Aspen Summer Words: Authentic Appalachia from Ron Rash | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Summer Words: Authentic Appalachia from Ron Rash

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado

Mark HaskettAppalachian writer Ron Rash is among the authors appearing at the Aspen Writers' Foundation's Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. The festival, running Sunday through Friday, June 20-25, is presented under the theme, Crossroads: A Literary Intersection of the American South."

ASPEN – Ron Rash, a writer who was born, lives, works, teaches in, and writes about the Appalachian South, says there have been occasions when readers have voiced dismay over his depiction of the region. Rash understands the critique.In the stories in “Burning Bright,” a collection published in March, there’s a husband who slashes the tires of his wife’s car; a father who sells the diamond ring found by his son so he can buy meth; and a serial arsonist. In “Serena,” a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, the title character is a Depression-era timber baroness who eliminates competitors and foes, real and imagined, with Lady Macbeth-like facility.Rash’s characters don’t tend to come toward the light in the final pages; his are not stories of redemption. They generally end with a brutal thump of self-deception, rationalization or the recognition that whatever misfortune has occurred is likely to continue. And the stories, taken as a whole, don’t measure an upward arc over time: the Depression-era farmer in “Hard Times,” the opening story in “Burning Bright,” becomes the contemporary grave-robber in another short story, “Dead Confederates.”Yet Rash, who is in his mid-50s, mentions a recent appearance he made at a college near his home in South Carolina. Any anguish the students felt over Rash’s depictions of Appalachia was lost in the appreciation they had for his honesty – that Rash had told the truth about his corner of the world, warts, meth addicts and all.”These people had gone through the things I write about in my books,” Rash said by phone. “And they didn’t mind that I wrote about their problems. They commented over and over that I got it right, and they said I’ve dignified their lives, or at least wrote about it honestly.”Rough economic times are not just a fact of life in Rash’s books; they are the essential condition. That may be simply a reflection of what the writer has seen. He observes that, while visiting eastern Kentucky a few years ago, he was astonished at the number of military recruitment materials, a sure indicator of economic despair.”Hard times seem to have always been there, and my work, I think, acknowledges that,” Rash said of Appalachia. “It’s a depressed area, still.”But challenging circumstances of any sort can serve as a useful literary tool. Put a character in a tough situation – unemployment, poor health, the victim of his own foolish decisions – and you’ve put him in a place where his true self can emerge.”I think these are situations in which people reveal themselves,” Rash said. “In their direst moments, people reveal themselves, in good ways and bad.”When I pointed out that the balance is heavily skewed toward the bad in his books, Rash gave a chuckle of recognition. But he was quick to make a point about his use of people in desperate circumstances: what gets revealed is not just their base instincts and an inability to improve their lot, but also their most human qualities.”My characters may be poor, and poorly educated, but the reader feels their humanity. If not, I’ve failed. If it’s about the eccentricities of these particular people, I’ve failed,” Rash said. “I think what I try to do is put my characters in brutal situations. But I think I also show them doing the best they can, deal the hand they’ve been dealt. They’re trying to do their best in a hard world. There’s not a cynicism toward them.”••••Rash is among the writers participating this week in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. This year’s festival is presented under the theme, Crossroads: A Literary Intersection of the American South, and no doubt much of the discussion will focus not just on the individual writers appearing in Aspen, but the broader topic of why the South has been such rich soil for literature.Part of the reason, says Rash, is the relatively slow pace at which Southerners have left the region. Rash says the editor of his French editions once told him that writers from the American South hold an esteemed place in Europe. Rash believes the reason is that Southerners share the European habit – not customary across the States – to stay put.”The South I grew up in was a slower-changing culture than the rest of the U.S. It was a slow migration. People stayed in these places for generations,” he said. Rash thinks the enduring relationship to the region allows people to cultivate an attachment to the stories, myths and characteristics of the place in a way that leads to great literature. It seems to be the case for Rash. He grew up in Boiling Springs, a one-stoplight town in southwestern North Carolina whose most prominent citizen was bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs. Rash never really left the area. He studied English at Gardner Webb University, in Boiling Springs; his grad-school years, at South Carolina’s Clemson University, an hour’s drive from Boiling Springs, counts as his getting-away period. Rash currently teaches at Western Carolina University, a few miles from where he grew up.”Having lived there so long, I have an emotional attachment to the place,” Rash said. “It’s helped me get a sense of this particular place. I know where my relatives were in 1800. I live on land that was in my family in the late 1700s. That sense of knowing the dirt is, for me, helpful.”Rash’s background both confirms and refutes stereotypes of the South. His rural roots are not far from him: Both of his parents were the first in their families to go to school; they met while working at a textile mill. But his father became an art teacher at a small college, his mother taught elementary school, and the two strongly encouraged their son to read and write.”I was lucky as a writer to know that blue-collar world, and knew that my parents, through hard work, gave me a middle-class existence,” he said. “There was a lot of emphasis in the family on reading.”Apart from the bond to the region, Rash mentioned two more aspects of the South that have contributed to his writing.One is the mountains of Appalachia, which are as vivid as any character in “Serena.””Living in that landscape, it has a deep impact. And that can be positive or negative,” Rash said. “It gives you womb-like protection, like the mountains are protecting you. But it can also make you feel powerless in the face of nature. That fatalism – I’ve seen it in my family, and even sense it in myself.”Rash has also sensed the condescending view outsiders can have of the South as a backwards, unsophisticated place. He doesn’t buy it, especially as regards the use of language. As a kid, he spent summers with his grandmother, listening to her words and stories.”It’s interesting for me to hear the media depict people in Appalachia as being sub-literate,” he said. “But I learned there was a way of using language that was not just utilitarian, but literate, interested in saying something in a meaningful way.”I heard my cousin use a phrase about a girl: ‘She didn’t have enough clothes on to wad a shotgun.’ Everything we look for in poetry was in that metaphor.”

The Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, featuring Dorothy Allison, Richard Bausch, Nikky Finney, Walter Isaacson, Randall Keenan, Colum McCann, Ron Rash and Kathryn Stockett, with a videoconference appearance by Ernest J. Gaines, is set for Sunday through Friday, June 20-25 at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center. For full program details, go to aspenwriters.org.stewart@aspentimes.com