Lyn Ford has a story for everyone, and I mean everyone. She uses stories to unite community, to share history, and to connect with others. She told me she laughs every day. She is a published author of several collections of stories, including Boo-tickle Tales, Hot Wind Boiling Rain, Affrilachian Tales, and Beyond the Briar Patch. You can get her books with Parkhurst Brothers Publishing at www.parkhurstbrothers.com
Lyn: This is exciting! I’ve never been on a pepperoni roll before!
Felicia: Yeah! Do you have a memory of pepperoni rolls?
L: No, ham rolls, yes, but not pepperoni. That’s exciting, like a more modern version of what I grew up with.
F: Can you tell me about where you grew up?
L: I grew up in Sharon, Pennsylvania. Appalachian western PA. I lived there most of my life. I moved to Columbus, Ohio, where I am now, in 1984 or 1985.
F: And you live in Columbus now?
L: Actually, we used to live in a suburb of Columbus, but it’s all Columbus. Now we live in Columbus proper, but it’s just down the street from where we used to live.
F: So, what brought you to Columbus?
L: My husband got transferred here. It wasn’t like I planned to be here but I’m so glad it happened. Because my children have done so well here, and I’ve made so many friends here. I do miss the hills. It’s kind of flat! Compared to where I grew up.
F: So, you’re a mother?
L: Yes! I’m a great grandmother, actually.
F: What?! You are? Congratulations, that’s amazing!
L: Our children have three children, and then four great grandchildren.
F: That is incredible. You must be so proud.
L: Oh, I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled. I love when I get a house full of noise. I love it. I let them get away with anything. Yeah, you can eat the entire ham if you want!
F: There’s something really special about being able to be near family.
L: Yes. And because we didn’t have much family in Columbus, it means so much when I can get them all together. They’re not down the road or anything like it was when I was growing up, but two thirds of the family is in Ohio, so I do get to see them a good bit.
F: That’s wonderful. So, how did your family come to live in Sharon, PA? Do you know that history?
L: I don’t know a lot of it. It had to do with the great migration, people traveling north for work. That’s where my family settled. My dad is from Tennessee, and my mom is from... East Liverpool, Ohio? I don’t exactly remember, but at one point they were in Danville, Virginia.
F: So you’re spread all throughout Appalachia.
L: Oh, yes. When I was a little girl, we had relatives up in the New York part of Appalachia. I don’t remember, but I know we went north. Then we had relatives down into North Carolina. We were throughout the region, pretty much. These days, my sister and brother and some of my cousins are in Georgia. When I was a little girl, we had a whole other set of kind up there.
F: What do you mean? A whole other set of family?
L: Well, my brother and sister. It used to be a lot harder to travel that distance. They’re in different cities now, and the cousins have had their children and grandchildren. So I’ve been meeting people and I don’t really know what the relation is, but I know we’re connected.
F: That’s a cool feeling, too—to know you know someone even if you don’t know exactly. These lines can be blurred, but you’re still kin, you’re still family.
L: And even with Facebook, I get messages from a grandmother’s cousin. They call me cousin, but I’ve never met him. We communicate on Facebook, things like that. I got another cousin—he’s younger, and when I say younger I mean younger than me, and he’s looking for those connections with his kin. So, through social media, our family is growing.
F: I’m glad to hear that. I know a lot of people who have a lot of difficulty with social media, so I’m glad it brought you guys some joy and some good things.
L: Oh, yes. My sister, she spends a lot of time figuring out where they are, and she’ll say, “Oh, such-and-so is in Colorado!” and I’m here trying to figure out who such-and-so is. There’s people all over—maybe not necessarily blood relatives, but we grew up together, and she’s found them all over—all the way to California.
F: So you’ve spread out quite a bit, it sounds like.
L: Oh yeah, we’re all across the country. Some of the cousins are in Colorado, and I maybe see them once a year, but it’s kind of a reminder of where we came from and how we started. We’ll just get together and there’s so many stories we can share. We’re trying to do the same thing on my husband’s side of the family because they’re all spread out, too. We’re trying to do that for him. My daughter is working on a family tree—and it’s good—so we can appreciate who we are and where we came from.
F: When you see your family, whether it be once a year or for holidays, do you get into your storytelling then? Are you able to share that art form with your family?
L: Most of the time, it goes to the person who says, “I remember when…” I have one cousin—he’s in his sixties—and he starts it off. He says, “I remember when we were sitting on the porch in the dark,” and we were telling scary stories, all the cousins, all of us. We were too afraid to come off the porch, leave all the lights off, you know. He remembers all the things like that.
F: It’s good to have a family historian like that!
F: Is that how you started out? Within your family?
L: I was the one who did the babysitting, so of course I told stories, and if they were getting on my nerves I’d tell them scary stories. Send them to bed!
F: Hahaha! How did you learn them?
L: A lot of it, my dad told me, and I wish I remembered more. I’m trying to connect the dots for some stories now, and it’s hard because the elders are pretty much gone. But I also would make things up on the spot, and I never wrote them down. They’re out there in the ether somewhere, so I’m still looking for them. I wish I did have the sense to write some things down.
F: Do you write them down now? I know you’re a published author.
L: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Now, when I make something up, I put it down on paper. I usually make up spooky stories. I might try it out first, telling it a few times, before I write it down, but eventually I get it right. I know how to use it now, and that’s how I wrote my collection of short stories, Hot Wind Boiling Rain.
F: So, when someone picks up a book that you’ve written, do you hope that they’ll tell those stories to people that they know?
