For Asheville author Laura Hope-Gill, there’s a whole lot more to wellness than physical or even mental health: Writing and creative expression, she says, can transcend boundaries of medicine and conventional care.
“It surpasses privilege; it renders us all emotionally equal,” she says. “It humbles us, and if we are humbled we are more likely to reach out to our fellow human beings.”
Hope-Gill, an assistant professor and leader of the Narrative Healthcare Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville, found a way to encourage wellness and healing through writing when she and a few fellow scribes around town launched Wordfest in 2008.
The 2019 edition, which takes place Friday-Sunday, April 12-14, will feature three days of workshops and readings spanning both poetry and prose in assorted local venues. Tickets, available free or by donation, will provide access to presentations and discussion groups led by a diverse array of writers, storytellers and community organizers who’ll begin each session by reading their work and reflecting on this year’s theme: “Healing the Soul of Appalachia.”
“Every single person that I’ve worked with who picks up a pen and writes opens up a part of their story they weren’t aware of,” says Hope-Gill, who’s also the festival’s director. “It could be a highly successful heart surgeon, but when he turns the pen inward on himself, it actually is a scalpel into his own heart, removing something that is weighing it down.”
The festivities will commence at 5:30 p.m. Friday with a screening of Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up comedy special, Nanette, hosted by Hope-Gill and fellow writer Mendy Knott. Saturday will feature a reading by Jaki Shelton Green.
“This is momentous,” says Hope-Gill. “She’s North Carolina’s first African-American poet laureate and the YMI is the first multicultural community center in the country, so we’re doing some deep grounding by hosting there.”
Back in the day
Long before Asheville had regained its status as a booming tourist destination, the city boasted a thriving network of poets, artists and activists, Hope-Gill explains.
“Asheville was all boarded up,” she recalls. “The Fine Arts Theatre was a shutdown porn theater. I ran the only espresso machine in town at Malaprop’s. It was really a ghost town in 1992.”
Nonetheless, she continues, local poets, artists and singer-songwriters would gather Friday and Saturday nights to share ideas and inspiration at the Green Door, a pioneering downtown performance venue. But as the city grew and rents began to rise, those artists began to move away from Asheville, and the weekly attendance dwindled.
“In 2008, I was sitting with some poets and saying, ‘What the hell happened to poetry in Asheville?’” remembers Hope-Gill. “We saw that the city was thriving economically but the art, at this point, was not as visible as we wanted it to be.”
That inspired her and a few fellow creatives to establish Asheville Wordfest in order to celebrate the area’s writers, artists and thinkers. Hope-Gill and her collaborators developed specific criteria for the event: They wanted it to be accessible and to connect the area’s past and present, including the Cherokee history.
Having attended other literary events across the country that she felt lacked racial and cultural diversity, Hope-Gill aimed for something different. Wordfest, she decided, would strive to offer a more varied lineup of presenters. This year’s roster of speakers includes First Nations woman Sharon Oxendine, Afro-futurist Darrell Stover and the Rev. DeBorah Shelton Ogiste.
“If a white person is speaking, we’re more likely to listen,” Hope-Gill maintains. “We needed to change that, and the way to do that would be to train audiences to listen to people from multiple contexts, not just from one person that isn’t white, so no one can walk away and say, ‘I like the black guy.’ I wanted to break through the paradigm of ‘white listening, white noise’ perhaps.”
Healing the past, sketching the future
Hope-Gill sees this year’s Wordfest as a perfect place to focus on Appalachia’s complex cultural history.
“If we had valued art more over the last 300 years, we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in,” she declares. “I think we’ve seen, in the tribalism and the hatred that we’re seeing in our country now, that this isn’t something that just happens, and I don’t think that this kind of wound gets fixed by laws or economic change. I think it gets addressed when each of us looks at our own story.”
Local writer, folklorist and teacher Byron Ballard, who proposed this year’s theme, says the idea grew out of her examination of oppressive institutional systems and their impacts not just upon minority groups but on society as a whole.
“When we look at 6,000 years of patriarchy, for instance, it’s easy to see what that particular set of systems has done to women and people of color and the environment and children and minority communities,” says Ballard. “It is harder to see what those systems have done to the people who are ostensibly at the top of the pyramid — and that’s men, specifically white men. So when we begin to talk about healing throughout the culture, we have to look at the totality of the culture.”
