Neema Avashia's memoir, "Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place," tells a story about the region that is often overlooked.

Editor’s Note: For more on Appalachia, tune in to CNN this Sunday as W. Kamau Bell meets the region’s largely unknown Black population. “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET.

CNN  — 

Neema Avashia is all too used to the shocked reaction she gets when she tells people she’s from West Virginia.

A queer woman whose parents immigrated to the US from India, Avashia doesn’t fit the image many Americans have about Appalachians: impoverished, rural and White. But those stereotypes about Appalachia don’t reflect the place where she was born and raised.

In addition to the Black and Indigenous people who have inhabited Appalachia for centuries, the mountains are also home to a small number of Asian immigrants – who came to the region as a result of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

That’s the story of Avashia’s family, which she chronicles in her memoir “Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place.” Her parents, from the Indian state of Gujarat, moved in the 1970s to southern West Virginia, where her father worked as a physician at the Union Carbide chemical plant. Avashia and her sister grew up sipping sun tea on neighbors’ porches and celebrating Hindu festivals on weekends.

“Was it predominantly White, working class and Christian? Sure,” she told CNN in a recent interview. “But it was more complicated and more nuanced than that representation allowed for.”

Avashia says her experience in Appalachia shaped who she is and how she sees the world. She spoke to CNN from Boston, where she now works as a public school teacher, about the messiness of her identities and what it means to her to be Appalachian.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the Indian community in southern West Virginia.

There were probably about 100 families (within an hour’s radius of Charleston, West Virginia) from all over India. A lot of the families were Gujarati.

Most of the people were folks who had come post-1965. They were, in large part, either engineers who were hired to work at the chemical plants in the Kanawha Valley, or they were people who came to work in the hospitals. These were, by and large, professional Desis (a term often used to describe South Asians and the diaspora). It happened in the way that story happens for immigrant communities all over, which is a few people came and then more people came and then more people came.

Author Neema Avashia is now a public school teacher in Boston.

At the same time, there was erasure that happened. It was Hindu dominant. There were Muslim families, and I think they didn’t necessarily get the space that they should have. Was Diwali the most important holiday for everyone? No. Was it the thing that got celebrated? Yes. When you are a small community, the loudest voices or the biggest group in that might prevail in terms of what gets valued. I would imagine for people who were minorities within the Desi community, there were elements that were quite hard about not having the same visibility for the things that were important to them culturally.

You mention that the South Asian immigrants in the area were mostly professionals. Was your class position something you considered growing up?

I did, because my parents made some interesting choices. A lot of the Desi families in the Charleston area lived in an affluent part of town called South Hills. My parents wanted to be close to the plant where my dad worked so they decided to stay in a town called Cross Lanes, which was a very different mix when it came to class. I grew up in a community that was largely working class and middle class White families, and my schools were predominantly White working class families.

I remember being in class with kids who didn’t have running water. There were things that I had that other people in my school and in my community didn’t have. My parents tried in lots of ways to make that visible to me and to make us think about what it meant to be contributing members of our community.

My dad was a physician, but he worked at a chemical plant. While he was technically management, the majority of his social relationships were with folks in labor. The families that were coming to our house for dinner by and large were workers at the plant. That ended up informing who was in our social world.

How do you make sense of experiencing both privileges and barriers because of your identity?

You can’t miss race in that conversation. You can’t miss the way in which being a visible minority creates a level of threat and outsider status that you’re constantly aware of.

In the plant where my dad worked, less than 1% of the people who worked there are people of color. So you’ve got brown skin, you’ve got an Indian accent, you’re in this weird position where you’re in the middle between labor and management all the time. It’s the classic example of how Asian Americans get positioned in American society.

Being such a visible minority constrains the way you move. I could tell when my dad was talking to one of his bosses versus when he was talking to one of the folks who worked at the plant versus when he was talking to one of his Indian friends. His whole being was shifting based on each of those contexts, and that’s survival, too. It’s thinking, “What parts of myself am I bringing forward? What parts of myself am I putting back in order to navigate and survive this context?”

Avashia's father, an immigrant from India, worked as a physician at the Union Carbide plant in Institute, West Virginia.

When did it begin to feel like being Appalachian was a part of your identity?

It was really after I left Appalachia. The whole time I was in Appalachia, I was like, “Am I allowed to be Appalachian? Can brown people be Appalachian? Can you be Appalachian if you’re only here for one generation?”

Then I went to college (at Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh. People said a lot of disrespectful things about where I was from, and I felt defensive. I was meeting tons of Indian people (from other parts of the country), but I didn’t feel connected to them. Their understanding of culture, their way of expressing faith, their way of relating to each other didn’t mesh for me. I started to realize that this Desi Appalachian experience was both of those things – that this Appalachian part of me is a big part.

