Cassie Chambers grew up helping her grandparents sharecrop on a tobacco farm in Owsley County, Kentucky, one of the poorest counties in America. She went on to graduate from Yale College and Harvard Law School, eventually returning to Kentucky to work with domestic violence survivors in rural communities. Her memoir, Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains, celebrates the amazingly resilient women in her family and the beloved mountain culture that helped shape her.
What discoveries surprised you most as you wrote this book, in regards to both your family’s past and your thoughts about the places where you grew up?
When I first started writing this book, I thought I was going to come out of it with a lot of answers about the challenges facing Appalachia. But I was surprised by how few answers I had at the end of writing. The more I delved into the issues facing Appalachia, the more complicated they seemed. There are so many competing concerns that we need to balance, and there aren’t easy solutions to a lot of these problems. But I think acknowledging this complexity is important, and it’s only when you understand how multifaceted a lot of these issues are that you can really begin the process of solving them.
How wonderfully you write about the women in your family, especially your strong Granny, your steadfast Aunt Ruth and your amazing mother. Did your mother get a chance to read your manuscript?
She did. I am so grateful that she was able to read a draft of the book shortly before she died. I still have the copy I gave her to read with her handwritten comments in the margins. She told me that she felt like a “proud hill woman” after reading it. So much of the book is her story, and I’m glad that she felt pride in the way I portrayed her amazing life.
What thoughts go through your head when you visit the now-vacant farmhouse in Cow Creek where you once helped your family? In the book you write, “Over time I’ve come to feel more like a grateful visitor than a true resident.”
It always amazes me how little changes over time. The house still looks very much the way I remember it—only a bit more worn around the edges—even though it has now sat vacant for years. I think that’s part of why that visual image brings back such strong memories for me. There’s something special about returning to that place where I—and so many women in my family—made so many memories.
You said that despite the fact that Yale was progressive, it felt “like a place where men belonged more than women, where male voices mattered a bit more than female ones.” Do you think that’s still the case?
I haven’t spent time on campus recently to know whether I would still feel that way. But I do think it’s true that powerful institutions in general are still places where male voices are often heard more than female voices. But I think women are increasingly pushing back on that status quo and claiming a space for female voices. I think that’s a good thing.
An ex-boyfriend once screamed at you, “I’m something. I matter. You’re nothing but a redneck from a redneck family. You don’t even matter.” Do you still find that certain people dismiss Appalachian residents as soon as they hear their accents or learn where they’re from?
I definitely think that’s still the case. I’ve lost my Eastern Kentucky accent over the years, but I still see the way my relatives with heavy accents are treated. I think people still have strong stereotypes about people from Appalachia. I’ve had people tell me, “There’s nothing interesting that happens in the mountains.” I know that’s not true, and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to write this book: I wanted to show folks the creativity, intelligence and grit that exists in the Appalachian mountains.
What was it like meeting the Queen of England, and how did that happen?
It was definitely a top-ten life experience! She met with some young people on scholarships while I was living in London, and I got to spend about 30 seconds talking to her as a part of a reception. I practiced my curtsey for days beforehand, but I still messed it up!
You write that when you started working at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, “I had spent the past several years pretending that I fit perfectly into the privileged environments I found myself in. Now I was curious to see what it would feel like to acknowledge the mountain roots and impoverished background I’d ignored for so long.” Do you felt like the Bureau is where you discovered your calling?
I do. I’m someone who’s motivated by being able to make a tangible, visible difference in my community. The work I did at the Bureau helped me realize that about myself. I loved being able to work with women one-on-one and provide them with the resources they needed to be able to make their lives better. It was incredibly rewarding work.
You proudly write of Appalachian women that, “when given the right tools, support, and environment, these women are capable of changing the world.” What initiatives fill you with hope, and what obstacles worry you most about women in this region?
It always amazes me to see all the varied ways that Appalachian women are making their communities better, from starting community garden initiatives, to launching small businesses, to running for office to be a part of the decision-making process. So long as these women have the right resources, they can be successful change agents in their communities. It’s just a matter of making sure that they have the resources they need.
It always amazes me to see all the varied ways that Appalachian women are making their communities better, from starting community garden initiatives, to launching small businesses, to running for office to be a part of the decision-making process.
You write, “After November 2016, I realized in a whole new way that elections mattered. It wasn’t enough to save the world one family at a time.” Any thoughts on healing the political divide in this country, especially in states like Kentucky, during the upcoming presidential election year? How are you involved?
I think a lot can be accomplished if people just take time to listen—especially to those they disagree with. It’s possible to disagree with someone and still have a civil, productive conversation about important issues. I try to practice that myself and not get caught up in the “us vs. them” mentality that is so common in politics.
And I just took a big step toward being involved in a different way—I put my name on the ballot to run for Metro Council in my community! I grew up seeing women dive in to make a difference, and I decided that this was a role that would let me follow in those footsteps. Running for office with a young child is definitely an adventure, but I’m having a great time so far and learning so much about the needs of my community.
Are some people still nervous when they discover you’re “one of those political people”?
I think a lot of people are distrustful of politics because they feel that political systems haven’t worked for them. And in a lot of communities, people feel like political decision-making is something that’s done “to” them rather than “by” them. Although some folks are still wary when I tell them about my political involvement, I find that a lot of that dissipates once we sit down and have a conversation. At the end of the day, most people just want to know that you’re a straight-shooter who will keep promises.
Your mom died the day after you finished this book, and then months later your son was born. What an overwhelming collision of accomplishment, grief and joy. Do you feel your mother’s presence as you deliver her story to the world?
I do. It’s incredibly hard not having her here to be a part of this book making its way into the world. I know that she was looking forward to its release and that she would be so excited right now. But I do feel like she’s proudly looking on. And I’m trying to live each day in a way that honors her memory and legacy. She taught me to love fiercely, advocate tirelessly and remember to stop and have some fun along the way.
Have you met Ashley York and seen her wonderful documentary Hillbilly about the area where she grew up in Kentucky? I read your book soon after seeing that film, and the two make wonderful companion pieces.
A lot of folks have told me that! I haven’t met Ashley yet (having a 5-month-old baby has kept me busy the past few months!), but I would love to. From what I hear, she and I would have a lot to chat about. The more women who are out there talking about Kentucky, the better!
Author photo © Nathan Cornetet, Fusion Photography