“Rarely do we get to simply live our lives, to be taken for granted. Our existence in the world has to be extraordinary, and we lose our mundanity and so much of our humanness in this process.”

By Amanda Page 

Stacy Jane Grover is a writer whose essays you may have read in Bitch Magazine, Belt Magazine or the anthologies The Columbus Anthology and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America. Grover’s debut collection of nonfiction, Tar Hollow Trans: Essays, launches on June 20th. It is the first book in the series, Appalachian Futures: Black, Native, and Queer Voices, from the University of Kentucky Press. The book is an exploration of identity in many forms. Grover interrogates trans identity, rural identity, Appalachian identity, and even the true usefulness of the construction of one or more identities in a world where identity can pigeonhole a human in a family, in a city, and in themselves. To help understand her various identities, Grover often turns to theory – a habit formed during her graduate student years in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Grover weaves references to theorists, theories, and what feels like inevitable (yet unexpected) research into personal stories of growing up in the country, leaving home, and attempting to understand self as experienced in both rural and urban America.

I had the absolute pleasure to ask Grover a few burning questions I had about her book, her thoughts on identity, and if she’d ever continue to explore a theme or two from some of the essays that speak to Appalachian literature and the forces that make it.

The following are her answers from our email exchange, very lightly edited for clarity.

In the introduction, you mention that these essays are an attempt to write your way into an Appalachian identity that you didn’t grow up with or even consider until it was suggested to you. Readers can follow along your exploration – or excavation, as it were. Now that you’ve completed the essays and have a published collection of the pieces that made that attempt, do you think the moniker “Appalachian” applies to you? To your upbringing? Why or why not?

I’m still unsure what the term Appalachian means outside of broadly descripting a geographic subregion in the U.S. I would really like to say that I have been able to make the term Appalachian apply to me, because in some ways I’ve expanded what the term means by integrating my not so Appalachian story into it.

The critique that the book attempts is one that shows how expanding the label Appalachian to include anything we imagine makes the term lose any saliency it might hold, yet if we define the term too narrowly, we exclude the lived stories that make it anything other than stereotypes and lore. This is largely because the core of what the term is supposed to mean hasn’t ever been defined. It’s largely empty underneath the stereotypes and inherited lore. And I’m not sure it has ever or should be an identity category.

In the spirit of that question: what do you think it takes for the moniker to apply to an individual? 

Whether someone ascribes to and wields it in some way in the world.

One way that you go about your exploration is to turn to theory at times. At what points in your process did you find yourself needing to turn to theory? Why?

I was fortunate to complete an MA in Gender and Sexuality Studies, where I got to spend two years soaking in theory. I write in the book that after learning so much theory, it became hard to go back in time and revisit these experiences without naming them by these concepts and theories I’d learned. So much of the gender theory in the book arose in this way, as I was struggling to move past it as best I could to the feeling hiding underneath.

In “Theory as Liberatory Practice” from her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes about how she came to theory to understand what was happening in her life. She found theory to be a sanctuary, but also found the kind of theories that leave readers “stumbling bleary-eyed” and “feeling humiliated.” This was often the case with the theory I encountered in graduate school, the majority of which felt so inaccessible. I wanted to be honest about this on the page as well.

You mention that transgender writers can so often find themselves the “objects of study” and not “subjects of history.” Could you elaborate more on the difference? 

I am paraphrasing the scholar Viviane Namaste here, thinking of the ways that transgender people’s lives and experiences become the objects of study to confirm or deny or expand ways of thinking. We show how social and physical boundaries can be crossed or can’t. We confirm or deny history. Rarely do we get to simply live our lives, to be taken for granted. Our existence in the world has to be extraordinary, and we lose our mundanity and so much of our humanness in this process.

The title of the second essay in the collection, “a position which is nowhere” comes from Sandy Stone’s “Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” Stone writes that trans people “speak from a position which is nowhere,” that our stories come from a place of illegibility and thus have to be translated into acceptable narratives to be legible, which is how we end up with the dominant narrative of transgender people are born or grow into their genders at an early age, have dysphoria, and thus need medical transition to become their true selves. This one narrative at the expense of others forecloses and erases the diversity of lived experiences of transgender people.

You mention later in a different essay that you end up treating yourself as an object and not subject of your own history. What is the danger in doing so? How does one avoid doing so?

In trying to write myself into these identities that I’ve never claimed, I erase the life I actually lived, and my writing then supports the notion that grand narratives around transgender people are inevitable. I experienced shame and was shy, so I shaped my world around this shame. Then I experienced dysphoria so I transitioned. I left home because rural places are not safe for transgender people. None of these narratives fit how I existed. But the pull to use them to give myself legibility—and in a very material sense, a book that would sell well—was very much present when I was drafting the essays.

In Lancaster is Burning, you mention that the mountains have “opened my senses to a different way of knowing, of being, so that no matter where I go or who I encounter, I weave them into the quilt of my past.” When I read that, I thought, “That might suggest Appalachian-ness.” Do you think that way of knowing is enough to claim Appalachia as an identity? Why or why not?

I was thinking more of mountains in general and not of mountains as symbols. Growing up near mountains and hills is an experience shared by people all over the globe. Even within the region we call Appalachia, the ways of knowing that people develop from living there are too diverse to really fit under one broad moniker.

In that same paragraph, you write a beautiful line: “The land is the land is the land, and while it has never been open, it has opened me.” In what ways has the Appalachian landscape – and of Lancaster in particular – opened you? In what ways do you think you put that openness on the page?

