Editor’s note: Eric Shonkwiler is the 2015 New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence and is living and writing at Lafayette Flats this winter. This is his second contribution to our blog.
When I applied for the residency here at Lafayette Flats, one of the terms of the deal was that I, with my very presence, I think, and in my writing here on the blog, try to help change the narrative of West Virginia. That seemed and seems to be quite the task—help change the story people are telling about an entire state. Sure. But, naturally, this idea has stuck with me. What is the narrative of West Virginia? What does the culture at large say about it? What does the culture say about my home state, about the other places I’ve been? It’s rarely a wholly good thing, no matter where you hail from. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been exposed to a great deal of West Virginia—or even all that much of Fayetteville—but I’m struck by this particular difference from the narrative America is fed and what the real thing is: West Virginia is like any other state. Not in all ways—not nearly—but it’s no distant, faraway land.
There are a number of TV shows that exploit the popular idea of West Virginia as being composed of moonshiners, ginseng hunters, and your standard tooth-deficient hillbilly. Of course this isn’t the case, but that’s what we’re told, what’s reinforced, and though the public won’t believe this wholesale, what does register, I think, is a notion of distance. West Virginia takes on a fairytale quality that, regardless of what that tale is, makes it seem further from your average American’s everyday experience. But that’s simply not true. The West Virginia I’ve seen, and am coming to love, is every bit as close and familiar as all the other states that I’ve visited (44 out of 50, for those wondering at home).
The thing that I love most about traveling, when I have a good deal of time to spend in one place, is getting to know its quirks, and thereby coming to know a little bit about the soul of the place. Despite all the places I’ve been, the popular narrative of West Virginia still made me wonder if, perhaps, I wasn’t going to be dropped into foreign territory. (There’s a difference between finding your feet and having to learn a new metaphorical language, when it comes to exploring the country.) Come to find out, though, that’s not a problem here. There is no great cultural barrier. There’s just culture. My life has continued here in much the same way it would were I in any other state. I’ve been to a reading, drank locally-brewed beer, and sold some of my books. Fayetteville seems possessed of many of the trends that flow through the country at large. And that’s what might surprise people. It’s vibrant, current, young. It feels like any other town in America that’s awake and receptive—something you can’t say about my hometown, bless it. There is no great wall blocking West Virginia from the rest of America. That narrative of the redneck, the bootlegger, the ‘sang hunter, is out of date and misinformed—and besides, I’ve studied the mine wars; there’s no shame in that red handkerchief.