Giving Story to the Light
By Andrea Fekete co-editor
Although I was one of the lucky kids born to parents who went to college, the first generation in their families to do so, I still lived in an atmosphere of oppression, underprivilege, and suffering, especially among women.
Instinctively, I understood then-wordless concepts: sexism, empowerment, disenfranchisement, misogyny, feminism, justice, income inequality, and multigenerational poverty.
I didn’t have these words as tools to describe my experience. I was a poet from the age of 7 because I needed words I did not have. That year, I developed difficulty controlling my emotions and expressing myself after a bout of childhood bacterial meningitis.
I set out to speak to the world about these intense mood swings and feelings of overwhelm. But because of my background, growing up, I never thought anyone was listening or would want to.
Women and girls who feel voiceless or invisible because of disability, underprivilege, abusive environments, or some other cause, need story. To me, story is the telling of whatever ways of knowing a woman has at her disposal.
As a child of the coalfields, my ways of knowing were instinctual, also set by example by the incredibly strong women in my family and the women in my neighbor’s families who lived in the coal camp where I was raised.
As a teenage writer growing up in coalfields of rural Appalachia, I felt alone in my dreams to be an author. I didn’t know any writers who looked or sounded like me. But then, I’d only stepped foot in one bookstore before I went away to university.
As a curious teen, I didn’t have luxuries like fully-stocked bookstores, playhouses, theaters, live music venues (for under 21), and no public transit to take me to those wells of knowledge and experience, either.
In high school, I was taught white ladies like Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. My skin, while white as well, wasn’t "the right kind" of white. I was white trash, and I knew from watching television that we weren’t exactly the kids on shows like Melrose Place or 90210. I hated those shows, just pictures of a world where I knew I didn’t belong. Who acted out my stories?
There were no granddaughters to Mexican and Hungarian immigrants like me--black-headed, Catholic holler girls from the West Virginia coalfields, not on TV or my high-school literature books. I hung out in the library with Fannie Waller, a black woman with a master’s degree who taught college English on the side. I was thirsty for story, my own and others’.
Unfortunately, the books in our library were old as were the handful of computers. It was 1995 when I read, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, a book written in 1971 by Barbara Walters.
I read books from the 1980s by Gloria Steinem, that I recall not understanding well. I wanted to know what smart women thought and how they saw the world.
I didn’t have access to much like kids on Melrose Place or the characters in Friends. Writing sustained me. Talking to Ms. Waller endlessly about life sustained me. Hearing her stories and telling her my own sustained me.
As a teenager, on late summer nights on porch swings and around tables on my parents’ deck, I read my horror stories and poems to my friend Jimmy, to my best friends next door, too. My friends’ moms borrowed my novel-in-progress in high school.
I never felt so seen as when she said, "Tell Andrea to hurry up and write more. I want to know what’s going to happen next!"
Growing up in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, us kids weren’t hardcore consumers like your typical American teenager because of lack of access, so we made things rather than consumed them. Nothing much happened up the hollow (I say "holler") except art.
All of us made things: jokes, music, song, poetry, and dance routines at slumber parties. Maybe nothing much happened up the holler but things happened in those stories and songs. Story happened. We were our most alive then.
We sang in our garages with our buddies. My uncles and cousins played on somebody’s porch. All of us who partook in creation, the creators and the audience, came to life through the power of story. When my friends listened, I felt seen. I mattered. These are early lessons on story. Story would save my life many times in adulthood.
At 18, I left rural Appalachia for a small urban area to attend Marshall University. There, I studied English and writing.
By 2014, I would have a BA, MA, and MFA. But first, at the tender age of 19, I was an intern in the women studies department.
Dr. Amy Hudock was one of my first mentors. Dr. Hudock juggled multiple projects preserving diaries, literature, and poetry of women.
She instilled their importance in the minds of young students, protected special collections libraries like that of long-dead southern women, walls and walls of their diaries which would’ve mattered to not one soul back when they were written.
Her literature courses and those like hers, were where I first learned words I lacked for the experiences I grew up unable to name.
I was exposed to women writers of every color, sexual orientation, religion, and from every corner of the globe. The most amazing surprise of all? Working-class women from Appalachia wrote books! Imagine my surprise and joy!
Readers actually listened to what they had to say. And these were strangers reading their books, not only their friends on porch swings who, let’s face it, probably listened out of some measure of kindness as well as curiosity.
