Novelist and activist Robert Gipe has watched his home of Appalachia transform over three decades. He has seen how its residents have struggled to cope with opioid addiction, natural disasters, and the changing economics of coal mining. He has lived amidst—and worked hard to understand—the landscape’s specific anxieties, responding in the way artists often do: through creative expression, addressing trouble with humor and beauty.
In a recent New York Times op-ed about the challenges facing the region he calls home, Gipe ended with a series of questions: “Who will encourage our best selves?” he asked his readers. “Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?”
In Gipe’s work, such questions are not rhetorical.
Gipe is perhaps best known for Higher Ground, the theater series he has devised, since 2005, with community members of all ages and all walks of life. Higher Ground performs its home-grown plays, which draw on and reflect participants’ lived experiences, across the region—in Kentucky, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia, and West Virginia. Their 2017 performance, Needlework, tackled the topic of clean needle exchanges and was supported by the organization United for Substance Abuse Prevention. 2019’s play, Perfect Buckets, was commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance and explores “food, work, and community in the contemporary Appalachian coalfields.”
Gipe’s novels similarly depict the challenges of living in Appalachia. In Trampoline and Weedeater, the young protagonist Dawn Jewell loses one parent to coal mining and is on the way to losing another to opioids. But, as in Gipe’s other projects, there is hope in the region, too. There is the vibrant world of Appalachian environmental activism. There is neighbor looking after neighbor. And there is boundless humor. When I first met Gipe in 2018 at a summer symposium in Lexington, KY, he read a selection from this series in which a comparison is made between the taste of macaroni and goat’s ass. It was funny and tragic, and read like the removal of a bandaid: painful, relieving, and exposing something previously hidden.
In Beth Macy’s profile of him for Oxford American, she writes, “I leaned on Gipe’s counsel for the same reason that many people in Harlan County seek him out: I was looking for a little hope, a spurt of laughter, and a dose of the deep understanding he has for the people he lives among.” It’s this understanding that seems to explain the success of Gipe’s programs. He offers space for people to collaboratively tell their stories, ones in which both participants and audiences can recognize themselves. Stories in which addiction does not define individual or regional identity, but is merely one component of much larger, fuller lives and a richer culture.
I spoke with Gipe about why we should invest in storytelling, and his strategy for facing the struggles of his community in Appalachia. Both involve action as remedy, confronting shallow depictions and stereotypes, and allowing a community to express itself.
-Graham Oliver for Guernica
Guernica: Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia have been your home, the subject of your fiction, and the site of your work in the community and the arts. Where did that work begin?
Robert Gipe: I grew up in Tennessee but came to Eastern Kentucky in 1989, when I was 26. I came to work for Appalshop, an arts and education organization that was, among other things, making films about the region. I was hired as the marketing director, and worked with teachers to get those films into classrooms. The first two to three years I was in Eastern Kentucky, I probably visited over 150 schools. That evolved into a lot more projects working with educators, increasingly focused on how to integrate regional arts and culture into curricula. Because Appalshop’s catalog looked at all aspects of life in the region, from activism to traditional cultural preservation, I got this broad orientation in what it was like to live and work here.
Guernica: What pushed you to doing that work in the first place?
Gipe: At the time, I just needed a job, but I ended up really liking the work. The people were great—so committed to liberal thinking and to acting in a [region] where others weren’t. I also stayed in part because of the toughness, the challenge of it.
Guernica: Were you doing your own writing?
Gipe: Nope. 2006 is when I started pursuing my own writing, and my first book came out in 2015. I was an overnight sensation at the age of 50—whatever I was. 52. My work with the theater is what inspired me to write. I was at Southeast Kentucky Community College, teaching Appalachian Studies. About the fourth year, my students and I wrote a grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation, to use the arts to address the opioid crisis, and got $150,000 to do the first Higher Ground play. I was involved in writing the script. Before that, I’d looked at fiction as more of a personal indulgence. But with that first play, I saw how storytelling could have an impact on the community, and be about what was going on.
Guernica: When did you start considering Higher Ground’s work to be a success?
Gipe: When we didn’t rest on the work we’d already done. We haven’t kept performing the same work. We keep reflecting on what’s happened here, and keep making original theater out of it. I like that we’ve tried to keep as many people involved in the creative team as possible. I like that dozens of people still feel ownership of the work. I like that people in the community still ask when the next play is, and that organizations locally and beyond ask us to use our process to help them frame and discuss issues.
Guernica: As a mentor—if a young person comes to you and wants to do something you are not familiar with—what do those conversations look like? How do you nurture the spark of an idea and make it become a reality?
