Saints and Villains: An Interview with Denise Giardina

Saints and Villains: An Interview with Denise Giardina

By Kerry Taylor

Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 30-32

Though she describes her writing as primarily theological rather than political, Appalachian writer Denise Giardina stands out among contemporary American authors for her ruthless depictions of capitalism and the violence it inflicts on people and the environment. In Storming Heaven (1987), and its sequel, The Unquiet Earth (1992), Giardina traces more than one hundred years in the struggle of West Virginia coal miners to protect their families, land, and unions from hostile coal companies and government indifference. Despite the heavy political content, Giardina’s keen eye for detail, her complex portrayals of her novels’ heroes and her tremendous gift for storytelling ensure that her writing never reads as preachy or polemical.

In the following interview, Giardina locates the roots of her social conscience in her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, her mother’s loving example, and the inequality she encountered growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town. Giardina also reflects on her struggles to feel rooted in an increasingly mobile society and to find support for her interest in activism.

Denise Giardina was born in 1951 and grew up in Black Wolf, a small coal camp near Bluefield, West Virginia. Her father worked as an accountant for the local coal company and her mother was a nurse. It was the experiences of her first thirteen years spent in Black Wolf that Giardina drew upon to write her two coal field novels.

As a child, the enormity of the mines was a source of fear for young Giardina. But the mines also fired her curiosity and made her aware that life could be contradictory and unfair.

“The mines were always a looming presence because they were everywhere, first of all. When I was real small there was a mine connected with my dad’s company that was like a half mile from our house. The miners would walk to it from the houses. You could also hear–they would blow a whistle if there was an accident or something. That was always kind of scary. I thought when I was a little kid that you heard the whistle and it was something bad.”

“That mine closed when I was five or six years old. But there was still every other town, every two miles you would come to another coal camp and most of them had their own mines and some of them were really huge. There was one mine about six miles from my house. At one time it was the biggest mine in the world. It was one of the deepest and the buildings outside were just huge. So, it was like this monstrous thing that you would drive by every time you went to town. There used to be a sign in that town that posted how many hours had been lost to accidents which I always thought was kind of weird. Like I don’t think I would have wanted people to know. But the idea was to encourage people to be careful. But that’s another thing that as a kid I thought was really weird, but also kind of scary. I had several classmates whose parents were killed in the mines. It wasn’t like a protected growing up kind of place like some places would be.”

While always interested in politics, it was not until Giardina’s family moved to Charleston, West Virginia, that she became aware of the class and political dimensions to life in the coal fields.

“I think I’ve always been sort of naturally interested in politics. I just remember when I was a little kid and I was about nine years old when the Kennedy/Nixon campaign was. I remember being real interested in that. It was the first one I really remember. And also history as well. I was really interested in the Civil War at that time, too . . . making the connections. Also kind of following the civil rights a little bit.

“I didn’t really think about it in connection to my own place until we moved when I was 13. It was a real traumatic thing. It was a real traumatic age anyway, hard enough, then having to move. At the same time I read “How Green Was My Valley” and that had a big impact on me. There was some political stuff in there that made me think about why we had to leave, and I drew some

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connections from that. That’s when I first became interested in the coal mining areas that I grew up in, politically.”

Giardina credits her mother and, surprisingly, her upbringing in a conservative fundamentalist church, for shaping her political sensibilities. From her religious experience Giardina drew basic values of charity and fairness that reinforced her mother’s lessons on justice and tolerance.

“My mom, in particular, always raised my brother and me with values that were: `You should be nice to people and not take advantage of people if you had more than they had,’ and that, `You shouldn’t put people down.’ For example, there was a fairly large black population and we were not allowed to use racial epithets and that kind of thing. She made clear she wouldn’t put up with us acting the way a lot of whites in the area acted.

“I think also, I grew up in the church. We went to a little Methodist church and I grew up with Bible stories and that obviously had a big influence. And I think I just felt guilty a lot of time because my dad was management and we had more money than a lot of people did. We weren’t rich by any means, but we were middle class people. We were able to go to the beach every summer and we didn’t have to worry about putting food on the table unlike the neighbors who some of them didn’t have any food at all, literally. Their kids would wear my hand-me-downs. I’d go to school in fourth grade and see first graders wearing my clothes. I think I always could never figure it out. I knew how dangerous the work was that miners were doing. I didn’t think it was fair they weren’t treated better. There was just something fundamentally unjust about it.”

As she matured theologically and politically, Giardina battled to reconcile the gaps between church teaching and church practice. Her constant questioning often put her at odds with members of her family and her church community. Giardina remains perplexed as to why her brother, though he enjoyed most of the same influences and experiences, never struggled with the contradictions of conservative theology.

