We Are Hillbillies Too.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

I have come to accept that I would be relieved of my regret of not sharing my thoughts on J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” only and only if they were to materialize, which, after a terse mental battle, I have convinced myself to. So, with my proclivity for the ideals of the Conservative-Progressive and my vice for a rather unconventional (read: harsh) take on such subject matters, I present them as opinions that I hope will stand unwavering before the truth.

The memoir, which saw its publication in 2016, consumed much of the sociological and political debates that attempted to deal with the mayhem and surprises of the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and with much deserving cause; it—Hillbilly Elegy— stood the most convincing answer to the astonishing rise of one Donald J. Trump. . . . . But with this essay, I would like to administer your thoughts elsewhere—Home. . . . . Thus, let me not delve into the book’s relevance to our Anglo surrogates west of the Atlantic, but instead seek, scour, prod, and scrape through the vast, and also crevices, of the book’s core message, and then attempt at drawing parallels with our own tedious and evocative experiences at home.

First, a quick briefing on the author: Mr. J.D. Vance is born and grows up in Middletown, Ohio, raised (mostly) by his grandparents owing to his mother’s addictions and frivolity, and his father’s early abandonment, faces abuse and poverty that deeply scar him (seared into my memory, as he laments), almost drops out of high school, then joins the military and is deployed to Iraq, returns to college at Ohio State University, later gets accepted to Yale Law School, and during the thirty-first year of his life presents us with his beautifully written memoir.

Back in the period of the great economic boom in the Midwest during the 40s and 50s, the Appalachian hills witnessed a pouring migration outwards, to the plains of Ohio and Michigan and Indiana. Vance’s grandparents joined the exodus, leaving their little hometown in Kentucky for the suburbs of Ohio. But life was anything but accommodating for the new migrants. Cultural and lifestyle differences were intertwined with discrimination and old habits to usher into their lives, despite much more economic prosperity, much more hardship as well.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

Now, if the word “hill people” had claimed a modest victory over my attention through the first few pages of the book, by the time details of their (grandma and grandpa Vance) new lives in Ohio were emerging, I found myself helplessly, and steeply, reminded of another group of Hill People who left (leave) their lands for the plains in search of “better” opportunities: my people, tribes of those sub-Himalayan hills, thrown into a wide chasm between modernity and old traditions, who have headed west and south, in droves, to learn from foreign scribes and play with modern toys, some with a love for the new, but most hoping for a more prosperous end. And my heart was sealed in scholarship when Vance unraveled further truths that rang stark and poignant of our two circumstances—for instance, his description of his folks killing chickens in their city-home backyards to the great consternation of the adjacent, civilized residents; or neighbors walking into each other’s kitchen unannounced heading straight for the fridge; then there are the bickering and backbiting that flow as regularly as church attendance and piety; and, of course, the unwelcome tones thrown at from the city dwellers. Tell me if I am wrong to assert that these could just as accurately (with a few tweaks) describe the lives of the north-eastern peoples. . . . . But then, they—these mild, hill idiosyncrasies—do not quite arrest my interest, for we as a people have them well memorized, and even better recited. What hurls me into ponder are the other less-talked-about aspects that are slowly and silently stealing our lives away.

Hear now these glaring observations of Mr. James David Vance:

1.) “They [his people] will hesitate to open their lives up to others for the simple reason that they don’t wish to be judged.”

2.) When in 2009, ABC News ran a news report highlighting the deteriorating health conditions of Appalachia America, a friend of his on Facebook went on to write scathingly, “You [ABC] should be ashamed of yourself for reinforcing old, false stereotypes and not giving a more accurate picture of Appalachia.” Vance then quotes a study by sociologists Markstrom, Marshall, and Tyron that suggest that ‘avoidance and wishful thinking forms of coping significantly predicted resilience among Appalachian teens.’ To Vance, this tendency of coping might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly.

3.) “It [the hills of Appalachia] is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside.”

4.) Vance’s grandparents shared a strained relationship, and at one instance almost ended with his grandfather’s demise when he was set on fire by grandma for coming home drunk one night. He then goes on to comment, “Because they were hill people, they had to keep their two [family and public] lives separate. No outsider could know about the family strife. . . .”
Given the sparse psychological studies on my own people of the North-East, I can only conjecture, but with much discerning, that such wishful thinking and acute denial are very prevalent among us as well; and they morph and mature over time into toxic, stubborn mindsets that decry at any attempt of being questioned, almost gaining a seat at the table of tradition and culture. But denial of a problem is the first step in securing its place and prominence. Which brings me back to more observations by the author.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

5.) “We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools. . . . to succeed.”

