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Author Explores Defining Aspects of Appalachia

Author Matthew Ferrence reads from his book, “Appalachia North: A Memoir,” at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books series Tuesday.

WHEELING – As a people, Appalachians are not afforded “space for new definitions, new direction,” author Matthew Ferrence said.

He read from his book, “Appalachia North: A Memoir,” at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books series Tuesday. Ferrence, who grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, teaches creative writing at Allegheny College.

Describing the formation of the Appalachian plateau, he said, “Geology defines what the region will be for eons to come. People within our region have been defined by the geology beneath us.”

In the memoir, Ferrence draws parallels between the radiation he underwent to treat a brain tumor in 2016 and efforts to reclaim strip-mined land in Appalachia.

“Reclamation is a term that binds us to our unrecoverable past,” he observed. “The lies we tell and are told about reclamation: ‘Life is normal again.’ Life might be ‘normal,’ but there is no ‘again.'”

He noted that there are multiple opposing references in the culture.

“We can’t delineate because the lines are the root of the problem. … The lines aren’t really clear at all,” he said. “There can be no reclamation when you destroy the substance.”

Ferrence, who did graduate work at West Virginia University, said, “I was born in that portion of the official Appalachian Regional Commission zone that lies above the Mason-Dixon line.”

As a youth, he “was comfortable with nerds and rednecks,” but he said, “I never felt fully part of either side of that dichotomy. … I felt Appalachian– the region between North and South, East and West.”

It is harder for authors to get work published without perpetuating stereotypes of Appalachia, he said.

“For us, as writers in the region,” he said, “we write from the place where people think we are and get to the place where we actually are.”

Ferrence thinks J.D. Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” is “a terrible memoir” that lacks the fundamental skill of self-reflection. Citing another flaw, Ferrence said, “He (Vance) comes to that book with a pre-existing notion of what Appalachia is and he shapes the book in that way.”

In writing his own memoir, Ferrence realized a metaphorical relationship between his medical experience and the landscape of Appalachia.

“We are not separate from our landscape in some ways,” he said.

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