I finally saw myself in the women I read. I saw my story in their novels and poetry. Suddenly, my stories mattered outside of my region. That same year, in 1998, I took Appalachian Literature, marveling at the existence of this kind of literature of which I’d never heard before.
I learned the poetry of Dr. Irene McKinney, former Poet Laureate of West Virginia. I was I in awe. She talked about coal mining. Death. Love. She talked about my West Virginia. I saw my story. I was transformed.
Fate would intervene and, in 2011, I would be accepted to a new MFA program at WV Wesleyan College, founded by none other than Dr. McKinney, who would become my mentor and friend.
In the 2003 book, Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, a book I used as course material as an adjunct professor in 2008, Dr. McKinney is quoted as saying "I’m a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to."
Pictured: My friend and teacher, the late Dr. Irene McKinney, Founder of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at West Virginia Welseyan College and former Poet Laureate of West Virginia
These words could’ve been my own when I was a teenager. They were my mantra as an adult; I’ll say what I want to. She passed away after my only knowing her one year. But her influence, both in 1998 and 2011, changed me and my relationship with story, my relationship with myself.
A specific event led to the inspiration for this book. I experienced a traumatic event in 2014, another one, related to my gender. I felt silenced. Angry. I worked with a WV Delegate attempting to pass a bill to protect women in domestic violence situations.
As an undergrad, I’d co-founded the Women’s Studies Student Association under Dr. Hudock’s advisory. I had a modest list of achievements related to serving or bringing justice to women and girls. Each achievement helped heal.
But this time, I was fed up. I obsessed for a month, wondering where I could put this specific anger. How could I use it to serve women and girls? Service heals.
I remembered how growing up, the only time I felt heard, the only time I felt like I mattered, was when I was sharing story. But I felt my voice was too small, by itself, to liberate me this time.
What if, I asked myself, I helped women all over the nation, maybe even world, share their own stories? If I give them a platform, will the giver and receiver of story be empowered? Yes. What a lofty goal.
I went to the internet, like many women frustrated with sexism, misogyny or injustice--a quality of 4th-wave feminism, I learned. Women take to the internet to vent their frustrations surrounding life as women--often girls new to feminism and concepts of injustice, women who don’t yet have words for these concepts, just as I once didn’t.
This book started out as just a late-night pipe dream as I sat alone in my kitchen in the town of Barboursville, West Virginia.
Not exactly glamorous and it wasn’t so realistic either. I started posting on social media, asking women to send me their work. At first, no one did. I even earned some hostile reactions from men.
I kept at it. Women who I knew personally told me no. I was discouraged but I had faith I wasn’t alone in my need to speak. I kept at it. The submissions finally began rolling in. Word of mouth or beginner’s luck? I still don’t know.
Soon, I was buried in work and needed help. I reached out to Lara Lillibridge, a writer and former classmate I barely knew who I recalled as edgy and unique.
In 2014, she didn't yet have her impressive list of publications or her first book Girlish, a memoir, which was released this year.
I chose Lara because of her talent, her voice, and bravery in her work.
I couldn't even promise her anything, not even that it would be published. I had nothing but an idea and some email submissions in my inbox.
Lara shared my excitement and worked hard with no reward in sight, fueled by nothing but passion for our vision. During our work these past four years, we became best friends. This collected work is a genuine labor of love.
I have always approached my work as a feminist, a term I have married, divorced, and reclaimed, more than once, on the individual level, which is more 3rd-wave feminism, although I am only 40.
I believe in working toward justice for women and girls, but I believe in a "boots on the ground" approach. Sharing story isn’t only introducing legislation or leading a march, but it is transforming of the culture, one individual reader at a time.
Have readers ever been represented in print? Is a little teenage holler girl who fears she has no chances in life reading this book and if she is, what interior landscape transforms in this one girl? And what will she do with her life, if so?
We didn’t set out with structure in mind or themes for the collection, these developed organically and over time, which sets this collection apart from many.
We produced this book backwards. Most anthologies start with a concept from the publisher, often a somewhat narrow one, who then hires editors who set out to make his vision come true.
We asked women to tell us what this book would be, and they did. Our questions were broad. We wanted contributors to decide which topics were relevant to their lives, not assign relevance.
Our website asked contributors to answer these questions: Are there moments in your life where your femaleness was a source of power or hardship? When does your voice ring its clearest? When have you been silenced?
