I showed up at the Millennium Cincinnati for the annual Appalachian Studies Association conference with a reservation and trash bag luggage, and some serious class guilt for asking the bellhop to drag my crinkly burden all the way to the eighteenth floor. Matter of fact, I didn’t ask. I tried to take the make-do suitcases away from him, and I think it made his day. Or at least I hope so. I arrived at the Millennium Cincinnati as a bonafide, independent, Appalachian scholar. Somebody even referenced my work in the ASA journal once. I waltzed into that lobby as a published author with a presentation to give and a pocket full of cash, ’cause I was raised to believe credit cards ain’t nothing but a trap. There was a discounted rate for the room, but it didn’t feel like much of a discount. It took me a couple months and some real generous friends and patrons to hustle my way across the river and into Ohio at all. And I still couldn’t afford it.
When the nice lady behind the counter informed me that I’d need to leave two hundred dollars with her at the desk as a deposit, I couldn’t stop the weird snort laugh that escaped me. My response was very unbecoming, I reckon. But it was also very real, visceral even. Right then and there, I truly believed I’d be turning tail and pointing my Mommy’s Impala back towards Elliott County. Lucky for me, that lady behind the counter was gracious. She accepted a single c-note without a fuss when I told her flat out I didn’t have another to offer and she didn’t even make me feel bad about it.
I’m glad I got to hang around and participate in the conference, in spite of being a broke-ass. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to connect with Elizabeth Catte, historian and author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. I can’t think of a modern writer more perfect for a feature here at Rabble Lit. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is loaded with historical fact and established sociological and anthropological study. Elizabeth uses her words as weaponry instead of a shotgun, leveling both barrels and taking aim at tired stereotypes regarding the Appalachian people. Her take is considerate and genuine and without corporate sponsorship from evil old white dudes. You will not find Catte milking the memoir angle and swirling it around with a healthy dose of bootstrap bullshit in these pages. If you’re even vaguely interested in the region, I recommend you read this work as an anti-elegy.
As I was preparing for this interview and wondering about the best approach, Liz and I got to talking. I told her my check-in story and she told me that she pulled weeds in her Granny’s flower bed to get some spending money for the weekend. Turns out that we’re both living unabashedly, unapologetically below the poverty line in the hills and hollers that gave birth to us. The following is the result of a candid conversation in regards to money and not having any, and our perceived value as academic Appalachian women.
Welcome to Poor Talk!
Misty: Elizabeth Catte! Author, Appalachian academic and activist, historian, fabulous outspoken friend of mine! Tell me, you’re poor, right? D’you prefer the terminology “working poor”? Do the semantics make you feel better about breaking your back just to break even? Blech. I personally hate that phrase. Being poor is hard work in and of itself if you ask me. But I’m asking you!
And follow up, have you always been a broke-ass like myself, or is this a more recent development?
Liz: We are on the same page about the term “working poor.” I am just poor, period. And yes, I have always been poor. I would love to talk to you about when you first realized you were poor. But sure, we were not catastrophically poor, but certainly more of the “have-nots” than the haves. And I am very poor right now. I just filed my taxes and my income for last year was about $4,500!
Misty: I love talking to other poor people about when it hit them. There are so many good stories on that I think. Mine is pretty boring. I just always knew we were poor but that we had it better than plenty of other folks. I knew that we shopped sales and my Mom never pretended that she could afford to buy us every brand new toy that came out. But we didn’t want for anything so it didn’t really seem like a big deal to me. I do remember being in third grade and thinking Shoney’s was the fanciest restaurant I could imagine. Did you have a childhood moment where you realized y’all were poor? I definitely realized hardcore on a more adult and academic level that I come from rural poverty when I was seventeen and went to the Kentucky Governors Scholars program.
Liz: Williams-Sonoma, Misty. You know the kitchen store? We got one in our town when I was about twelve years old and the first time I stepped foot in it, I thought, “I am really fucking poor!” I mean, as a twelve-year-old I didn’t have much interest in, like, $14 jars of marinated garlic and $60 aprons, but it just totally hit me that I was a member of a profoundly different class of people than would be shopping at the store. And perhaps I always knew that, because my first thought was, “Wow, I’m poor,” and not, “Wow, this shit is overpriced.” Growing up, I felt “rural” but not poor. What happened at the Governor’s School?
Misty: Ha!! I’ve never been in a Williams-Sonoma. But I did notice when we were in Cincinnati a couple weeks ago there was a Saks Fifth avenue. I was like, “wouldn’t it be hilarious to get a picture of myself outside Saks?? Aaahahahaha. Ludicrous.”
