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[personal profile] kwgishwriter
So, I went to see Mockingjay: Part One on Monday - and yes, I absolutely adored it. I loved the first two movies, and this one was, I think, far better than Catching Fire. My favorite part (hey, spoilers ahead) was Katniss singing that haunting ballad, "The Hanging Tree" (which, FYI, had a thoroughly Appalachian feel), and all the events which followed with the song overlaid. (The song is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4jDFE3JDTE, and there's a 30 second TV spot featuring it most stirringly at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIdBrWyVYvU.)

But there's something about The Hunger Games franchise which nobody's talking much about, and to me it's one of the best things about the entire storyline.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss explains that District 12, her home, was formerly the part of the United States known as Appalachia. In video footage of author Suzanne Collins reading aloud from one of the books, she reads Katniss's voice with a thoroughly Appalachian accent, right down to the lilt of her speech, and we know that isn't simply the author's natural accent because she gives a brief introduction before reading, and the accent she uses is not like the one she drops into when she "becomes" Katniss. (If you'd like to see this video, it's available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4jDFE3JDTE. It's a joy!)

That's right. The heroes of District 12 - Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Haymitch - they're all Appalachian. And people just aren't talking about it. It's somewhat understandable - in the films, Appalachian accents are not used, and to some degree I understand why. Perhaps the director and others involved feared that heavy use of accents considered by much of the world to mark individuals as "hillbillies," "uneducated," "hicks," and so forth might hinder the reach and popularity of the films. Perhaps they feared that teens, the main target audience since these are, after all, YA dystopian fantasy novels, wouldn't relate as well to characters with Appalachian accents. And that's understandable, I suppose, especially given the prevailing stereotypes surrounding those with Appalachian accents. I think the actors playing these roles couldn't be any better. I think they really become the characters. But I wish we could have heard those accents on the big screen.

The reason it's important to note the origins and nature of these heroes is that there *are* stereotypes about Appalachian Americans. Recently I heard someone make a joke about eastern Kentucky, where I'm from, as being "the side of Kentucky that doesn't value dental work." Well, no, it's not that. It's just that eastern Kentucky has many areas which are severely economically depressed, some of the poorest counties in the US. It's not that we don't value dental work - it's more than things like dental work and higher education and professional training are the province of those with the financial means to obtain them without sacrificing food on their tables and roofs over their heads. Yes, parts of Appalachia, eastern Kentucky included, are riddled with drug abuse and trafficking. Yes, we have people trapped in poverty cycles and either unable to or unwilling to escape them. But to say that those issues form the sum total of Appalachia's defining characteristics is to miss the mark.

Appalachians are not the Beverly Hillbillies. Appalachians are proud. Stubborn. Resourceful. Often clever. Courageous. And what is magical to me about the work of Suzanne Collins is that in The Hunger Games trilogy, Appalachian characters *are* those things. No, they aren't perfect - Prim's and Katniss's mother clearly has drawn so far into herself in her depression that she's forced her elder daughter into a horrible position of supporting her family. Haymitch is an alcoholic (another common stereotype - many people seem to think we all live on moonshine!). Prim is frightened and helpless (though to be fair, she's still quite young in the first book). And yet - Prim grows into a kind and caring young woman. Haymitch proves to be a strong advocate and advisor for Katniss and Peeta. Peeta heroically sacrifices himself to save Haymitch from the Quarter Quell Games. Gale is strong and stoic, a resourceful hunter. Katniss - well, we all KNOW about Katniss, whose courage and caring define her character. She's a crack shot with archery. She would give up her life to save her sister. She is fiercely loyal. And even after two Games, she's still culturally the same person she was before the Games. Is she flawless? No! As Haymitch and Effie frequently point out, she's sort of cantankerous and difficult to love at times. She's stubborn as a mule and definitely opinionated. But that's how real people are. It's how real Appalachians are. Imperfect and beautiful and amazing.

I realize that the qualities I've mentioned aren't unique to Appalachian Americans. I'm well aware that there are people of all cultures and regions who have these qualities. But when I have seen them over and over in my own culture, and yet have seen these same people frequently misrepresented and maligned in popular culture and media, I want to stand up and cheer now that I see a popular portrayal which modern audiences can connect with - especially one that young people can connect with.

Most portrayals of Appalachian Americans in the media have been overwhelmingly negative. While "The Waltons" was a popular TV program several decades ago, and remains one of the few positive portrayals of Appalachian Americans even today, John Boy, Mary Ellen, Olivia, and the others are still a romantic portrait of Appalachia as it was many decades ago. Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Haymitch, on the other hand, are not only from a dystopian future, but are decidedly unromanticized portrayals of many of the real Appalachian values demonstrated in "The Waltons" and in real Appalachian Americans. And they're reaching a generation whose opinions are likely to shape the TV programs of the future - which could have important implications for Appalachian Americans. If people can realize that District 12's heroes are truly and distinctly Appalachian, are we more likely to see a repeat of "The Beverly Hillbilllies" (or, worse, the horrific show which was planned to be a modern version, plunking down Appalachian Americans from the backwoods in a Beverly Hills mansion and following them via reality TV - which was cancelled pre-production, thank heavens) - or might we see programs which involve Appalachian Americans in roles of dignity and pride?

As an Appalachian American teenager, I knew about the great Appalachian American writers - Jesse Stuart and James Still in particular. I admired them. I went to the same university for my undergrad degree that they attended, Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and I'm proud of it. But as an adolescent, I didn't feel that I had any Appalachian American heroes I could look up to in recent literature. I didn't see any examples of Appalachian American characters outside of what was considered Appalachian literature - and it didn't seem to deal with the Appalachian American's role in the larger world. While the examples of relatable contemporary Appalachian characters have exploded in more recent years, particular with the works of authors like Sharyn McCrumb, Silas House, Amy Greene, Gwyn Hyman Rubio, and many more, only a few of these works are written for the YA market - which means that today's youth are likely being shaped by the same stereotypes of Appalachian Americans which were pounded into me when I traveled to places like Washington, D.C., ideas "outsiders" conveyed to me:

Where are you from? Kentucky? Oh, yeah, we could tell by your AC-cent.

By the time I reached twenty, I had learned how to suppress my natural accent, how to make myself sound more "normal" and "unaccented" to people outside Appalachia. I took a job where speaking in a manner understandable to people from many parts of the world was important, and I made sure I did that. I learned that people who naturally have a strong Appalachian accent are often mocked, ridiculed as uneducated and backwards and narrow-minded. So, not wanting to seem any of those things, I learned to sound more like I might not be Appalachian American.

I wish now I'd worried less about what other people might think and worried more about maintaining my cultural identity, holding onto my heritage. At this point in my life, I realize that what accent I have left is beautiful, nothing to be ashamed of, a reminder of who I am and always will be. It doesn't reflect poorly on my education or experience. I love it when people notice my accent and mark it as being Appalachian. But I can't help wondering - if more notice were given to the Appalachian identity of some of today's most popular YA heroes, if more acknowledgement of their cultural heritage were made, what influence might that have on the leaders of the future, on the world in which we live?

Maybe a teenager now growing up in Appalachia now won't feel she has to change who she is to fit into the wider world.

Maybe we could finally move past the "hick/hillbilly/uneducated/backward/narrow-minded" stereotypes and acknowledge that there is courage to be found in those hills, stories of sacrifice and heroism and a rich, heart-achingly-deep beauty.

It's not all right to make fun of Appalachian Americans anymore. And it's time we stopped acting as if it doesn't matter. It does. And I, for one, am proud that Katniss and her allies are truly, deeply Appalachian to the core.

-kwg

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November 2014

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