“I wrote the novel of the invisibles of America”

“I wrote the novel of the invisibles of America”

The American novelist returns with her new book They call me Demon Copperhead, awarded the Pulitzer for fiction. The story of a kid from Appalachia, a region neglected by public authorities, sheds light on the Trumpist vote.

What reasons pushed you to write this itinerary of a precarious child in Appalachia?

I belong to that world. I was born and live in these mountains of the eastern United States, among a population that you never see on television, or in movies, or in books. Miners and former miners, workers, farmers, breeders, traders… they do small jobs. It is a poor population, despised, abandoned by the public authorities.

A despised population?

Yes. We, the Appalachians, like the inhabitants of rural areas of America, half of the population, are looked down upon by the inhabitants of the metropolises. We are rednecks, hillbillies, rednecks, lazy people. We are America’s invisibles. However, we have a history, a culture, united communities!

Your hero, Demon, is born to a drug addict mother on the floor of a mobile home, he is placed with a slave farmer and then sorts garbage… It’s a painting worthy of the 19th century!

It’s the 21st century today in America. And kids who toil in tobacco or other fields, who sort garbage, who are placed, at 10 years old, 12 years old, with people who are only waiting for one thing: the check at the end of the month and free labor, unfortunately it exists. I see it every day. They are my neighbors.

The presidential race is on. In the Republican camp, it is Donald Trump who largely wins the day… especially among yours.

Yes. Despite everything the character has done, his embezzlement, his attempt to take the Capitol, Donald Trump still appeals to these voters. He did not go to great schools like Yale or Harvard, he is mocked by intellectual circles. Hillary Clinton said Trump voters were deplorable people. A statement of unspeakable clumsiness and contempt. Some of my neighbors put “I am a deplorable” stickers on their cars. Donald Trump uses their anger, their frustrations and makes them believe that he understands them and is like them, even though he is a millionaire. My neighbors vote for Trump, and yet they are the most delicious people in the world.

Do you think he can win it a second time?

I don’t want to make predictions. But I am very worried about the state and future of my country. I hope that politicians at the national level will realize the importance of listening to the inhabitants of abandoned rural areas and will be more attentive to their problems.

These regions have been deserted by public services, you say…

Public schools are underfunded, there are almost no colleges and only one university. Public transport is non-existent. The region is a medical desert: the few doctors are overwhelmed, the hospitals are under-equipped, the social services are a disaster, no one wants to come, the employees are poorly paid. So, in my novel, Demon’s social worker is in a hurry to leave her job to find a more profitable one… I was lucky enough to go to university, to travel. Then I came back to live in Appalachia, with my husband. These are my roots, my people. But when I have to go see a specialist, I have to drive seven hours…

Where does this local poverty come from?

Of the history. For two hundred years, Appalachia was treated as an inland colony. The companies exploited its subsoil, the coal and owned everything: industries, schools, churches… and had no interest in the populations being educated. Nobody went to college or university. The culture of education did not exist. When machines replaced men and the mines were closed, the population found itself without jobs, without training, without help.

Back to your novel, your hero, Demon, will encounter “angels” on his path.

This is all the wealth of these regions. Demon always finds helping arms: an adopted family, the Peggots – everyone has a beautiful, loving grandmother Peggot in their entourage! –, his best friend Maggot, the fabulous Aunt June, a nurse who gave him his first pencils, a drawing teacher, a grandmother from the other side of the world, loyal friends, a great drawing friend… Orphaned, this boy will experience a miserable life, but there will always be people to take care of him, to whom he will cling to to be reborn…

Why is this population so endearing?

We have such a rich culture! That of mutual aid and solidarity. When we are oppressed from the outside, we are loyal to our own. If one is sick, they take them to the hospital; if someone dies, food is brought to their loved ones; if a house burns, we come and rebuild. People have livestock, poultry, a garden. Together, we play music, we cook, we knit! Our specialty is quilts. We, the “hillbillies”, are depicted with straw hats (because we work in the great outdoors), fishing rods and earthen carboys (containing our local alcohol). Our stereotypes are our wealth.

Demon and his friend Tommy realize, to their great surprise, that they are looked at as “rednecks” and turn the insult against those who profess it…

Yes, it is all the strength of oppressed communities to deflect insult and make it a source of pride. Homosexuals invented the pride march. The “rednecks” of Appalachia also play with the stereotypes that stick to them. Demon, who has a crazy talent for drawing, will create comic strips full of self-deprecation about “rednecks”, with success. My neighbors named their place “Hillbilly Cadillac”, the Cadillac of rednecks! People who don’t have an education can surprise you with their finesse!

Two thousand complaints were filed against the Purdue Pharma company, which had to pay. What is the situation in Lee County today?

Help is a long time coming. Thousands of people need treatment for addiction in specialized clinics, but for every 100 people, there is only one bed available. Between 20 and 30% of children in Lee County are not raised by their parents, and 100% of the people I know are affected in some way by addiction to these drugs.

What to do at your level?

Denounce, get things done. I am very happy to have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (co-winner with the author of Trust, Hernan Diaz, Editor’s note), because the elites of America will read this book; and as it is translated into several languages, people from all over the world will understand the situation of these abandoned regions. All the money I make from my novel will be used to build clinics.

His bio

1955 Born in Maryland.

1956 Lived his childhood in Carlisle, a rural village in Kentucky, and in the Belgian Congo, now the Republic of Congo.

1973 Campaigned against the Vietnam War. 1980 Enrolled at the University of Arizona, she obtained a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

1996 The Bean Tree (Ed. Rivages): the story of a young woman leaving her native Kentucky for the western United States.

2007 A garden in the Appalachians (Ed. Rivages): story of his self-sufficient life on his farm.

2020 Lives uncovered (Ed. Rivages): a reflection on American society through two destinies of women, in two different eras.

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