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'Digging In The Trash': How Poor Southerners Are Seen


Novelist David Joy wrote an essay this past week for the website The Bitter Southerner. It's about his people, growing up in the South, being poor and living in trailer parks. It's called "Digging In The Trash," and it's full of rage and sorrow about how the people he grew up with, the people he loves, are seen.

He joins us now from Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville, N.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID JOY: Yeah, thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You make a pretty clear point in your essay that all the talk nowadays is about trying to understand other people and their experiences, that we should reach out beyond our bubble. But that hasn't extended to your people. Tell us about your people, as you describe them.

JOY: Yeah, I think, largely what we're talking about in this country nowadays is - are class issues, especially since the election last year. You know, a popular conversation topic is kind of the rural-urban divide.

And I think what's interesting, you know, is that people want to talk about that now that it's convenient. But often, the only voices that they're hearing are voices coming from privileged places. They're continuing to not listen to the people who they're talking about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write in your essay - and I'm quoting here - "I'm tired of an America where all the folks I've ever loved are dismissed as trash, where people are reduced to something subhuman simply because of where they live."

How do you think people view the people that you grew up with now?

JOY: Well, I think - especially when we're talking about Appalachia, I think it's the same stereotypes we've been dealing with forever. I got off a plane in Arizona, and the person who was driving me said, you know, what do people where you come from think of your books? And before I could answer, she said, or can they read?


JOY: And I looked at her, and I was kind of angered by that. But at the same time, I don't think she meant it that way. But I said, you know, of course we can read. And we even got shoes, you know. I think, in a lot of ways, we're dealing with the same stereotypes we've dealt with forever.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People may not know you, so I'm interested in you telling a little bit of your story. You're a published author. You've been nominated for a couple of highly regarded literary prizes. How did your upbringing lead you to where you are?

JOY: Well, I grew up in Charlotte. That city has grown very rapidly. When I was growing up, there were still very rural areas. My father's family's been there since mid-1700s, so my history is very tied to that place. My mother's family was in the mountains. You know, my father grew up in desperate poverty. I grew up hearing those stories, and I grew up surrounded by people very much like him.

At 18 years old, I moved from Charlotte to the mountains. And I've lived in Appalachia - in Jackson County, N.C. - ever since. And it's the same thing here. You know, I think poverty - it's the same condition no matter where you're from. You know, I talked a little bit in that essay about that man from Baltimore saying desperation is a way of life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was a documentary on the BBC that was talking about poverty in Baltimore.

JOY: Yeah. I think anybody I grew up with could have said that. Anybody that I'm friends with now in Hazelwood, Haywood County, could say that. That's the reality of people who have nothing. They all know what it's like to miss a meal or to have the lights turned off or to have to decide - do I make my car payment, or do I pay my health insurance? That's a common theme that bridges the gap all across this country. And the unifying thing about that is poverty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You also talk about addiction. The opioid crisis, as we know, is enormous right now. And you say that people just want to be listened to. What is the story that we aren't hearing?

JOY: I think - where that part of that essay came was I'd sat with the man who was interviewing me. And he said - when we were off-camera, he said, you know, I don't understand what would lead somebody to use methamphetamine or heroin. He said, I went to Chapel Hill in the '60s and, believe me, I experimented with drugs.

And what I thought was, your recreational drug use in the '60s is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about people with $20 in their pocket who feel that the weight of the world is on their shoulders. And the only escape they can get from that is found in a bottle or found in a vial or found in a bag. That's the type of addiction I'm talking about. And I think, until you're willing to recognize that, you're having the wrong conversation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think we can understand each other? I mean, you're a novelist. You come from a particular region that is misunderstood, and you travel around the country, And you talk about having these conversations where people say things that are frankly offensive. Do you think there's a place where we can all meet and actually understand each other?

JOY: I think it's what we're doing right now. It's conversation, you know. And it's asking the right questions. And it's taking the time to listen. At the same time, you know - when I think about where this conversation really came from, over the past year, it's come from J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy." And that book really spurred a conversation about the rural-urban divide. And in that way, I'm thankful for what he did.

At the same time, I disagree greatly with the conclusions that he draws about the situation. There's one point where he says, we need to stop blaming Obama, and we need to stop blaming Bush, and we need to stop blaming the corporations. And we need to ask ourselves what we can do for ourselves. Well, no, we don't need to quit blaming those people. We need to point the finger at those who continue to exploit us and say this isn't right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the role of novelists, like you, in moving this conversation forward? This is a strange time in America for many people, a moment where we've realized that we really do not understand the people around us but that it is vital that we should.

JOY: I think that art should illuminate some aspect of the human condition. And so I think that when people want to understand this region and they want to understand an issue, I think you should always turn to the artists. And I think that you should read broadly, and I think that you should read things that make you uncomfortable. And I think you should experience things that are outside of your norm because all of those things are challenge us. And they force us to ask hard questions. And the minute you start to ask hard questions, I think you start to understand the world in a more enlightening fashion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Joy - his new novel is "The Weight Of This World." I really appreciate you coming on today.

JOY: Yeah, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "BACK TO THE START") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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