Winding Up in Appalachia

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Alec Masella interviews MFA student Beejay Silcox as part of our “Change” call for submissions.
By Alec Masella Contact the writer

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Photo by Elizabeth Bowling.

On Tuesday, April 11, 2017 I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Blacksburg’s most interesting women. Beejay Silcox is currently a Master of Fine Arts student at Virginia Tech, though her perception on what is means to live meaningfully goes far beyond academia. Her native Australian views on landscape, personality, and creativity have landed in Blacksburg, Virginia where she continues to write and share her stories.

I – Frames of Mind

Australian schooling is vastly different from education in America– both in terms of structure and the views surrounding it. As for the structure, there is an intense focus on vocation. The system is one that pushes teenagers to decide what they want their careers to be and to follow high-demand and practical job opportunities. The general Australian perception on education looks down upon self-indulgent and artistic careers. Those are reserved for a small portion of the population, an elite few.

Striving for this exclusive realm of work was not encouraged in Beejay’s education. “We have this saying in Australia, ‘the tall poppy gets its head cut off,’ which essentially means that nobody wants to be above anyone else.”

Avoiding the stigmatized creative industry, Beejay found herself studying law at the undergraduate level when she was only 16. While Australian education offers this opportunity for a law degree so early on, the field is “cut-throat and overpopulated.” Shortly before graduating, all the students went on a manic job hunt. She describes the experience as 700 students sitting in one large auditorium shortly before graduation, quiet. “This was around the time cell phones came out, so we were all waiting anxiously for calls from employers… sometimes a phone would go off and there would be a pause, and then the person would say ‘No mum, I haven’t gotten a call yet,’ but then other times there would a huge burst of excitement– that’s when we knew that the person got a job offer. Then they’d come back in the auditorium and everyone would applaud.”

Out of over 700 students in her program, Beejay was one of only 400 to get offered a job right out of school, but she didn’t become a lawyer. Instead, she spent seven years after graduation working as a criminology lecturer, travelling to Ghana, marrying in Las Vegas, advising for the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia, working in a think tank, and economically strategizing for a Victorian State Premier’s Department.

Throughout this time she worked hard, perhaps too hard. After a while she became overworked, exhausted, and very sick. Enduring nearly six months of pneumonia, she stopped working and moved with her husband Sam to Princeton, New Jersey where he studied for his Masters degree after he served in Afghanistan as a diplomat with the Australian foreign service.

Six months of lung and breathing issues had given Beejay a “forced moment of reflection,” and in 2012 she wrote her first short story.

It’s about a father, on the brink of dementia, and his daughter walking along a beach by themselves. Their conversation stops short when they come across a red pool of blood where the shore meets the water. There, in the middle of this mix is a great white shark caught in a fishing net– its body remained in the water, but it had thrashed itself to death. The scene is fresh, and this girl and her father are the among the first to have seen the suicidal aftermath. The following day, it becomes a top story in the newspaper.

Beejay told me this tale was based on a true story, so I asked her if good stories should always be based on truth. “The things I write have only a strain of truth… they focus on existential questions.” As for the great white shark story, Beejay homes in on the theme of missing– be it missing extraordinary events or missing part of a loved one’s life. To her, writing is not about what is true and what is not true– it’s about how we remember. “I was given a chance,” she told me, “to back myself creatively” during her months of rest. So during that time, she continued to write and used those writings to scout out an American MFA program, breaking through her Australian-influenced frame of education.

“Was writing your calling?” I asked her.
“No. Calling connotes pigeonholing. A calling is for someone very young who follows through with one job in mind… I was 30 when I finally realized what I wanted.”

II – Bless Your Heart

Beejay is not only an Australian Virginia Tech student; she is an Australian member of the Blacksburg community as well. I was curious, then, of what it means to be a foreign writer in Appalachia, adding to Appalachian culture through a unique storytelling lens. For example, she explained to me that Australians have a big relationship with landscapes– many of the greatest Australian authors concentrate on how people interact with the land around them. Would she bring this same trope to her writing in America?