“I was raised fairly fundamentalist. My mom’s not fundamentalist, but most everybody I grew up with was, and most everybody in the church was. My brother actually still is. I went through a lot of searching periods and there were several periods I never went to church at all, but I eventually came back to it.

“I’ve always had a challenging attitude toward church. I was never one to just accept the things I was told. The world had to have been created in six days and I can remember getting in arguments about that in grade school. I would say, `Like did God have a watch? And the sun wasn’t created until the fourth clay. How would he know what a day was?’ I was arguing stuff like that when I was little.

“My brother, on the other hand, has never questioned any of that. He’s still very fundamentalist. He never even stopped going to church either. He just always went along with it. So I don’t know why one person goes one way. He’s very conservative. He’s maybe a little too independent for the Christian Coalition, but his views are almost there. He’s involved in all this Promise Keepers stuff and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and all that kind of stuff.”

After graduating from college in 1973, Giardina found an Episcopal church in Charleston that aroused her evolving social conscience. She credits the pastor, Jim Lewis, for kindling her interest in social justice, theology and literature. In 1984, Giardina’s commitment to social justice led her to work as the statewide secretary/treasurer for KFTC (Kentuckians for the Commonwealth), a community-based organization fighting coal company claims to land rights. Giardina later joined the United Mine Worker’s 1989 campaign against the Pittston Coal Company, writing editorials in favor of the workers and participating in organized acts of civil disobedience.

“I knew the Episcopal Church had a reputation for being not fundamentalist. It just happened that there was a new priest in town who I really hit it off with. He’s still one of my best friends and probably he’s, other than my mother, the person who has been the most influential in my life and in my writing. His name is Jim Lewis. He’s a very powerful preacher. He reads constantly and he was always giving me books to read. I’d never read a lot of good contemporary fiction. He was giving me Flannery O’Connor and I’d never heard of Flannery O’Connor. My education was not that great, I guess. He was really exposing me to people like that. He gave me Dietrich Bonhoeffer–several of his books. He opened up this whole world. He was also very involved with social issues. He started a soup kitchen while and several programs that are still going on like twenty years later.

“I was kind of influenced by him to go to seminary. He really got me turned on to theology. And I thought it was a call to ministry, but I found out later that wasn’t true. But I think it was definitely a call to study theology. Theology has probably been more important to my fiction than politics. A lot of people look at my books and say they’re political. They are to an extent, but even more they are theological novels”

Attempting to join her politics with her search for community, Giardina briefly joined the Sojourners community, a Washington-based ecumenical project that works on peace and racial justice concerns. For similar

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reasons, Giardina moved to the Kentucky coal fields in the 1980s where she wrote Storming Heaven while working for KFTC. Since returning to Charleston to teach writing at West Virginia State College, Giardina has found it difficult to remain politically involved without the support of an activist culture. She divides her time these days between writing, teaching, and working with a local theater group.

“Seems like I always have to have some kind of community. I’m not doing so much right now. KFTC [Kentuckians for the Commonwealth] was really a community effort. I lived in North Carolina for awhile. I worked in a bookstore and that kind of became a community for me. But one reason I left was because I wasn’t part of the region and it was going to take too long to establish the kind of community I need. So I came back to West Virginia.

“I’ve got several communities, three, I guess. One’s the church, I’m going back to the one I was going to earlier. One is the school I teach at. I’m also on the board of a community theater group and have done several plays. I’ve been real active in that group and that’s like a whole community of people. In some cases these all overlap. One of my friends from church is also with the theater group and one of the teachers is in the theater group. It’s a small city. But really those things are taking up my time now. I don’t have much time for political stuff.

“The big hospital in town is building a medical waste incinerator right in the middle of town and they got a permit without telling anyone. There’s a group trying to stop them. So I stood outside with a sign as cars were driving by. That’s the first time I’ve done that in a long time, but I haven’t been really active with that.”

Giardina recently completed work on Saints and Villains: A Novel, a fictional account of the life of German theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazi’s just days before the Allies defeated Germany during World War II. Though the book’s setting is a long way from the coal fields of Appalachia, Giardina sees continuity in her work. “I’m interested in how people respond to evil and injustice and the theological aspects of that. Early in the book I have Bonhoeffer go to the South. I bring him to West Virginia, but he did actually travel in the South on his way up from Mexico to New York where he was a student. He was very interested in racism in the U.S.”

The book is due out in February 1998.

From an October 31, 1996 telephone interview with Denise Giardina by Kerry Taylor, who lives in San Francisco and works as a research assistant at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project at Stanford University.