In the anthology Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, editor Cat Pleska compiles the voices of 35 West Virginian authors to speak in poetry and prose on the topics of unity and separation. Though few stories in the collection are political in nature, the anthology itself is in many ways a response to a divided America.
Published in 2017, Pleska notes in the foreword that the anthology is meant to be a unifier, even a sort of “medicine” in a time of political division and civil unrest. Pleska quotes anthology editors Nick Laird and Don Paterson about what producing an anthology during times of trouble can evoke: “Open an anthology and you’re … leaping from body to body, from mind to mind, letting other people speak through you … The anthology can be viewed as a progressive undertaking, an act of unity and of empathy.”
Pleska does an admirable job of collecting a diverse set of voices that allows the reader to “leap from mind to mind.” West Virginians are often portrayed and viewed as a homogenous group, but Voices on Unity challenges this preconceived notion by bringing together a wide spectrum of perspectives. In multiple stories, the reader sees that unity is in fact often accomplished through diversity. Authors from diverse races, religions, backgrounds and sexual orientations are brought together in this anthology, making the stories therein that much richer.
Despite the diversity of the authors, the anthology does contain several common themes. One such theme in the anthology is marriage, and several stories include people coming together in matrimony without sacrificing or compromising their own identity. Others rally around a common cause while retaining their own identities and beliefs; for Cat Pleska, Kayla Queen and Mary Barbara Moore, it is the women’s march. These stories provide an important reminder that “unified” does not have to mean “identical.”
Family is another common topic discussed in stories and poems throughout the anthology. One poignant example is Kelly McWilliams’ short story “Ancestry: The Mixed-Race Third-Grade Blues.” McWilliams recounts a third-grade assignment to research one’s ancestry, which turns out to be a near impossible task for an African-American child. The descendant of slaves, McWilliams’ heritage has been lost to time and turmoil. She notes that “my third-grade teacher wanted to make a map of diversity, but it’s really unity that we seek when we ask … where we came from.” McWilliams’ question is never answered, and she comes to the conclusion that such ancestry is too painful to dwell on. Nevertheless, she finds unity in the African-American experience, from Black people who have “created culture from bits and scraps and wishes and dreams.”
While most stories in the anthology portray family as a unifier, the division and pain sometimes felt within the family is also explored. In a short story by Kelly Limes-Taylor Henderson, the author recounts how a familial bond, particularly between a mother and daughter, can be simultaneously unifying and dividing. The author recalls gathering oral histories from family members for a novella and, in the process, being reminded of painful childhood memories she had since repressed. After one such revealing interview, she noted that “my heart and my mind were heavy — heavy with the pain that mothers pass down to daughters, and of the daughter’s desperate need for her mother. …” Limes-Taylor Henderson understands that her mother suffers as she herself does, but this understanding cannot erase her own trauma. She and her mother are unified by their pain, but divided because they cannot undo the first heartache that separated them. Limes-Taylor Henderson comes to the conclusion that all she can do is try to forgive and continue writing.
In the foreword, Pleska poses the question whether America can rally around and be unified by a cause unrelated to war. Is it possible, Pleska asks, that we can instead be unified by stories? Or is storytelling and storywork, as one author in the anthology suggests, “tools for survival and resistance?” Whatever the answer, the authors showcased in Voices on Unity find a level of unity and peace through storytelling, and readers will feel that harmony through their reading. The anthology serves as an important reminder that we, as West Virginians and Americans, are more alike than different. The anthology is very much a response to a tumultuous political climate, and it answers with kindness rather than further division.
Voices on Unity is, by its nature as an anthology, something of a mixed bag. While there are certainly many worthwhile stories contained within its pages, not every story or poem will appeal to every reader. Nevertheless, it serves to showcase West Virginian voices in the 21st century and in reaction to a country in turmoil. Whether this appeals to every reader is questionable, but it does seem Pleska achieves her goal of using poetry and prose to promote unity. The level to which she succeeded, however, is up to the individual reader to decide.
• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.