Photo by Elwyn Brooks (2022)
I didn’t know I grew up in Appalachia.
Or that I could even begin to consider myself Appalachian at all.
Everyone learns to play “Smoke on the Water” on a lap dulcimer to pass fifth grade. “Crick” and “crans” (“creek” and “crayons”) were just how you said it. Pittsburgh is the place only ever referred to as the city, and if you live there, as I do, that means you made it (out).
I’m from Mars. Pennsylvania, not the planet.
I’ve always said It would make more sense if it were the latter. I’ve always thought myself to be simply alien(ated).
I couldn’t read until I was seven. Everyone else could. Not me.
Numbers and letters might as well have been the same. I got by with sheer memorization of words or phrases. My parents required I read to them—my mother Goodnight Moon, my father Good Night, Gorilla. Slow speech curling from tongue & teeth in tandem with the drag of my mother & father’s fingers beneath sentence fragments. I stop when they stop. I start when they start.
Kindergarten had one Y2K Apple desktop & two CD-ROMs, Oregon Trail and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and the teachers instituted a two-book reading mandate in order to play. Games were the only thing motivating me through the drum of childhood.
I was strategic—I was sure to gun for the books when it was time to choose so I’d make it to the shelves first, select whichever we read during story time because they were fresh in my mind.
I performed for my teachers.
I took my time.
Dragging my pointer finger along the bottom of each sentence, lingering on the cliff of it, & I knew if they quizzed me, I’d be able to make them believe I read the two books required. I’d do anything to button mash my way from Paris to Minnesota to Australia searching for Carmen, or to risk dying of dysentery on the way to some new frontier home.
Anything but learn to read.
I’d have chosen to scour a pixelated world for pictures for images for clues as to what life was like for others who weren’t from Pennsylvania like I was. I wanted to know anyone who wasn’t like me. I learned young that who I was wasn’t someone I was supposed to like. I knew the world was kept from me, & I wanted to know.
I didn’t know the empowerment of words. I didn’t know books other than the Bible could send me to ethereal worlds not otherwise known.
My mother became so desperate for my literacy that she took me to the next town over to peruse the library’s shelves in the hopes I’d delve into a book beyond my disapproving look of the front and back cover. The library was the only place she didn’t censor me.
There I found books about betrayal and vengeance, secrets and alienation, love without adverse consequence.
There was where words became worlds.
There I became empowered to explore word-worlds and build my own world of words.
Here I must invoke a quote from Audre Lorde—the writer whose words I rehearse in my head as I lie in bed at night and look at this Justseeds Artist Cooperative Celebrate Peoples History poster:
“and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak“Litany for Survival.” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde
we were never meant to survive.”
Without words, I have no worlds.
Halsey Hyer (they/them) is the author forthcoming full-length hybrid collection, Divorce Garter (Main Street Rag, 2024). Their microchapbook of micropoems, Everything Becomes Bananas (Rinky Dink Press, 2022), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2023, and their debut chapbook, [deadname] (Anhinga Press, 2022), won the 2022 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. Based in Pittsburgh, PA they’re a collective member of The Big Idea Bookstore and the 2022-2024 Margaret L. Whitford Fellow in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing. Find out more on their website—www.halseyhyer.org.