Writer and poet Ron Rash will speak publicly at the East Tennessee History Center tonight at 7:30 in conjunction with The Library Society of UT Knoxville and the Friends of the Knox County Library.
Rash, a native of a small town just over the Tennessee-North Carolina divide, writes primarily about a region deeply familiar to many East Tennesseans – southern Appalachia. Coming from a descendant of early Appalachian settlers who first came to the area in the mid-1700s, his collections of poems, short stories and novels showcase the trials and tribulations unique to natives of this area.
"He writes observations of life around him, whether that involves methamphetamine addicts, poverty or people just generally having a very hard time historically," said Jeff Johnson, vice chair of the Advisory Board for UT's Library Society. "It's relatively easy to write typical, pleasant stories about the mountains.
"But not everyone who lives there does well; there are a lot of struggles, including those involving drug abuse and addiction."
The lecture, which is free but requires pre-registration, is coming to Knoxville as part of the Knox County Library's Wilma Dykeman lecture series, which seeks to honor Dykeman's contributions to environmentalism, history and the southern Appalachian people.
Rash will be introduced by Jim Stokely, son of Wilma Dykeman and president of the legacy foundation that bears her name.
"The reason we got to (choosing) Ron was through a conversation I had with Jim Stokely," Johnson said. "He said the best writer about Appalachia today is Ron Rash. This was 2-3 years ago and I hadn't read any of his work yet, so I looked him up and was impressed after reading his novel 'Serena.'"
Set to be released as a major motion picture starring Hollywood powerhouses Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence this spring, "Serena" follows affluent newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton who travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains mere months before the stock market crash with dreams of forging a timber empire. The novel, which was a 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist, has been acclaimed for its unsentimental portrayal of poor Appalachian life juxtaposed with ruthless capitalism.
"It was a great book that gave me nightmares," said Megan Venable, manager within UT's Office of the Dean. "The ending came out of nowhere, and the images were very visceral."
One of the work's highlights, in Venable's opinion, was the glimpse it offered into seldom-documented aspects of regional history.
"It's set in the Smokies before they were incorporated into a national park," she said, "and it was very interesting to read about places I've visited and seen myself as they were during this time period. Serena and her husband are pretty rich and bent on basically cutting down everything that stands up.
"The book offered an interesting perspective on who were the oppressed and who were the stakeholders in that time. It was a perspective I hadn't thought of before."
This very talent of Rash – to illuminate little-known swatches of the region's fabric – is why Johnson is most excited to hear him speak.
"Students should come to be exposed to the creative mind of a great writer whose perspective on our area, Appalachia, is wholly unique," he said.
Rash will discuss this perspective on Southern life, as well as those contained within his multiple other award-winning works, for his audience tonight. Book sales and signings will follow the lecture.
To register, visit knoxfriends.org.