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New Foxfire Museum book explores complex stories of Appalachian women across history

Editor Kami Ahrens poses with the newest Foxfire book, "The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women: Stories of Landscape and Community in the Mountain South" at City Lights Bookstore.
Lilly Knoepp
Editor Kami Ahrens poses with the newest Foxfire book, "The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women: Stories of Landscape and Community in the Mountain South" at City Lights Bookstore.

Blue Ridge Public Radio is partnering with Foxfire Mountain Heritage Museum to launch a campaign to collect oral histories about women in Appalachia. The effort coincides with the release of a new book," The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women: Stories of Landscape and Community in the Mountain South."

Editor of the new book and Foxfire Museum curator and director of education, Kami Ahrens sat down with BPR Regional Reporter Lilly Knoepp.

LK: Folks who are familiar with the Foxfire books might think of them as being very like skill-based. Each Foxfire book has its own theme, and with this new book, this is the Foxfire book of Appalachian Women. What made you feel like this was an important next step to be the next Foxfire book?

KA: Yeah, so those who are familiar with the Foxfire books will know that Foxfire one through 12 are kind of a compilation of different articles written by local high school students that focus on different skills and crafts of Appalachian culture, but also collecting stories along the way. When I first started at Foxfire, I started reading through these books and I encountered different stories of women kind of scattered throughout the publications, whether they were in the magazines or in the books, alongside different articles, like I said, on skills and other topics. And their stories really stood out to me for how powerful their messages were of resilience and also breaking down stereotypes of Appalachian women. I really wanted to put them together because I thought that if these women could be interwoven into a shared narrative, that a stronger picture of what Appalachian women's experiences might emerge. And I was grateful to have that opportunity and the support of UNC Press to be able to do just that for Foxfire.

LK: The women in this book span generations across the region. You go from South Carolina to Georgia to the Qualla Boundary to folks who are still living today in Rabun County and across the region. How were you able to bring in all of these different voices from across the region and across time?

KA: It was no easy task. We have nearly 2,700 oral histories in the Foxfire archive, and I also conducted a few new oral histories for this book. But it was really important to me to look at changes over time and relationship to landscape in the Southern Appalachian region because history is not static and we need to understand how culture changes over time. And since Foxfire has been around since 1966, we have a long look at how things have changed in this region. And so that's really a valuable thing to be able to pull from.

LK: So much of this book is about a sense of connection to Appalachia that really bonds together all these very different women. What did you learn about that connection?

KA: It was remarkable to see the connection emerge. As someone who's not from Appalachia originally, I'm really drawn in by the sense of identity and the importance of place in this region. It's been something that's interested me since I arrived here over five years ago. At this point, when I was putting this book together, I was a little bit worried that I wouldn't be able to find a common thread because their stories are so different because they cover so much time. And I was speaking to a scholar about this and asking for advice on how to kind of excavate and, you know, find that common thread. And she gave me the best piece of advice she said to just let the women talk to each other. And I had no idea what she meant, when she told me this, but as soon as I started putting it together it just happened. And I think they do that in the book. I think if you read it as a single chapter or if you read it all the way through, you'll see that there are ways that they connect together through their stories and their experiences. And it's all, from what I can tell, centered on place and centered on the physical landscape. I think there's something about these mountains, about this region that offers the people here something special that draws people together despite differences, despite time. And it's really powerful to witness. And I think, I hope that comes out in the narrative that the book forms.

Do you have a story about a woman in Appalachia? We want to hear from you! If you live in Central/Southern Appalachia, or are from the region, consider sharing your experiences as a woman through a self-recorded oral history, journal entry, or visual media.

To learn more about the book and the project, join us from 4 to 6 PM, Saturday, April 15, at Innovation Brewing in Sylva. Register for the event here.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.