“Just as Woody Guthrie, during the Great Depression, pondered over the difference between a bank robber and a bank, I puzzle over the modern-day difference between a terrorist and someone who supports mountaintop removal. One destroys with a bomb, the other with a fountain pen, dynamite, and a dragline. God help us.”
There is another quote that adds insight into Denise Giardina’s background and career. She said, “It’s important to know that people fought back. When I found out that people fought back, I thought maybe I should, too.”
Denise Giardina´s novels have won the American Book Award, the Lillian Smith Award for fiction, and the Boston Book Review fiction prize. Her roots run deep in the coal mines of Appalachia and stories about coal miners, companies and unions are at the center of two of her books. Her words may be fiction, but they describe the true experiences of underground coal mining in West Virginia.
Denise Giardina was born in 1951 and grew up in a West Virginia coal mining camp called Black Wolf. Many family members worked underground, though her mother was a nurse and her father a bookkeeper for a coal company. They moved to Charleston when the mining camp closed. She graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1973, later earning a Master’s in Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary. Though she is currently a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and teaches at West Virginia State University, Giardina has spent much of her career writing.
After a first novel about Henry V of England Giardina decided to return to her roots, saying, “Growing up [in Appalachia] is what made me a writer – staying here is what keeps me the kind of writer I want to be.” With W. Virginia as her backdrop, Giardina crafted two novels directly related to coal. Her 1987 book, Storming Heaven, took its inspiration from the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. It is a fictionalized account of the coal miners´ bloody and ugly fight to unionize, and the mining companies who tried to stop them. In 1992, Giardina published The Unquiet Earth, exploring the history of coal mining beginning in the 1930s.
Giardina tells her stories using multiple narrators who speak in local dialect and offer different points of view. The Unquiet Earth reveals the blatant disregard of the miners and their families, by the coal companies; black Lung disease and unsafe working conditions play a part in the book.
As well as being a writer, Giardina has been an activist for environmental justice since the 1970s. She made a bid to be governor of West Virginia in 2000 as a third-party candidate, using her campaign to raise awareness about the devastating and toxic effects of mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR). MTR blows off the tops of ancient mountains, exposing layers of coal. It makes mining easier, yet destroys forests and plant life, and pollutes streams. Toxic runoff from the mining process leach into communities (where people have lived for generations), forcing them to leave their homes. West Virginia´s progressive, Mountain Party, affiliated with the Green Party, sprang from Giardina’s gubernatorial run.
Denise Giardina’s pride in her Appalachian background informs her writing and helps drive her fight to protect the mountains and people she loves.
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