist for Her Essay Collection “Another Appalachia”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Neema Avashia’s essay collection Another Appalachia is an engaging and important account of growing up queer and Indian in Appalachia.

Morgan Jerkins wrote of the book:

“Another Appalachia is a breath of fresh air, a work that the public is in dire need of reading. Wide and expansive as the land the author calls home, this essay collection subverts the mainstream’s hyperfocus on white male-dominated narratives from rural America and commands your attention from the first page to the last word.”

In her own words, here is Neema Avashia’s Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection Another Appalachia:

When friends ride in my car, their response to the amalgamation of tunes coming out of the speakers is often one of amusement. Because in a given span of five songs on my phone, you could hear a traditional Gujarati garba, an Appalachian murder ballad, a ’90s R&B joint, a jazz riff and an Irish folk tune in quick succession. If a listener expects some kind of external coherence from my playlist, they are unlikely to find it. The coherence is fully internal.

My music tastes are the result of growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Appalachia, of learning to play Appalachian folk music on my guitar, of then growing up and moving to cities like Pittsburgh and Madison and Boston and letting my love of live music be the thing that dictated my interests. Thus this list, much like my book, is intersectional in nature. It’s not comprised of just one genre, but rather the range of identities that make me who I am today. And the songs on it are a mix of songs that appear in the book, songs that inspire my thinking around the book, and songs that are evoked by ideas in the book.

Country Roads, Take Me Home, John Denver

What kind of West Virginian would I be if an essay collection about growing up in the lap of Mountain Mama didn’t include John Denver’s classic homage to my home state? I think I came out of the womb knowing the words to this song, but what is especially amazing to me about it is that whenever I travel to other countries, “Country Roads,” comes up: people who ask me where I’m from will start singing it immediately. In a bar, if there is karaoke, someone is bound to sing the song. It’s a strange phenomenon to come from a place that is so small, and to yet have there be a song written about it that is so utterly ubiquitous.

It also doesn’t hurt that this song is about driving home, and the first essay in my collection, entitled “Directions to a Vanishing Place,” involves me as the writer taking you, the reader, on a drive through my hometown. Both the essay and the song are about deep nostalgia and love of place, but in the essay, that nostalgia is quickly disrupted by the realities of what home looks like now.

Polly Ann’s Hammer, Songs by Our Native Daughters

The essay “Nine Forms of the Goddess” in my collection tells the story of the Indian women who were my many mothers during childhood, and explores the lessons about gender identity that I learned from them, and subsequently chose to ignore.

The song Polly Ann’s Hammer, by Our Native Daughters, does similar work. It takes its inspiration from the legend of John Henry, the steel-driving man who raced against a steam-powered rock drilling machine to build the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, WV, and won, only to die with a hammer in his hand. In the legend, John Henry’s wife Polly Ann only gets a single line: “Polly drove steel like a man.” Our Native Daughters, in this song, chooses to focus on Polly Ann’s story–the story of having strength equal to that of John Henry, of surviving his death, of raising her son alone. Ultimately, this song tells the story of what it means to see through the toxic trap of masculinity and capitalism, and instead throw down the hammer as part of the quest for liberation.

Islands in the Stream, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers

In many ways, I think I get my varied musical tastes from my mom, who alternated between listening to cassettes of Bollywood film songs of the ’60s and ’70s in the car, and spinning records by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers in the basement.

When I met my partner, Laura, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, we quickly discovered that our trans-Mason-Dixon line relationship would involve some cultural confusion, which gets explored in detail in the essay, “City Mouse/Country Mouse.” In one of our key moments of confusion, Laura identifies the chorus to “Islands in the Stream” as being associated with one hit wonder Pras, and his ’90s song, “Ghetto Supastar,” while I am horrified that she’s never heard the Rogers/Parton original. (She still sings the Supastar lyrics when “Islands”comes on… Sigh.)

Closer to Fine, Indigo Girls

Among one of any number of then-unidentified indicators of my burgeoning queerness, I was a huge Indigo Girls fan in high school. (I also always wanted to play the boy roles in the dances my mom choreographed for our Diwali celebrations, so…) My best friend at the time, David, introduced me to them, and their music was the soundtrack of our friendship, and of the many hours we spent tooling around town in his truck. This song is the one that plays in my head during the opening scene of the essay, Wine-Warmth, in my collection.

Aarthi, Red Baraat

The aarthi, the song my Hindu aunties and uncles sang to gather us together for prayers during our community gatherings, is, in many ways, the song that most immediately transports me back into the lap of my small Indian community in the heart of Appalachia. It’s the community whose faith practices I describe in the essay, A Hindu Hillbilly Elegy. But when I heard Red Baraat’s version of this song, which layers that music, and the voices of those aunties and uncles, onto a New Orleans second line sound, my brain exploded. Because that version of Aarthi, that mix, isn’t just the sound of childhood. It’s also the sound of adult Neema’s life, where my favorite place to be, whenever I can get there, is the Maple Leaf Bar, listening to George Porter Jr. or Rebirth Brass Band. Red Baraat lives at the same intersection that I do right now, and it is a damn good intersection, in my opinion!

Crowded Table, The Highwomen

You might not know it if you didn’t grow up at the intersection of Indian and Appalachian cultures, but there are many overlaps between the two, chief among which is the role that food plays in each. Weekends were for breaking bread, sometimes with our Indian friends, sometimes with our Appalachian ones. I write about these intersections in my spice-catalog-as-essay, “The Hindu Hillbilly Spice Company.” But this song by the Highwomen evokes those crowded tables better than I ever could.

Is There Life Out There, Reba McEntire

It wasn’t easy to figure out my gender expression growing up in a context where neither my mother’s notions of femininity, nor those of my West Virginian classmates, seemed to match with what I wanted for myself. I explore those contradictory messages in my essay, “Present-Life Hair,” but while country music singers like Reba McEntire possessed a kind of femininity that I knew I would never embody, her songs still feel like home to me. They feel like the moments when I was most comfortable, sitting on the porch of a neighbor’s house on Pamela Circle,and still also yearning to know what existed when it came to life beyond my street, and beyond my home state.

Lovely Day, Bill Withers

It doesn’t feel right to close out this playlist without acknowledging one of music’s most famous Another Appalachians, Bill Withers. Although strangely enough, it wasn’t until after I left West Virginia that I learned that one of the most talented singers and songwriters of our time was born in Slab Fork, and raised in Beckley. So much of Black Applachian culture is erased from mainstream narratives about Appalachia, yet Black Appalachian persistence and resistance paved the way for immigrants like my parents to be able to settle in Appalachia, and to thrive there. There is no Another Appalachia without Withers and his Affrilachian peers. Their existence created space for my own, and learning about them gave me permission to call myself Appalachian when, for so long, I had not been sure whether that phrase could be used to describe my immigrant family, despite the decades we had spent in West Virginia.

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 Southerner, Catapult, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere.

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