Gipe: I always thought just doing things, regardless of what they were, was the best antidote to despair. The people I’ve worked with have always attracted the young people who were not inclined to say there was nothing to do. We attracted the ones who said, “How do you do this?” Or, “We want to see this.” The center of the attraction is that you want to be here in Appalachia, and you want to do things here. That was my original orientation to doing this kind of work. After that, you just figure it out.
Guernica: You’ve been doing this kind of community work for thirty years, and you’re attracting more attention lately. Now you have a piece in the New York Times, you’re being profiled by Beth Macy for Oxford American, and your work is getting a bigger platform. Yet with all those pieces, the opioid crisis looms. How do you balance drawing attention to the crisis, but also not letting it eclipse the many other stories both you and the programs you work with want to tell?
Gipe: One thing that’s becoming clear is that the opioid crisis was born of industrial capitalism. It’s not like people here are blameless for what’s happened. But it’s also true that we got hit by something that was not of our making. We were part of a plan of national proportions to bring this so-called medicine into our communities. We’re all Americans, we’re all part of the culture that produced these phenomena. No one can tell the story about what’s going on and be defensive about it. This is just the world as it is.
I’ve always been writing for the people here. I want to write things that they’ll recognize themselves in. At the same time, I’m always trying to help people who think they’re better or different to understand that this isn’t about the people being different. This is about the interaction of geography and history, capitalism and the way things work out.
Guernica: When you sit down to write, do you ever want to tackle something totally different? Something lighthearted, with a happy ending?
Gipe: How funny people can be, when they are dealing with tragedy and despair and misery, is often so underrated. I think that’s one of the things that draws people to the work we’re doing. We’re not afraid to laugh. There’s a gallows humor to it all. When you’re writing books and putting on plays, you want people to think about the hard things in life, but also to be reminded of why life is worth living. In one of the first plays we had a line: “You just have to laugh or you’ll lie down and die.” You have to give people a reason to come back after intermission.
Guernica: That sounds like the basis for one of the many projects you’ve been involved with, the youth conference called “It’s Good to be Young in the Mountains,” which focuses on the positives and potential for young people in the region.
Gipe: We were writing a proposal to the NEA about next-generation leadership, and we talked about how this wasn’t going to be a conference about debating how to fix all this jacked-up stuff. Acknowledging the struggles of the region was part of it, but the mood was going to be, “It’s good,” to focus on the positives of growing up here. Carrie Billett, the conference coordinator, designed these little cards that had the IG2BYITM logo on them, and then people printed them and held them up in front of something good that was happening in their lives and took a picture. We had so much fun with that.
Guernica: What do you think keeps participants and audiences showing up for these events—these programs? Is it just all about the storytelling?
Gipe: Telling and hearing a good story is pleasurable. So is the process of stringing stories into a complete work of art. I think a lot of the appeal is in the self-determination, getting to decide how their story gets told.
[I also think] this kind of work makes life worth living. We’ve always got something going. Maybe it’s not something official, but we’re getting a potluck together, or somebody’s playing music, or we’re going to the lake. Or—I don’t do this, but some people do—go dig and get hickory chickens [a kind of mushroom]. They’re just busy people. They’re gardeners, or they’ve got stuff at church. But we also try to pay people when and how we can. We pay for people’s gas. We take people on trips. I’ve come to learn those trips are a big part of what’s important about what we do, that’s a compensation. They want to know, “When we going on a trip?”
Guernica: You play a lot of roles. Where are you most comfortable? Around a table talking with others, or sitting down at your desk to write?
Gipe: I’m the happiest when everyone’s telling stories. When you’re just riding around listening and asking, “Oh my God, really?” You’re turning what’s going on into art. In terms of work, when we’re putting together Higher Ground and we’re figuring out how to shape our stories into the script, that’s the best. We laugh about Tina Fey’s writers’ room in 30 Rock. We’re like that room, but not white-dude-dominant—there’s all kinds of people, ages, genders, races, sitting in our that room, just telling their stories, but to some end.
One of the beautiful things is that now, as we go through life, someone will say, “There’s something for the play.” The idea that certain parts of our lives are resonant and multivalent, that these are incidents that are complicated enough to be part of a play. The participants are commenting on that as it happens. I love that. I love that art and life are enmeshed, and that these plays provide an ongoing way to reflect on what’s happening.
Guernica: It also tells people that their stories are worth being told.
Gipe: And what’s cool is, that’s not even something we feel obliged to say anymore. We’ve gone on to the next level. That our stories are worth something is a given.