In the spring of 2016, the Kenyon Review published my essay “On Poverty,” about being a writer and single parent living below the poverty line in rural Appalachia. I wrote about how difficult it is for those who are not wealthy to have access to the literary world, or accurate representations of our lives: “The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.”
Some of that representation has begun to change. After the 2016 election, the nonprofit journalism organization 100 Days in Appalachia was formed to report on the region, by writers in the region; intended to last only the first hundred days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the project, led by editor-in-chief Dana Coester, is still going strong. In 2018, Ashley York and Sally Rubin’s documentary Hillbilly addressed some of the persistent art and media stereotypes of poverty and Appalachia. And 2020 year saw the publication of books like Sarah Smarsh’s She Come By It Natural, on Dolly Parton (who recently gave $1 million toward the development of a Covid-19 vaccine) and the working-class women she immortalized with her songwriting. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and Shiner by Amy Jo Burns, are novels in which rural women take leading roles. Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, includes nonfiction not only of the cities of the Midwest but its country, and was published by Belt Publishing, a small house focused on voices from the Rust Belt.
We’re Losing the War on Poverty — And It’s Only Getting Worse
U.N. human rights expert Philip Alston breaks down why we’re failing to meet the goal of ending global poverty by 2030
But despite this work, little has changed for the lives of working-class writers like myself, or for rural women — especially single mothers. In many ways, we’re moving backward, particularly when it comes to our depiction in popular art and culture.
This year saw the release of Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, a $45 million film based on the…