All credit to my understanding of landscape in this way goes to my dear mentor J.T. Roane, who edited the essay. I was originally writing this essay as a kind of counter narrative, a metronormative narrative of rural places– that LGBTQ people must flee rural spaces for safe havens in the city. But in doing so, I was seeing the landscape as a place of abstraction. I could pull from the landscape a narrative of resistance to counter the dominant narrative by saying, wait, rural life actually enables queer life better than city life. But this way of thinking of the land is a settler colonial way of seeing land as open for shaping, materially and rhetorically. It’s the same logic that writers used to shape the myth of Appalachia as this rugged, individualistic, egalitarian wonderland–the best of what America has to offer–and also the narrative that Appalachia is the place onto which all of our national anxieties get projected onto, the place modernity left behind.

Once I understood this, I realized how the landscape shaped me as a person and allowed me to discover things about myself. Understanding this changed how I wrote about home, because I tried to avoid these inherited ways of viewing the land. And that was possible through writing through the quotidian, as everyday experiences don’t lend themselves well to dominant narratives. My writing opened to other ways of thinking that allowed the essays to take the shapes they did.

In a line about writing “A Position Which is Nowhere,” you state, “Excavating my past experiences, braiding them with similar historical narratives, then adding critical reading of my experience to self-theorize, to perform what some call autoethnography, builds momentum by integrating my story into a larger political narrative.” I’m struck by the word “perform” here. How are you performing autoethnography and not conducting or constructing one?

I’m suspicious of autoethnography – where a researcher connects personal experiences to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings – in the same way I’m suspicious of braided essays that do the same. I have the ability to pick memories that I know will fit the larger context, that will show how the theory works, instead of the ones that would challenge the theory, or fail to fit into the larger contexts. Instead, I wanted to show how the autoethnography, or personal essay in the same vein, fell apart when I was honest and sincere. In a way then, this book might then be an autoethnography of autoethnography, or meta-nonfiction in creative writing terms.

In “All is Handily Arranged,” you write about “the struggle to stay” – a popular problem in Appalachia – although you do not call it that. You write “I couldn’t just bloom where I was planted. My generation never really could.” I think there is an essay here that you haven’t written. Is there an Appalachia to which you would return? Why or why not? And is that an essay we’ll someday get read?

This struggle has more to do with the social and economic history of the US broadly and my county in general. I didn’t get to live before Friedman economics and extreme religious right integrated via the Reagan administration. Things like the credit system didn’t exist. The way businesses and government acted was different, as I write citing Brian Alexander’s excellent writing about the history Anchor Hocking in Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of An All American Town. I’d live in many of the major cities I’ve lived in or visited if I could go back to that.

This book is what I have to say on Appalachia, so it’s unlikely I’ll return to the topic in the future.

On page 94, you write that “…in memory, in hindsight, the possible communities are fantasies…” suggesting that these communities in which we find identity might also be fantasies now, in the present. In what ways do you think the Appalachian identity is a fantasy? Why do you think people indulge in such an identity? 

Appalachian identity is a settler colonial fantasy that fills the void that capitalism has left in its wake. Appalachia is the imagined place where a mythic culture lies, and if we white people specifically buy into it, we might regain some supposed old ways of living that will restore to us a sense of community and culture. But these ideas are myths.

As a possible political identity, the term Appalachian could be useful if connected to national and global struggles, but one has to undo the logic of exceptionalism first.

The title, Tar Hollow Trans, doesn’t come from the title of an essay in the collection or even the subject of one. It is mentioned once, as a place. Why choose this title to represent the collection? 

The title has two meanings. One was purely aesthetic; I love Tar Hollow—the place and the name and my family connection to the place—and wanted to title something after it. But on a deeper level, the title of the book is shorthand for the critique the book makes.

Capitalism isolates us by severing our relationships, us from ourselves, from others, from the earth, from the past, then sells us things to fill the void. It dictates who we interact with, where, and how, and therefore, a lot of our interests. Oftentimes these facets of our lives become part of our identities—because sometimes they’re all we have–so we refine and defend them. With technology being at the center of this drive, we get this happening now at a pace we can’t really process or notice via insidious algorithms. We create ever more specific identity terms to try to use to define ourselves, and we end up with a lot of rigid taxonomies that isolate us more. No longer am I transgender and queer—political identities that are broad enough to unite us across shared experiences, I’m a rural queer, or farmer androgynous, or country goth, or something like this, and the categories get ever more specific.

So, if I tried to label my Appalachian but not, rural but not, transgender (but didn’t necessarily always use the term) upbringing, and then identify by that label, I would call myself a “tar hollow trans.” And it’s meaningless unless I explain it, and yet if I define it, the term loses any power it might have held.

Join Stacy Jane Grover and Amanda Page in a continuation of their conversation at the Tar Hollow Trans: Essays book launch on June 20th at 8pm at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

Photo was taken by Elizabeth Keith. 

Amanda Page is a Columbus-based writer from southern Ohio. Her work has appeared in Belt Magazine, 100 Days in Appalachia, and The Daily Yonder. She is co-director, with David Bernabo, of the documentary Peerless City, about the economic and civic rise and decline of Portsmouth, Ohio as explored through two nicknames and one slogan adopted by the city over the last 100 years. Look for Peerless City on PBS Passport in August 2023.