By Nina Wilder
In March 2023, hundreds of students and teachers from across southwestern Virginia gathered at Emory & Henry College to hear from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Raised in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, Kingsolver channeled her rural upbringing in her latest work, Demon Copperhead, which tells the story of a young man coming of age in Lee County, Virginia.
After spending time answering questions about the novel and sharing her writing advice, Kingsolver left attendees with an emphatic call to action: “As you go about your day, pay attention to how many times you see an honest, respectful representation of rural people in movies and on TV, in your newspaper, on your social media feeds,” she said. “If you feel underrepresented, make yourself visible.”
Her words were a powerful reminder of why the group had convened in the first place: The event was presented in partnership between our Virginia Festival of the Book and a program called The Origin Project (TOP), formed a decade ago by author Adriana Trigiani in her hometown of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, around the idea that Appalachia’s stories should be shared beyond the region and its children should celebrate their roots.
Today, TOP operates as an in-school writing program for thousands of students in grades 2 through 12 across Virginia. Throughout the school year, students research their familial heritage and write stories that speak to their origins, which are printed and bound into a book at the program’s end. TOP also regularly invites renowned authors to share their wisdom with the students. In addition to Kingsolver, past participants have included David Baldacci, Meg Wolitzer, Margot Lee Shetterly, and Mary Hogan.
Surprisingly, the program itself has roots in a place entirely unlike Appalachia: New York City. In the mid ’80s, Trigiani took a job on Wall Street, where she met (and eventually worked with) a woman named Nancy Bolmeier Fisher. Amid the city’s bustling urban landscape, the two bonded over their similar backgrounds in rural areas.
They left the industry around the same time to pursue new opportunities: Bolmeier Fisher gravitated toward special education advocacy in California’s Bay Area, and Trigiani successfully launched a decades-long writing career in the city, starting in television and moving into literature with the publication of her debut novel Big Stone Gap in 2000. As the years passed, the two remained in touch.
“And then one day in 2012, Adri called me and said, ‘I have a dream of starting a project where we give a journal and a pencil to kids in Appalachia and ask them to write their stories,’” said Bolmeier Fisher, who enthusiastically accepted Trigiani’s offer to join her as the organization’s executive director. Soon after, Bolmeier Fisher found herself on a plane to Big Stone Gap, where Trigiani was directing a film adaption of her breakout novel.
“Adri was like, ‘Let’s do this now,’” Bolmeier Fisher recalled. “So, we started with forty ninth graders from Adri’s high school in Big Stone Gap. Next year, we’ll probably reach around 3,000 students in thirty schools across Virginia.”
The program’s recent move into regions outside Southwest Virginia is part of an effort to meet the Commonwealth’s ever-shifting needs. “Our roots are in Appalachia; they always will be,” Bolmeier Fisher said. “But a few years into running the program, it was clear: there is need across every region.” Now, TOP counts students in Manassas and Hampton among its participants.
Last summer, we awarded TOP a grant that Bolmeier Fisher said enabled the program to make another important change: including teachers’ voices alongside their students’. In addition to their inclusion in The Origin Project: Book Nine anthology, our funding allowed participating teachers to join their students at the 2022 Virginia Literary Festival, attend a non-fiction writing workshop led by Trigiani, and learn from historian Ron Carson of Penington Gap’s Appalachian African American Cultural Center.
“It’s a rare opportunity for students in rural communities like ours to gain firsthand experiences with published authors,” wrote teacher Karla Rasnake Bowman, who traveled with her students from Bristol to Richmond for the Literary Festival. “It was fantastic to see the impact that our trip had on my students, their perceptions of the world, and their empathy for and understanding of those whose life experiences are radically different from their own.”
This deep-reaching impact is captured by Candace Todd, a student from Prince William County, in her reflection on the program:
“There’s something about being told that you have a story that enriches your life. It forces you to sit down and think about how all the circumstances and agencies of your ancestors culminated in you, and about which factors of your environment guided your development. How much of me is me? How much of me is my forefathers? How much of me is an inescapable state of humanity?
Simply harboring such questions adds another dimension to your life but finding their answers can satiate a craving you didn’t know your soul had. You may not think you have a story—maybe your history has been suppressed, maybe your personal experience is offensive, maybe you’ve been told your story is uninteresting or not worth exploring—but to give in to such a lie would be an affront to our inspired nature.
To have the tapestry of the human condition laid at your feet and unraveled one weft at a time is the blessing of The Origin Project.”