I assumed her writing must have changed vastly from one country to another, and so I asked Beejay what the biggest difference was between the stories she wrote in Australia and America. She stopped me: “Actually, America to me feels like 50 different countries. The language, the people, the culture all change from one state to the next.”

Of course there are some basic differences between Australian and American English dialects (“I went to the store to get my brother-in-law a birthday present, and I asked the man who worked there if they had any men’s thongs… he thought I meant a male g-string!”), but there are countless differences in dialects within the U.S. as well. Having chosen Appalachia for its lack of distractions from her writing, Beejay pondered this region’s common phrase “Bless your heart.”

“At first I was like what the fuck does that mean? Bless your heart. People kept saying it to me, so I thought I was a rockstar! But after I learned the Appalachian meaning I realized that I had actually been offending people the entire time!” She had never heard the phrase used in Princeton.

Despite these state-to-state differences, Beejay made a good point: American mythologies are stronger now than ever. The American Dream unites everyone. The hand-on-heart National Anthem ritual is powerful and iconic. “We don’t know yet what it means to be an Australian, but Americans seem to know what it means to be an American… how Americans make meaning– the way we pull things apart– is so different.”

There is a general theme of acceptance in America– taking things for what they are. It’s known as the original free country. In Australia, Beejay mentioned, there is a pervasive skepticism. Group work depends on how well a topic can be picked apart and tested to find its weak and strong points. Good group work is made from a collection of devil’s advocates.

Beejay’s attention to how people in small groups interact is also interesting. “Here, people start friendships by sharing personal information. In Australia you have to earn that.” As an open book herself, Beejay surprised me when she said this. I had always deemed Australia a place of open expression. It’s known for the Sydney Opera House after all! But Beejay challenged this assumption and gave me a new perspective on where our culture stands in relation to what I once knew as the “America of the southern hemisphere.”

Beejay’s ability to challenge views, her outspoken presence, and her genuine support for the creativity of others sets her apart as one of the town’s greatest new additions.

III – The Next Story

One of my burning questions,” I asked, “is when you take two of your pieces of writing– one from New Jersey and one from Virginia– what is the biggest difference between them?”

“It’s bravery,” she answered without hesitation. “I don’t feel the need to apologize for my characters anymore.”

Appalachia has helped Beejay develop not only her writing, but also herself as a writer. She feels more intact with her identity and what she hopes to accomplish through her works. “Before, I was a writer who happened to be an Australian, but now I can say I’m an Australian writer.” Everywhere she lives is another layer to her artistry. But she explained to me that she never really knows how a new region of the world impacts her work until she leaves it. This coming summer when she moves to Cairo, Egypt with Sam, she will finally figure out what it is about America– in particularly Blacksburg– that’s made its way into her unique style.

On the subject of traveling, Beejay noted that she could never settle down. “Growing up, I wanted three things: 1) to have a home, 2) to have a dog, and 3) to paint my walls whatever color I wanted. But now I want none of that… well, I still want the dog, but it would be hard to travel with.” Being able to see the world and meet new people from new places is what will propel her creativity in the future.

I wanted to know why we should even tell stories. It’s a beautiful art and I personally love doing it, but I needed an answer. I needed some Silcox wisdom.

Beejay offered me a more than sufficient answer: “Fiction is the way we remember ourselves. We need the sacred stories and the profane stories and the stories that put us into spaces we’ve never been before… there are two things that happen in stories: empathy and imagination.” Stories help people connect with others, and more importantly they help us connect with ourselves.

This last line resonated with me and reminded me of how much perspective Blacksburg gives to creators. It’s a small town, and most of the people who live here are only temporary. But even so, we all leave a mark and give the future community a voice to take, change, and project onto the next generation. The town is a never-ending chain of stories for the past, present, and future.

Alec Masella is a senior English student, also studying Arabic, Philosophy, and Cinema. When he’s not marching at Lane Stadium, Alec enjoys writing short stories, composing music, and watching a handful of movies over and over again. He plans on moving to Georgia for law school with an interest in entertainment and international law. Alec is the Recruitment Manager for The Pylon.