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Anthology: Leaving W.Va. to write about home

By Staff | Nov 24, 2008

Cheyenna Weber hails from Roane County, but lives in New York City now – and that is one of the seminal facts that defines her. The daughter of activist parents who were part of the “back to the land” movement, she herself has become of champion for many causes. She found that she was not the only West Virginian thus situated. And now, she is the co-editor of an upcoming anthology and asking for submissions: Wild: New Writing from Appalachia. It’s a proposed anthology of essays and poetry from native West Virginians ages 18-35 who have lived outside the state. The collection will address the many issues West Virginia’s young people face from emigration and submissions should consider questions of identity and place. The book is broken into three sections: Leaving, Gone, and Coming Home. Writers should feel free to tailor their submission to one of those phases of the emigration process, but it is not essential. Contact wild_anthology@yahoo.com.

Graffiti: How often do you get home?

CW: I try to get home once a year, usually in the summer.

Graffiti: What issues do you feel that people who have left West Virginia for school or work face?

CW: I think we each have to confront multiple competing concerns. We leave almost always for economic or educational opportunities but there is always homesickness. We’re also pretty different from other Americans, because we come from outside the mainstream economy. It colors our attitudes. We’re a small state where the degree of separation is small. It can be hard to adjust to living in a city with a lot of people. It can also be hard to feel you can’t share or celebrate Appalachian culture because of the stigma. I don’t feel that way any more, but I know that’s something we all go through at first.

Graffiti: What do you miss about home?

CW: I miss the hills. There’s a great hill outside of Morgantown where I used to spend a lot of time. It had a great view of endless ridges and faced due west, perfect for sunset watching. I think about that place often. I also miss the culture of visiting. In New York, everyone is overscheduled and lives in a tiny apartment. People don’t stop by to visit each other, but rather meticulously schedule each other in and almost always meet at a bar or restaurant. I also miss my family, living in the woods, watching the seasons change the trees, old time and bluegrass jams, Tudor’s Biscuit World! This list could go on indefinitely.

Graffiti: What West Virginia life lessons do you bring to your New York acquaintances?

CW: I’m a very honest and open person. In West Virginia, we call things as they are. New Yorkers think they do too, but actually they live a complicated dance designed to avoid confrontation. When you live this close to people, you learn to make certain compromises, and one of those is avoiding eye contact and maintaining a degree of privacy and separation in public life. In West Virginia, it was always acceptable to say hello to someone on the street or to smile at strangers. I try to maintain a balance between the two extremes, but certainly my willingness to open up to people is considered rare.

Graffiti: Do you cook hometown recipes?

CW: I have a tiny kitchen, but I make biscuits regularly. Around the holidays I make many of my mother’s recipes that are foreign to New Yorkers, green bean casserole included. I consider many of those dishes more Southern than Appalachian, though. Aside from that, I’ve pretty much switched over to an urban vegetarian diet that includes a lot of ethnic foods I couldn’t get back home. Great food is one of the joys of living in the city.

Graffiti: Do you have any W.Va.-centric hobbies?

CW: Lately I’ve been spending more time singing old time and bluegrass tunes. I have a close friend who plays the banjo and we spend at least a couple of nights each month picking and singing. He lives on a boat on the East River, so it’s a pretty cool experience to sing the songs from back home while watching the sunset and the skyline light up. It’s a good cure for homesickness because it keeps me in the moment and makes me feel satisfied with being of both worlds.

Graffiti: Your parents were activists and you are too. What activist projects have you been involved with over the years?

CW: I’ve worked on all kinds of issues but I got my start working with West Virginia Citizen Action Group in Charleston on mountaintop removal mining. That’s still a major concern for me. I also worked on Denise Giardina’s gubernatorial campaign. At West Virginia University, I got involved in labor issues — like anti-sweatshop campaigns- but also worked on more local issues, like awareness around the Inez, Ky. coal slurry spill and the student housing crisis in Morgantown. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, I also organized campus and community protests. These days, I’m involved in campus activism on a national level as the Organizing Director for the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a group that works to get schools to act as ethical investors.

Graffiti: Where do you plan to market your new anthology?

CW: We’re interested primarily in regional outlets but are also researching the pockets of West Virginia expats around the country. There are folks in Oregon, New York, Chicago, North Carolina, etc. We’ll use the Internet to reach many of them, but we’re primarily concerned with using similar models to recent anthologies like “Wild, Sweet Notes” and “Backcountry” —get the word out locally that it’s a strong collection with a unique voice and then make it available in regional bookstores.

Graffiti: What other interesting projects are you involved with these days?

CW: I’ve been working with a couple of friends on a Web site, Plan WV, that would serve as a forum for our generation’s discussion on the challenges that face the state. The hope is to use that dialogue to begin devising solutions. I’m also working on a project to bring local and sustainable food to my neighborhood in New York City. I’m also always working on multiple writing projects, including a collection of poetry. This summer I’ve also been blogging, which is great fun. When I’m not working on these things I also work on a 123-year-old sailboat that sails in New York Harbor. Out of the water is where I find peace in the city.

Graffiti: What are your plans for the future?

CW: I want to continue to learn and develop as an activist and writer and to remain a part of effective social change. I’m also hoping to further develop my skills as a sailor and ultimately get a captain’s license from the Coast Guard. I don’t know yet if I’ll remain in New York City, move back to West Virginia someday, or end up living someplace else entirely. I have enough just working on the projects at hand for now.


Contact Tamar at tfleishman@graffitiwv.com