I think my perception of what would happen at GSP was a big part of how I felt when I was there and how I reflect on the experience. I was an angsty, nerdy, weird, fat misfit in a tiiiiny eastern Kentucky town. I thought, I’m going to meet kindred souls here. People who are better. More interesting. And y’know, I got there and ended up making a few friends, most of whom were born and raised in eastern Kentucky as well. I thought I’d find this oasis of outcasts but instead I found preppy kids with a much better education. And advantages like I had never imagined before. Clubs and tutors and private schools. But they still cared about designer shoes. And how big your house is. They’d never REALLY met someone who lived in a trailer.
I definitely lean toward the “this shit is overpriced” perspective. D’you think that’s a poor person thing? A country kind of thing maybe? Like, I brag to my friends about how LITTLE things cost and they know I’m going to cluck my tongue and shake my head if they tell me they paid fifty bucks for a vintage bag or some shit.
Liz: Oh, I am now firmly in the “shit is overpriced” camp. But back then I was just mesmerized by that first experience with what I suppose folks might call conspicuous consumption. Did you go in the Saks in Cincinnati? I did! It smelled AMAZING. When my partner and I lived in Texas, we used to go hide in department stores because the air was so foul from the oil refineries.
Misty: I didn’t! I felt like I should have. Honestly I probably would’ve taken pictures of price tags and sent them home to my cousin like “can you even beeelieeeve this shit?”!
Have you ever owned an expensive piece of clothing?
Liz: My idea of expensive clothing is Doc Martens. I have two pair, which feels really indulgent but I wear almost nothing else on my feet. I have not purchased any clothing for about two years, either. I have a “cursed outfit,” which is probably the most expensive outfit I own, purchased for job interviews for positions I didn’t get, that I ended up just wearing to funerals. There is something weird and big and sad about our communities contained in the reality of buying a nice dress for a job interview and then finding its real purpose as that thing you wear to the receiving of friends because people can’t stop dying.
Misty: We’re too young to have funeral dresses. I have one myself. Something extra nice and understated. We can banter back and forth like this and laugh at ourselves and at being poor. But damn, rich people even get better air. It’s disturbing. And buying a pair of shoes that won’t hurt your feet shouldn’t have to be a luxury.
Liz: I felt really bad when my grandfather died. We had to rush home without packing and had no appropriate clothing for the funeral. And it’s like, “I want to buy something, but I know I will want to burn it afterward, so I can’t spend a lot.” The worst feeling, to feel like you clean yourself up properly for this thing you have to do for your family.
Misty: Do you ever feel proud of being poor? Like living hard has given you a one up on the more privileged and better paid world?
Liz: I’m not sure I am proud of it, but I am pretty unapologetic that I have a fundamentally different experience in life at the moment than people with wealth. And I feel very authentic in that, and okay with that. I went to school for awhile and I had people in my circles that really worked hard to have an understanding of poverty and made a big to-do about a history, mostly labor history, they weren’t part of. And it was satisfying, I suppose, to have knowledge they lacked although I’d probably honestly trade places. Are you proud of being poor?
Misty: I am. I’m oddly proud of it. It’s sort of like my own personal fuck you lifestyle at this point. I wish I could take care of my family. And money would help with that. I’ve made choices that keep me poor though, and I know that. I chose to be here in Elliott County hustling to get by, knowing good and well the only decent job I could get would be working at the new prison. I suppose I’m proud that I chose to give my family myself instead of a check in the mail. I’m proud that I have priorities, and money is not at the top of that list, I guess. I feel like being poor is an inextricable part of who I am. And maybe it made me harder to face a hard world. It also made me creative and resourceful.
So, when we were preparing for this interview you mentioned having three jobs. I’m curious about your three jobs! What are they?
Liz: Oh thank you for asking! One job is writing and writing related things, one job is editing, and one is running a little company that helps folks get projects involving underrepresented histories in Appalachia off the ground. We don’t make any money off the company and the other two pay on contingency so it can be challenging.
Misty: Those sound like amazing jobs, in spite of the pay! So the company is sort of a nonprofit in disguise? What sort of projects have y’all been promoting recently?
Liz: We have been pretty involved recently with a project to bring historic recognition to a former African American state park in Virginia. We do a lot of behind the scenes, bureaucratic work — like securing permissions to get it on various historic places lists — so people can focus on telling their stories.We are also going to help with a few projects at the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center in Virginia.We basically just have a website that says “call us if you need help!” and that’s our brilliant nonprofit strategy.
Misty: I’m excited to check them out! Anything I can do to help promote this kind of for-real homegrown help, I’m more than willing. It is pretty brilliant strategy really, in that it’s accessible. Or at least I think so.
Liz: Thanks, accessible is a big deal for us.