We asked for work from women of all ages, races, nationalities, and religions.
The manuscript includes 74 poems and 23 essays.
Topics include women’s "rites of passage", sexuality, birth stories, woman as a hero/protector, survival of oppression and violence, writing on the female body, gender roles, women in the workplace, ethnicity, and ancestry.
Pieces are broken into sections by theme. Many pieces are by women whose second language is English. We have a few who write in "broken" English, which reminded me of how my own Mexican grandfather spoke. We embraced this beauty and diversity.
The collection suits both a variety of mainstream adult readers’ interests and professors’ purposes. The essays and poems range from humorous to serious, frightening to inspiring, sensual to intellectual, and experimental to traditional.
Professors could easily use this collection for classes in creative writing, poetry, creative nonfiction, and women’s studies. Best of all, people who just love true stories will love this book. Included here are new and award-winning English-speaking women writers from around the world, no easy feat for two youngish writers with no budget, relying on the internet and a prayer.
We didn’t have an idea for structure or categorization when we set out. But decided we wanted to hold the reader’s interest more than anything. The manuscript alternates between poems and essays, shorter forms to longer form.
The shorter forms, both poetry and flash-essays, deliver the more immediate "punchline" the reader craves in just a page or less. The longer forms allow for more meditative immersion into a chosen topic.
The categorization allows the reader to quickly flip to topics of most interest to them. We have sections on family, late life and death, pregnancy and birth, sex and writing on the body, and more. This is what women sent us.
We marveled as themes rose organically from the pages. It was easy to see what women felt needed said the most. Our longest section is "Resistance and Roles."
We started the table of contents with the category "resistance and roles" because to us, putting a woman’s story in the world is itself an act of resistance.
Once complete, I left this work with a profound feeling of healing from silencing in my own life. Receiving and putting forth these stories provided a measure of retrograde relief from my bitterness, anger, and despair over each of my own silencing due to both my gender and my regional identity as Appalachian with severely limited access and privilege as a child residing in a holler, miles from even modern texts.
My purpose compiling this text were many, but one was to receive stories and give them forward to men, women, and girls who need them. I especially thought of women and girls often forgotten in the "middle-class white" feminism, the girls left out of the cast of the TV shows, the girls who can’t take a day off work for A Day Without Women marches.
The girls in the holler, the projects, and the lands where women aren’t supposed to read or where they can barely write.
We unearthed exciting new women writers. Our award-winning authors from the U.S. include Ellen Bass, Pauletta Hansel, Ann Pancake, and many more.
Our international authors include award winners such as Shloka Shankar, Maggie Thach, and Müesser Yenjay. Our contributors hail from Turkey, Tunisia, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, India, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, England, Canada, Vietnam, Israel, and all corners of the United States.
This book exists. Now what? Possibilities.
Individuals transforming, both the writers and readers. Boots-on-the ground feminism promising tangible change, although small at first, incremental and limitless. It is my fervent prayer girls and women learn from these poems and essays that voicing anger, joy, fear, love, and power isn’t only acceptable, but necessary, even expected.
As a 7-year-old girl struggling with mood swings and communication of my feelings after surviving a lethal brain infection, I wrote poetry and was saved by story. Then, my story was painfully suppressed by a world where I thought a voice like mine had no place.
I’m so glad women like the ones who raised me encouraged me to seek out that place. Now, I’m passing on stories of others, and through them, find healing, solace, and renewed strength to continue my work to leave the world just a little bit more just than I found it, as my mentors taught me to do--those mentors of my childhood and those of adulthood: the powerful women of the coal camps where I was raised and the inspiring women of my adulthood and academe.
My feelings of silencing and powerlessness seem erased for now, as I give this book, as I give story--more than I ever could’ve contributed with only my voice--to the light.
Andrea Fekete is a coal miner’s daughter and granddaughter to Mexican and Hungarian immigrants, a native of the southern West Virginia coalfields. She is author of the novel of the WV coal mine wars, Waters Run Wild (Sweetgum Press, 2010) which is being re-released November 2018 and poetry chapbook I Held a Morning (Finishing Line Press, 2012).
Her fiction and poetry often appear in journals such as Chiron Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Kentucky Review, Montucky Review, Adirondack Review, ABZ, and in such anthologies as Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia. (WVU Press, 2017)
You can find her on Facebook at http://facebook.com/andreafeketewv