A Dream Deferred
Silas House is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including his first, Clay’s Quilt (2001), and his most recent, Southernmost (2018). He also has published a book of creative nonfiction and has had four of his plays produced. House is the recipient of many awards including the E.B. White Award, Appalachian Book of the Year and Storylines Prize from the New York Public Library/NAV Foundation. He was long-listed for the 2019 prestigious Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. House is a former commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His work has been published in Time, Newsday, Garden and Gun, Oxford American and The New York Times. House is a native of eastern Kentucky. Besides serving as the Berea College NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies, he also serves on the fiction faculty of the Spalding University MFA in Creative Writing.
In his own words: The first thing I thought when they told me [about being this year’s honorary alumnus] was how I always wanted to go to Berea and didn’t get to. It’s a great honor, but it’s also a fulfillment of that desire I had as a child. Berea was a dream school for me, but my mother went through some health issues at the time that kept me from going away. My childhood best friend came to Berea, so I sort of lived vicariously through her. One thing I really liked about Berea was the idea of earning your college education. Sometimes people will say, “Oh you know, if you’re poor you can go to Berea and get a free education.” I always correct people and make sure they know the students are earning their education. They’re not getting a handout.
I was raised in southeastern Kentucky, had a great childhood and really fine parents who encouraged me as a young writer. I also had a seventh grade English teacher who was a tremendous influence. She recognized that I thought about literature differently than most kids. Often, when I’m out on the road, people assume that I had a bad education and the worst of schools because I’m from Kentucky. The opposite is true. I had wonderful teachers and a great community that encouraged me to be an artist.
I was a rural mail carrier for about seven years. That was the best thing I could have done for myself as a writer. If I had become a high school English teacher, I think it would have taken over my life. Being a mail carrier was a really difficult job, but I was able to leave it when the mail day was over, and go home and write. I wrote my first book that way. When Clay’s Quilt became a New York Times best-seller, nobody was more surprised than me. I was able to quit carrying the mail then and devote myself to writing completely. I did that for about three years, but it involved being on the road so much that I felt like I was missing out on my children growing up.
When I had the opportunity to apply to work at Berea, I was finally getting to fulfill a childhood dream. I really felt like I was able to serve my people and to work with students from my place in the world. But also I get to introduce them to people from other places and have them work together in my classes. The most rewarding experiences are when you see the lightbulb going off in a student’s mind, when a student from the region will say to me they never knew their culture had its own literature. They have a different pride once they realize that. I have students from the area whose minds are blown that a masterpiece novel like River of Earth by James Still or The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow was written a county or two away from them.
My commitment to Berea deepens when I see the College going out on a limb and standing up for equality and making a call for empathy, whether it’s about our commitment to teaching immigrant students or standing up for the LGBT community. When the school sticks its neck out for social justice and civil rights, I’m always reminded why I’m glad to be a Berean. I would love to be a Berean as long as they’ll have me.