6.) “We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the talk.”

7.) “We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears. . . . there’s nothing left. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth. . . .”

8.) “Our eating and exercise habits seem designed to send us to an early grave, and it’s working.”

Our children seldom take merit in studies, and even worse, consider it an earned right rather than a prized privilege. Our homes and churches do not shame the slightest in preaching justice and virtuousness, and herald the tendency of a hard-working life, while all the way acting their paths and works into societal and moral decay. Then there is the choice we make in lifestyle. According to a recent (2017) study published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), two northeastern regions namely Aizawl in Mizoram and Papumpare in Arunachal Pradesh ranked highest in terms of age of cancer incidences in the country, owing mostly to food and lifestyle habits. Data from the National Aids Control Organisation’s (NACO) HIV Sentinel Surveillance 2017 show that “six states in the north-east region account for 43.5% of Injected Drug Users (IDUs) who tested positive for HIV in India. The states in the region with higher than usual national prevalence among IDUs were Mizoram (19.81%), Manipur (7.66%), and Tripura (8.55%).” Nagaland puts on a lavish, glittering festival every winter. If only there was a single stretch of decent road to ferry you to the venue. And though the numbers are not robust, I am willing to hypothesize that Khasi men have one of the highest rates of death and alcoholism in the country, as even suggested by my own Khasi friends. In Manipur, children might well be taught the alphabets as A for AFSPA, B for Bullets, C for Curfew. . . . . . .

Illustration by allen B Thangkhiew

Vance then draws us to a stern propagation, where he calls for a mentality that must change: the widely-held belief among his people that the cards are stacked against them; that it is the Chinese who are to blame for stealing their jobs; that the government is to blame for their poverty and drug abuse; that the coastal elites are to blame for long neglecting their needs. . . . .that anyone and everyone is to blame aside from themselves. In conversations I’ve had with friends at home, when confronted with what they hold are reasons for our many problems, the responses fire as swift as one can imagine—this government, or that person, or the neglect from the rest of the country. They almost refuse to end, but when they do, they will have been dragged so far away from their true source that it becomes impossible to avail any meaningful lesson. And these answers, sadly, are never directed to the infallible “Self”, and all its embodiment: What about improving ourselves first as individuals? What about the values and philosophies that should govern our lives? What about how we should be raising our children? I always make it a point to press on one matter, that we ought to stoop our heads in shame when we dare frown at an absolute educational disadvantage when it is a truth well established that the Constitution provides us with such generous gifts for simply belonging to an ethnic group. Or the fact that we are, and have been for very long, again constitutionally, exempt from income taxes. (Sure, though I am fierce in my opposition to affirmative action, to speak of its merits and flaws deserve another debate altogether.)

I am not naive, however, to conclude that all the faults lie with and within us. Vance, too, admits that there are several government policies that, in attempting to do good, actually bring far greater harm. And with us, History and Circumstances seem to have fated us irrevocably. But the government is the clearest reflection of the people. And more importantly, there is only so much that it can and should do. Individuals must hold the responsibility for themselves, by their very firm definition. The buck must stop here.

Now, I think it would be unfair to leave you hanging, since I had earlier spelled out, with the events that led to Vance’s success given the obstacles he had to measure up to. And it would seem nurturing to conclude with it. Throughout the book, Vance constantly speaks of the encouragement he was given from his grandmother, which she gifted him with in generosity, and more importantly, in earnest. He shares stories of working out maths problems with his grandfather, and science projects with his mother, of the discipline they instilled in him, despite their many shortcomings, that he, of all people and entities on earth, held the key to his success. . . . . . Now, that, we all can do too. And to borrow a phrase from Vance, ‘I don’t believe there are villains in our story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way—both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for ours.’ . . . . For we are hillbillies too.


Author: Resem Makan

Resem Makan is an Economics PhD student at the University of Washington. Before this, he was at the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi) where he studied Quantitative Economics. He grew up in Nagaland, Aizawl, and Shillong, and thus feels a part of everywhere.

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