For the second installment of the National Agenda Series, the focus shifted to the geographical divides that exist in America. The speaker chosen to address this topic was author David Joy, a southern novelist who writes so-called “Appalachia noir,” tales of strife and humanity in the mountainous territory for which it is named. Joy’s debut work, “Where All Light Tends To Go” was nominated for the Edgar Award for best first novel.
Joy was approached by Professor Lindsay Hoffman, associate director of the Center for Political Communication and director of the National Agenda Series, about the speaking event shortly after he had published an essay in response to a critic who had reviewed his books.
“He [the critic] said: ‘you need to come down out of the peeling trailers, leave the holler, and try writing about real people for a change,’ and he italicized that word people,” Joy said. “It makes me angry to consistently see people dehumanize the people where I come from.”
It was this perceived lack of understanding for Joy and the people of Appalachia, the cultural region that stretches from New York to Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, that spurred Hoffman to seek him out. She wanted to offer students insight into a people she believes to be often misunderstood.
Earlier this month, the first of six lectures planned for the National Agenda Series featured Brianna Wu, who is running for congress in the 8th district of Massachusetts.
Those in attendance were introduced to new perspectives on social and political issues, and had the opportunity to engage in civil discussion with Wu.
It was this sort of respectful dialogue and open-mindedness that Hoffman had hoped the program would encourage more of when she took it over three years ago.
“I think that my objective is to provide an example of civil dialogue and to demonstrate to students that you can have conversations about difficult topics as long as you come to the table with the goal of being empathic, or having empathy towards other people in the room,” Hoffman said.
On Wednesday, before the discussion with Joy began, Hoffman took a moment to remind the audience of the essence of the National Agenda Series.
“Our goal is to tamper down hate, to abate the anger, to recede from hate. Instead we hope to inspire curiosity, foster compassion and offer real solutions for constructive communication,” Hoffman said.
Joy chose to preface the lecture by reading from his essay entitled “One Place misUnderstood.” He proceeded to articulate in detail the essence of his works, how his stories are not anthologies of true events but instead are meant to encapsulate the feelings of tragedy, and desperation which many people of Appalachia can understand.
He explained how a candidate like President Donald J. Trump, with his slogan “Make America Great Again,” could appeal to middle- and lower-class southerners. He cited the massive number of people who found themselves jobless when coal and lumber plants shut down, and how the promise of a return to the days of relative prosperity could be enticing.
Joy then examined some of the more prevalent stereotypes surrounding southerners, including the perception around occupants of mobile homes. He stressed the importance of having open discussion to overcome these sort of misconceptions and is encouraged by events like National Agenda.
Brett Moore, a junior communications major, comes from southern roots and feels strongly about the issues that were addressed. She was highly encouraged by the turnout for the lecture.
“There are a lot of people very interested and very curious about what the south stands for and are willing to listen and try and engage while they have a person from the area within the room,” Moore said. “I think that shows a lot of progression, through the ideas wanting to start a conversation.”
The next event will be on Oct. 4 and will feature NPR correspondent Asma Khalid, who covered the 2017 presidential campaign. She will be discussing the religious divides in the U.S.