What are the ways that those three identities overlap?

The notion of chosen family is at the core of being queer. It’s at the core of being Appalachian. And it’s at the core of being an immigrant in this country. In all three cases, the way that people are building relationships is not confined by biology. It’s a product of proximity. It’s a product of necessity.

My aunties and uncles in the Indian community needed each other. My parents needed them and they needed my parents, and they were building a network of support for each other in the absence of blood family. (It was a similar dynamic for) my neighbors where I grew up. People have this notion of interdependence, because they know there’s nothing outside of us that’s going to come and save us. You look for the relationships that are going to sustain and support you. Sometimes those are blood family members, but in so many cases they’re not.

Did you always know you were going to leave Appalachia?

I would say that staying was never framed as an option to me. It was really hard for me to leave. I loved where I grew up. It was a hard place to grow up, but I loved it. I loved my neighborhood. I love the people who I had relationships with in my community. I felt a lot of joy and a lot of love in my growing up. As much as there were hard parts, the joy was such a big part of it.

At the same time, every teacher in school (was saying), “You have to leave.” My parents were saying, “There are no jobs here. You have to leave.” At 18, if you don’t have someone saying “you can stay and here’s how,” it’s very hard to imagine that for yourself.

There are so many people who I can see now as adults who have stayed and who do amazing work and are figuring out ways to fight from within. But I didn’t have the messaging or the presence of mind to know that it was possible. I felt like leaving was my only option.

Do you ever see yourself returning?

It’s really hard. The West Virginia legislature in the last session had [several] pieces of legislation that effectively tried to eliminate queer people from existence. A thing that I tried to grapple with in the book and that I grapple with in my own life is: What does it mean that this place that I love so deeply doesn’t love people like me?

That feels different now. There weren’t policy dynamics that were trying to erase me in the ’80s and ‘90s. In 2020, 2021 and 2022, it feels like people are steadily enacting policies that send the message that like someone like me, who’s queer and brown, doesn’t have a place in the state.

I don’t know how to reconcile that. I say that as someone who also knows lots of queer people who live in West Virginia right now and are fighting like crazy to create space for us. But it is a hard thing to choose back into when you live in a place where you know that that right is protected and isn’t going to get taken away.

Avashia grew up in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, just outside the city of Charleston.

In the book, you write of Mr. B, a close family friend who now shares anti-immigrant posts on social media. Do you think he always held those views?

It’s a combination of factors. One glitch with being part of a really, really big minority group is that it can be really easy for the majority to cast you as exceptions. Lots of people who I grew up with post anti-immigrant rhetoric all the time. When you push, their response is, “Well, you guys weren’t that kind of immigrant.” I don’t see my story as different from any other immigrant story at all. But given that I’ve heard it from so many people, I think that’s part of why my experience growing up was what it was.

The other thing is that in places like where you and I grew up, the decline that has happened over the past 20 to 30 years … you can’t ignore it. The narratives being offered to explain the decline are anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist narratives, and there’s not a strong counter narrative. The people who are responsible, who in my opinion are the corporations and government officials who allowed for the decline, are never implicated. They’re just sowing division among us. That is much more intense now than it has been at any point in recent history.

You write in the book about feeling out of place among Appalachians whose families have been in the region for generations – that you are “from here, but not of here.” Do you still feel uneasy about identifying as Appalachian?

I would say I felt that way up through the publication. I was really nervous that people in Appalachia were going to be like, “How dare you? How can you even pretend to be writing about these things?” The response to the book has been the opposite of that. In some ways, that has made it so I feel more Appalachian now than I have at any other point in my existence.

People from Appalachia of all backgrounds – straight people, gay people, White people, people of color – have said that there are ways in which they see themselves in this book that they didn’t anticipate and that I didn’t anticipate. So in some way, that question has gotten answered through this writing process. That’s been really really, really lovely.

What parts of Appalachia do you still carry with you today?

How I show care. That continues to be how I think about my role as a person in the world: What does it mean to give care to people? If you have a thing that someone needs, how do you fill that gap for them? All of that is stuff that I learned growing up. I learned how to be a good person, how to mentor, how to be a neighbor, how to take care of people. I’m so grateful for those learnings from Appalachia and how they’ve helped me be an adult and do right by people.

What do you hope that people take away from your book?

I want people to have a more nuanced and complex understanding of who lives in Appalachia and what Appalachia is as a place. I want there to be an extension of grace and empathy to people who live in Appalachia. I am really tired of the narrative that flattens and erases and excludes and villainizes people who live in Appalachia. I really want for people to see and love and appreciate the things about Appalachia that I see and love and appreciate to this day.