Thursday, March 3, 2016

A letter for Trevor Noah and John Saward.

I am typing in Times New Roman font because I won't chance being one missing serif away from yet another judgment. Little do they know that as I type in my current state—clad in bargain-bin slippers and mismatched pajamas; eyes underscored by sunken-in, darkened half moons; pale face framed by flyaway dead ends—I could fit their narratives like a worn-in camouflage trucker cap.

They are the disparagers of West Virginia. This week, they are represented by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show and John Saward, a writer for Vanity Fair

And who am I? A mother of two. One half of a domestic partnership. Pit bull advocate. Lover of avocados. Hater of weak coffee. Part working copywriter, part aspiring creative writer. Bemused Mountain State native.

I'm not here to deny the roots of WV jokes. There's a lot of fodder tucked into these hills-on-steroids. I'm not above enjoying the humor—sometimes. Other times it elicits an eye roll or a yawn or that look you get when the server delivers your vegetarian omelet with bacon sticking out the side. Where do I draw the line between okay and not okay? When I'm confronted by two too many examples of too much negativity compressed into too few days. When my home state is too largely enamored with a (non)presidential candidate whose brashness makes me want to throw myself into a slurry pond as an act of self-sacrificial revolt.

This week, the offenses against West Virginia include a tweet and an essay. Neither was inaccurate. Both were incomplete. The tweet, belonging to Mr. Noah, referred to that "West" Virginia, which is "creepy" and gives him the "willies." I'll give him creepy. Backwoods hillbillies can be an acquired taste, with their peek-a-boo teeth, bushwhacked grammar, and ignorance of essential life forces like microbrews and Balmain boots. Or is it that they are simplistic in a way most of us fear because it'll take us too far away from our life-affirming nouns: People, Places, and Things that we've been conditioned to believe matter more than plain old l-i-v-i-n-g. Hillbillies know how to scour forest floors for the mushrooms that won't kill you and the ginseng that can bring in a pretty penny. They know how to shoe horses; tell hilarious stories about Ex-lax brownies and barroom bloopers; whittle knife handles out of deer antlers; make a mean pot of potatoes and green beans (high five in heaven to my Grandma).

Not all of us West Virginians are brave enough to be hillbillies. Some, like me, have an indelible taste for the city.  Some are scholars who've exposed shady doings by companies like Volkswagon. Some have written successful books, like Jarhead and The Good Earth and The Glass Castle. Some dedicate themselves to community action. One West Virginian is Steve Harvey. Another is Jennifer Garner

Listing accomplished residents and expounding upon the wonders of hillbillydom won't matter, will it? Outsiders will still savor the easy jokes and caricatures, won't they.

Question: Has Trevor Noah ever been to West Virginia? I'd bet my last tooth he hasn't. Come see us, Mr. Noah. You can still call us creepy afterward. At least then it'll be substantiated by experience.

As for John Saward, esteemed Vanity Fair contributor: His essay, while nicely crafted, was disappointingly myopic. Like I granted Noah his chosen adjective, I'll grant Mr. Saward his depictions. They weren't inaccurate. We have our gun toters, pot-bellied purveyors of amalgam meats, belligerent blue collars, and accidental career waitresses. We have those who think liberals are the clarion call for the demise of civility and those who believe what's missing from government is God. These are West Virginians as put to the page by Mr. Saward. As pages (whether in hand or online) lack dimension, so do these depictions. I know these people, some of them as closely as blood relation. While the adventures of my life—along with an intrinsic urge for critical analysis and revolt—have redrawn the districts of my mind, I haven't forgotten from where I came. It's in that spirit that I defend the people Saward, with creative license, obliquely dismissed. His interviews in Morgantown especially show he was disinclined to explore the diversity that exists here. Had he looked not very far at all, he would've found bright and progressive minds in my city's restaurants, coffee shops, small businesses, and university classrooms.

West Virginia is a place from which I ran like hell during my angsty 20s (and my 30s; late bloomer here). South Beach and New York City and Memphis took me far away from my home state's confines, both literal and figurative. When I returned in my 30s to my hometown of Clarksburg (highlighted in John Saward's Vanity Fair piece), I wasn't fully reformed. In my hometown that had been ravaged by drug addiction and joblessness, I felt frustrated and alienated. So I left again, if only 45 minutes away to Morgantown where the trappings of a thriving college town were a better fit. I made a life here with my two-year-old son and a pit bull named Private Joker.  Two years later, I'm a no-longer-single mother of two who relishes any opportunity to fulfill my heart's desire to write. This week's dose of highly public stereotyping courtesy of Trevor Noah and John Saward left me not as much piqued as inspired. It turns out I was one tweet and an essay away from speaking up for my home state and the people who are fiercely proud to live in it. 

West Virginians are what you think and what you see. And then they are more. In short, West Virginians are just like you.

Thanks for the opportunity, guys.