Misty: Well as a writer and an academic and historian, I imagine so. There is too often a gap between those seemingly lofty communities and the salt of the earth kind of communities women like us were raised in. How do we go about starting to bridge that gap?
Liz: God, that is such an important question. Like, I carry a moderate amount of anxiety around with me constantly that I’m not doing enough to help. But it’s hard, because we don’t have money. I volunteer, a lot. I try to pass the mic as much as possible. I’ve donated entire commissions to community groups if I talked about their work.
Misty: One of the first things that struck me about your book was how adamant you were in the introduction. Right from the beginning you wanted to reassure the people reading it that “this isn’t another one of those ‘voice for the voiceless’ projects”. It worked. I was reassured. Appalachians, especially our brilliant young’uns, are tired of being spoken for and I fucking love that.
Liz: It’s a constant thing, that I negotiate on a daily basis about how much time/labor/money I have in circulation to give. Meanwhile, people are getting rich selling stereotypes. People who have no real connection to this place. That’s what tears my heart out every time. Those of us who have chosen to stay behind get stuck feeling helpless. Trying to decide if we should put in enough gas to get to that appearance or get a few extra groceries in the house. In a perfect world, we’d all be getting paid a lot more for ideas.
I gave a talk recently. A friend had told me the estimated figure for bringing JD Vance to speak at his university. The question is, how do we take our part from the rich, white, pandering pricks?
Can we do it? If we just keep plugging along and refusing to keep our mouths shut? And for, like, ten minutes, I just stood up there and talked about how many people in my community I could send to community college for that, how many degrees it could buy — not that those things are supreme, but I was trying to speak their language.
Misty: I want to hear ol’ JD’s number. Did it connect?? The community college example.
Liz: I had heard at least 30K.
Misty: Jeeesus. Does that really not sound like a lot of money to people???
Liz: I have never made that much in my life per year let alone hour.
Misty: That gets my stomach in an angry knot.
Liz: And so I am living in that world, but also in the world where people don’t earn any money at all and it is just exhausting. We do so much dreaming and scheming of the things we could do if we had a fraction of that.
Misty: Do you ever genuinely hate people who come from money? I know it’s bad of me. It’s something I’ve said more than once that I need to work on. But I never do. Honestly, if I find out that someone I know has come from a super cushy financial place, they lose a little credibility with me. I ain’t saying it’s the right way to be about things, but I recognize my faults. And a disdain for creature comforts is among them, I reckon. I was thinking about this when you mentioned the labor scholars earlier too. What would it be like to be a person who can’t fully grasp what poverty is? It’s hard to imagine that perspective when you’ve existed in the middle of it your entire life.
Liz: I hate exploitative people, and exploitation and wealth go hand in hand. I have lots of room in my heart for people who don’t abuse their wealth but in my personal experience they are few and far between. A few months ago, I got a sponsorship from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was, I think, $500. And I used it to go to the doctor, because I had not been in a few years. And that’s what I was doing while my book was first coming out — having unpleasant and expensive medical procedures because healthcare is fucked for people like us.
Misty: I don’t go to the doctor either. I’m glad you got there. How’re you feeling now?
Liz: I am okay, now. I am just reflecting on how imbalanced things are for us. What would you do creatively if you weren’t poor? Like, is there a dream project for you?
Misty: I have a little land out here in Elliott County and what I’d really love to do if money wasn’t an issue is to buy up a little more and build sort of a creative retreat/safe space right out here on my ridge. There’s a rich folk and outsider art tradition here that people have never even heard about for the most part. I’d love to do studio and gallery space, exhibits hanging right in the trees. And a venue for local music. I’d love to offer free writing and art workshops, courses in small business. Anything and everything I could think up to give back. I would love to use what I’ve got and build something beneficial that might bring in a few tourist dollars here too.
How’s about you? Dream project?
Liz: I would start an indie bookstore with a youth-centered writing space. We’d make zines, and sell your poetry.
Misty: There would definitely be an Elizabeth Catte Free Library on Beartown Ridge Road, too. And on that mostly positive and slightly wistful note, we’ll wrap it up! Thank you so, so, much for giving your time to Rabble Lit.
Liz: Thanks for including me in your issue — I’m obviously a big fan.
Misty Skaggs, Rabble’s Appalachian Features Editor, is an author, artist, and activist from Eastern Kentucky.
Follow her on Twitter @mistymarierae.
Elizabeth Catte is a public historian and writer based in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. She is the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, a critical look at the Hillbilly Elegy-fication of politics, that uses radical history to challenge perceptions of the region as a hub of white, working-class woe. She’s currently co-editing 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, more about that and how to participate here.
In her spare time, she likes to take pictures, play vidja games, and curate a website dedicated to food featured on King of the Hill called Pork Chop Night.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.