If I were to try to describe Emily Hilliard's "Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia" in a single word that word would be "joy."
Joy is the word that keeps coming up for me as I reflect upon my several days of reading "Making Our Future," not so much because it's an impossibly happy book because, in all honesty, it actually tackles some rather serious subjects. The word "joy" comes to mind mostly because Hilliard writes with such complete and utter enthusiasm for contemporary folklore and culture that you can't help but get caught up in her incredibly intelligent and spirited writing and her ability to vividly portray the worlds in which she's planted herself.
In other words, I loved every page of "Making Our Future."
From 2015-2021, Hilliard worked as the West Virginia State Folklorist and Founding Director of the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She currently is the Program Director for Folk and Traditional Arts at Mid Atlantic Arts, managing the Central Appalachia Living Traditions program.
Folklore is her area of expertise and it shines through on every page of "Making Our Future," not just in terms of the intelligent discourse she puts forth but in the way she's able to bring this all to life in a way that is accessible, engaging, and delightfully entertaining.
"Making Our Future" was a book that I selected that honestly fell out of my comfort zone. Hilliard drew me and within a few pages I felt completely comfortable with Hilliard's immersion into visionary folklore and her ability to immerse me in everyday Appalachian culture.
I will confess that Appalachian culture is not completely unfamiliar to me despite the fact that I'm a lifelong Indianapolis, Indiana resident. My own paternal grandparents were from the Appalachian parts of Kentucky and I spent many of my childhood summers on their tobacco farm where I've returned as an adult to officiate weddings, funerals, and visit the few relatives who survive.
Seldom, if ever, have I experienced Appalachia explained with such delight as it is in "Making Our Future." Hilliard challenges stereotypes and common misperceptions of folklore and Appalachia by presenting Appalachian culture through the lens of visionary folklore that is forward-thinking, future-focused, materialist, and collaborative.
"Making Our Future" is entirely set in West Virginia and offers chapters on the expressive culture of the West Virginia Teachers' strike, the cultural significance of the West Virginia hot dog, the practice of nonprofessional women songwriters, the post-apocalyptic vision presented in the video game Fallout 76, and the foodways of an Appalachian Swiss community along several other chapters.
It would be hard to pick favorites, though I found myself smiling throughout Hilliard's exploration of the West Virginia hot dog and utterly captivated by her discovering of West Virginia's nonprofessional women songwriters. Perhaps the only chapter I didn't quite click with was the chapter on the video game Fallout 76, though I will openly admit that many post-apocalyptic discussions leave me in a cognitive haze.
Hilliard argues that folklore is a unifying concept that puts diverse cultural forms in conversation, as well as a framework that helps us reckon with the past, understand the present, and collectively shape the future. After reading "Making Our Future," count me as among the newly convinced. Hilliard's writing gave me such enthusiasm for folklore I'm practically beaming even as I write this review and she gave me a deeper appreciation for Appalachian culture and West Virginia.
As someone who has spent much of my life traveling the roads by wheelchair as an activist, I resonated with so many of the observations made by Hilliard because she actually slows down enough to see the people around her, the landscape, and the tiniest cultural landmarks that many people would miss.
Destined to be one of my favorite reads for 2022, "Making Our Future" is a shining example of public scholarship presented in a way that it can be celebrated by the public.
Hilliard has been a faculty member of the University of Michigan's New England Literature Program, and currently teaches in Marshall University's Graduate Humanities Program.
Her research and writing interests include foodways, vernacular music, occupational folklife, feminism and domestic space, and the intersections between traditional, experimental, and radical culture. She is also a musician and a co-founder of the feminist record label SPINSTER.
"Making Our Future" is without a doubt one of 2022's truly "must read" titles.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic