Recently I chatted with Nasugraq Rainey Hopson, Tirzah Price, Rob Costello, and Monica Roe, four of Rural Voices’ (Candlewick, 2020) talented contributors. Here’s what they said about rural stories, stereotypes, and the representation of rural life in literature.
What do you hope readers take away from Rural Voices?
Nasugraq: That there is a vast variety of stories and people and cultures in the rural reaches of America. And that these differences offer us numerous worlds to explore and celebrate.
Tirzah: One thing I hear a lot from others and see a lot in other media is that there’s only one gay kid, or only one family of color in a small town or rural area. While I do think that there are instances where that can be true, I also believe that there is more diversity in small town communities than is apparent at first glance.
Rob: As a society, I think we’ve always tended to diminish the complexity of rural existence in shallow, monolithic terms. But given the current political climate, these stereotypes have never felt more damaging or one-dimensional. Rural America doesn’t belong to one political party. It doesn’t belong to cishet white Christians. It doesn’t belong to a single mentality, economic class, or way of life.
Monica: My hope is that non-rural readers of this anthology come away with an expanded perspective on what they think (or thought!) rural truly means.
Most importantly, though, I hope that young rural readers see themselves reflected somewhere within these pages, and know that their lives and experiences have as much intrinsic value as anyone else’s.
All of you were so enthusiastic about this project from the beginning. Thank you! Can you talk more about why this anthology is so important to you personally?
Tirzah: I’ve been struggling for a while now to articulate how it feels to be queer and living in a small town. Especially recently, friends and acquaintances from both within my town but mostly outside of it assume that I am not safe where I am, or that I must face constant discrimination.
That’s not true. Safety is a concern, and there are pockets in my community that aren’t especially queer friendly, but I’m also a part of a community that I appreciate and value. I knew I wanted to write about how both of these things can be true, and how confusing it can be, especially if you’re a teen and not publicly out.
Nasugraq: It’s important to me because I hope rural kids all over the U.S. can find themselves reflected someplace in this book. Also, if I can put a tiny bit of Inupiaq Indigenous culture out there in the world that is a win. Everyone should have representation in books, and everyone should be able to experience lives that are different then themselves. We are all richer for it!
Monica: As a rural-born writer, it frustrates me to see how frequently reductive, stereotypical rural portrayals continue to make it into contemporary books for young people, as well how widespread these attitudes can be within our own writing community.
I dived deeply into literary representations of rural culture in both my MFA critical thesis and graduate lecture. Given the comparative scarcity of books that center the rural experience at all—let alone in a positive, nuanced way—the idea of an anthology completed devoted to amplifying a diverse array of powerful rural voices could only be a win-win.
Rob: What’s most important to me about this anthology is its honesty. We were all given free rein to tell the truth, and so there are pieces in the book that wrestle with some pretty difficult subject matter.
There are also stories of tremendous joy and self-discovery, stories of falling in love, finding your place, and claiming your identity.
To me, the book never feels defensive about rural life, just truthful. I think that’s a testament to the sensitivity and care with which Nora approached the project. It’s all powerful stuff.
Well, I was fortunate to work with incredible writers like yourselves who are as passionate about authentic rural representation as I am. As #ownvoices rural authors, what else do you want people to know about Rural Voices and rural representation in literature?
Nasugraq: I hope that these stories spark your curiosity to explore rural more American stories and to celebrate the uniqueness of all those brilliant nooks and crannies.
Rob: I think it’s essential this book finds its way into the hands of urban and suburban youth who, too often, are only presented with the Hillbilly Elegy version of rural life. It’s so easy to get caught up in an us-versus-them way of thinking, especially nowadays.
The truth is the experience of growing up is universal. I think young readers in every corner of America will find so much to relate to in this anthology, and I hope that teachers, librarians, parents, and other gatekeepers will help those readers to discover it.
Tirzah: I would also urge readers to pick up books written by authors who have rural backgrounds or who have lived in rural areas, and to read carefully and recognize bad rural representation when they see it! Also, keep in mind that a story set in New York City is going to vary wildly from a story set in Los Angeles or Austin, Texas—the same is true of rural settings, which is why we always need more representation.
Monica: Seek out books written by authors who actually are rural—there may be fewer of us out there than our non-rural counterparts, but we have plenty of stories to tell—and what we have to say may surprise you. Well-meaning YA authors and editors can become complicit in perpetuating rural stereotypes, which hurts all young readers—especially young, rural readers.
If you’re a writer yourself, please don’t assume you know how to write from a rural perspective. Seek feedback from readers and fellow authors who are rural. Listen to what they tell you. Question your preconceived notions. Be willing to ask questions, to learn more, to rewrite.
Look beyond the stereotypes. Look beyond what you think you know about us—I promise, you’ll learn a lot.
Nora Shalaway Carpenter is the author of the critically acclaimed The Edge of Anything (Running Press Teen, 2020); contributing editor of Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection); and author of the picture book Yoga Frog (Running Press Kids, 2018). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her at noracarpenterwrites.com and @norawritesbooks on IG.
Nasugraq Rainey Hopson was born and raised in the rural expanse of the North Slope of Alaska. She grew up on fantastic tales from her unique and rich Indigenous Inupiaq culture. When she is not writing or creating art inspired by these stories, she is studying how to grow food in the arctic and working at preserving traditional Inupiaq knowledge.
She has a degree in studio art and has taught all levels of art from kindergarten to college. She lives with her husband and daughter, three dogs, and small flock of arctic chickens in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where she lives off the land and the amazing bounty it provides as her ancestors did for thousands of years.
Tirzah Price grew up on a farm in Michigan, where she read every book she could get her hands on and never outgrew her love for YA fiction. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a former bookseller and librarian. Now, she’s a contributing editor at Book Riot. Her debut novel, Pride & Premeditation, will be released in March 2021 from HarperTeen.
Rob Costello (he/him) is a queer man who writes dark speculative fiction with a queer bent. He holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an alumnus of the Millay Colony for the Arts. His work has appeared in The Dark, Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Narrative, and Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America. Visit www.cloudbusterpress.com to find out more.
Monica Roe was born and raised in a small dairy farming community at the northern end of Appalachia and is a proud first-generation university graduate. While she was studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts, her thesis entitled “Taking Out the Trash—Confronting Stereotypes of Rural and Blue-Collar Culture in Young Adult Literature and the MFA Academy,” was awarded VCFA’s critical thesis prize.
Her first novel is Thaw (Front Street Books, 2008). She is also a physical therapist and divides her time between Alaska, where she clinically practices in several northwestern bush communities, and rural South Carolina, where she and her family own a small apiary.