Academic journal article College English

"Keep the Appalachian, Drop the Redneck": Tellable Student Narratives of Appalachian Identity

Academic journal article College English

"Keep the Appalachian, Drop the Redneck": Tellable Student Narratives of Appalachian Identity

Article excerpt

The preceding narrative is the type of story often told about Appalachian people, more generally, and Appalachian women, more specifically. In these stories, Appalachians are usually long-suffering victims of poverty, illiteracy, and violence who survive through a combination of pluck and down-home wisdom-"poverty goddesses," to use J. W. Williamson's phrase. These stories are what folklorist Ann K. Ferrell calls "tellable narratives," public discourses that "reflec[t] common, but often unquestioned, ideas and assumptions" about the topic at hand (128). Tellability is a lens for evaluating which narratives are worth telling and for further assessing who can tell which narratives in what context; it is similar in some ways to Kenneth Burke's understanding of motive: "What is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it" (xv). Ferrell further argues that "the concept of tellability can also help us to understand the interaction between public discourses and individual narratives" of particular subjects (132).1

The narrative I constructed about Flora has tellability, as it reflects common assumptions about, and stereotypes of, Appalachians through its emphasis on Flora's poverty, lack of education, and limited ownership of books. According to the federal government, Flora's economic status and education level would have identified her as illiterate at the time of her death, as the then-current census established a combination of poverty and a ninth-grade education level as the criteria for illiteracy. This designation is part of our government's tellable narrative of literacy, which itself is part of our culture's tellable literacy narrative, one that defines literacy as the ability to decode and encode text. In public discourse, literacy is an either/or possession: either one has it or one doesn't.

Yet tellable narratives conceal many other facets of Appalachians' lives and literacies. Folklorist Amy Shuman writes, "Narratives impose categories on experience, but people sometimes report that their experiences don't fit the imposed category because the category unfairly judges them" (8), and these experiences make up what Shuman calls untellable narratives. In the earlier version, I omitted the untellable narratives of Flora's life: the high value she placed on education and her love of reading and writing. She insisted her family make a costly move further down the mountain so the two youngest children could go to high school. She voraciously read the Bible, the newspaper, and "the trashies," her name for the tabloids she read while sitting in her daughter's TV room, whispering and cackling with relatives about some celebrity's latest exploits. She had a voluminous collection of cookbooks and recipes she had written by hand. She was a frequent letter writer who also wrote in her diary daily. Flora valued education and was very literate, albeit in ways that are untellable in public discourse about Appalachians.

I begin with Flora's narratives to establish, in the tradition of reflexive ethnography, my own positionality. Flora McKee Lykins was my grandmother. I was the granddaughter who held her hand as she died. She lived with my parents and me the last eight years of her life. It is my family connection to Appalachia that inspires this essay, which examines Appalachian students' performances of identity via their use of tellable narratives inside and outside two college composition classrooms. During the summer that I participated in and observed these two classes, took notes, conducted surveys, and interviewed students and teachers, I learned how students' perceptions of audience shaped their own performances of identity and the narratives they deemed tellable. The students' tellable narratives of Appalachian identity were sometimes limited by public discourses of Appalachianness, yet at other times, the students used untellable narratives as a means of performing a range of Appalachian identities. …

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