Ballard, who will lead a workshop titled “Mouth Like a Gravel Road” on Saturday, believes that writing can help heal readers and writers alike by enabling people to connect and develop a sense of empathy through shared experiences.
“If you are reading work that touches you and that has vast commonality with you, then you realize that you’re not alone,” she points out. “And if we go back to nature — which is always, to me, the foundation of all of my thought and my focus — humans are not solitary hunters. We’re pack animals. When we are in a family group or a tribe or a village, that’s how we do best.”
Find your roots
Asheville poet Kevin Evans says this year’s theme will encourage participants to explore the complexities of Appalachian identity and history.
“I think there’s gonna be a lot of things related to roots, and so I’m going to explain a little bit about my roots,” he reveals.
In Evans’ case, that means elucidating his own sense of place, which encompasses both Mississippi and Asheville.
“There’s something about that, a parallel between the blues land and the Blue Ridge that I’ve always kind of felt at home with,” he reveals. “Country music and blues music: It’s kind of an interesting parallel, where one music came from the mountains and the other one was near the river, on the Delta.”
Evans, an African-American artist who hosts “The Human Side,” a recurring poetry series at THE BLOCK off Biltmore, says he hopes to help people connect not only with their own unique history and ancestry but with a deeper life purpose.
“This workshop and reading that I’ll be doing is basically attempting to bring out a more fluid nature in all of us and help us have some kind of breakthrough or connection to what really matters to us, what’s really important and what can actually give us new life, perhaps.”
Connecting the dots
Local Cherokee author Cara Forbes, who’ll be presenting her workshop on Sunday, says that writing helps her “articulate to myself what I’m feeling and helps me sort through my thoughts and my experiences.” In addition, says the UNC Asheville literature student, it’s a way “to communicate that to other people in order to create a better sense of community through understanding.”
Forbes says much of her writing aims to share her experience as a 21st-century Native American woman. She hopes to illustrate the depth and intricacies of modern indigenous life to help other writers create thoughtful Native American characters in their work.
“I really would like to highlight the experiences of indigenous peoples and to be a spokesperson for the diversity that exists in Indian country,” she explains. “Not just for indigenous writers but also for nonindigenous writers who have an interest in including Native people in their work. I’d like to help them do it in a way that’s culturally sensitive while also allowing them their space for creativity.”
By creating multidimensional characters, says Forbes, writers pave the way for successive generations to grasp how their personal history connects with those of others.
“When I read the theme for this year and I was trying to think about my workshop and what I wanted to accomplish, I thought about my daughter,” Forbes recalls. “My daughter’s father and I, we both feel very connected to these mountains, and we want to raise our daughter to know herself as a Cherokee and Appalachian woman. That’s ultimately what she is — a child of these mountains — and so we really try to emphasize that to her.”
Let it flow
Hope-Gill also wants to assure first-time Wordfest attendees that no literary skills are needed in order to enjoy the event.
“This is the place for everybody. The topics aren’t how to use counterpoint in a plot-driven novel. We’re not talking about writing techniques; we are talking about writing as humans,” she explains. “For the person who is hearing about the power of creativity, this is a stage they can come to and experience it with the support of community. They don’t have to share their work; we’re not going to throw anybody up on a microphone or anything, but it can be the first taste of their own story.”
Ballard concurs. “More and more people are just picking up a pen and paper, or they’re taking out their laptop and they’re writing to themselves,” she says. “The formal structures of writing are still very important, but when we write from the place of our grief or our joy or our fury, then we are participating in making our culture authentic again.”
In prior years, notes Hope-Gill, Wordfest has been a powerful and moving experience for writers and listeners alike, and she’s anticipating a comparable alchemy this time around.
“What I love most is the creative spirit that opens to us over the course of the weekend. It’s entirely unquantifiable,” she says. “Every one of our ancestors gathers for poetry and story. It is what has held culture and community and civilization together. So if you want to talk about sustainability, let’s go with the one thing that has truly sustained us all along: We are activating an ancient energy here.”