L: Oh, definitely! I’m not one of those people who says that you can’t tell it, but all I ask is you have to let people know where you got it from. What’s the history? And try to put it into your own words. Because even those stories that I’ve made up that are scary stories, the motifs are still folk tales. Now, it might be that I made it up, but somewhere there’s a root story that it came from, I’m sure. Now, I always tell people to go ahead and tell it but put it into your own words, so it comes from your heart, and just tell people where you found it.
F: I know you said your father told you a lot of stories. Where else did you pick up all of them?
L: My favorite storytellers were my father and my grandfather, my maternal grandfather. We called him Pawpaw. I told people he was a tall tale teller, and my grandmother, Josephine, said he was just a liar! And he would tell lies, try to get out of trouble, try and make something up. My mother always read stories to us and would tell us things about people in our family. But my dad always told stories, and so did my Pawpaw. Then there were stories that came from great grandmothers and great aunties and older cousins, and they got passed around and it became a great resource for my career. But at the time I didn’t know it would become my career. I was just the one that always wanted stories.
F: Can you talk a little bit more about how that became a career for you?
L: Well, I was always telling stories to our children, and teaching preschool, and I was tutoring at their elementary school—helping them with spelling, reading, things like that—and the reason that was important to me was because I had always been a great reader, but I had a speech impediment up until first grade. I think by the end of kindergarten, I had it mostly under control, but I was very self conscious, and I stuttered. So if I could help other children feel comfortable and confident in their reading and speaking, I could feel like I was giving back. And I didn’t know that my own children were always telling their teachers that I was a good storyteller. So, next thing I know, I was invited into the classroom. The teacher got my name down, and that really opened some doors. I really have to give our kids credit for my storyteller career starting. For me, it was just what I did, not something that I thought I could do as a career.
F: So it always is within your family.
L: It still is!
F: That’s beautiful.
L: We have a couple of young ones who will be the next storytellers—in their own way—either write the stories or tell the stories. My granddaughter Savannah, she lives in Nevada, and she is a natural storyteller.
F: What makes someone a natural storyteller?
L: The story just falls out your mouth. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to think about the beginning, middle, end. All of that, it just comes to you, logically. Even if you made it up—and your gestures and facial expressions—it just grows from you. My dad could make up a story on the spot. My grandfather, too, with his lies and everything. And Susanna, she can tell a story. She’s a natural born storyteller.
F: Where do you tell stories now?
L: Right now, I do a lot of storytelling festivals and storytelling for educational conferences. I tell stories in libraries—summer reading is really busy every year.
F: Libraries are the best!
L: They’re my second home! If there’s books, I’m there. And I can’t walk past a bookstore. That’s impossible. Yeah, and I tell in bookstores, too. But schools, after school care programs. Yesterday I was at an assisted living place with a friend who tells stories to the elderly. So, it’s pretty much wherever there are people who want to hear stories.
F: So much of the storytelling I witnessed as a kid was in a public place. And those times were so special to me. It felt like my community had their own sense of the world, and their own sense of humor. Is your work shaped by community?
L: Oh, absolutely. If I’m telling something, it’s got to stick, you know. Maybe I don’t have to describe something fully, but I can see the forest, and I can see the cabin. I can see the roads and the churches. It’s in my head, and I can give more life to the story because I’m in it. I’m in it. I’m the narrator, the setting, all the characterizations. But that’s because of the community I grew up in. They live on in their own ways in my heart.
F: Have you been back to Sharon, Pennsylvania at all?
L: Oh, we went back...most of the elders had passed on, but we went through there for something or another, and it was, honestly, it was depressing. When I was there, there was steel, and corn, rail going through, and clean air. But that’s where I grew up, and it being a more rustic area... it’s depressed. The houses look a bit shabby. The lights, everything’s kind of falling down. The street where I grew up… our block is really gone back to more of a forested area, and there’s one house still on that road... Miss Smith’s house. I love the beauty of that but all the people are gone.
F: I talk to a lot of people from Appalachia, from all different towns, and a lot of people feel the same way. It feels like these industries have moved out of these towns, and there’s not much left for the people there.
L: There’s not enough white collar jobs. There are certain parts of that area that are doing okay—around the hospital area, of course, anybody teaching in the schools, things like that—but the middle class neighborhoods, the lower income neighborhoods, they’re not the same. It’s really depressing to be there, and to see them, and know what was, and remember the neighbors sitting on the front porch, and remember the clothing hanging on the line and over the fences while they were doing that work... all of that is gone. You can’t keep developing there if there’s no work and nothing for them to do. They’re going to go someplace else. And that’s the sad part. The people there are very limited in their options. Especially without many young families. I go back, and there’s a handful of folks still there. The church… is still there. I don’t know how well the church is doing. I didn’t get a chance to see it last I was there. The time before that I spent nearly a whole day there. But as I said, our area, our street, has become like a wooded area. And the people there are upset the houses are gone, the neighbors are gone. But I’m looking at it as Mother Nature taking back her territory and giving it an opportunity to regrow.
F: That’s a really beautiful way of thinking about it.
L: And now there’s all kinds of trees there and natural wildlife. I used to think the most exciting thing is the playground. They built our playground on a hill, and it’s kind of funny, cause, so you know, you’re playing basketball going downhill! So when you’re trying to go uphill to make a shot, you have more time than when you’re going downhill, and the ball is rolling and you have to catch up! It was kind of funny but even the playground is gone. It’s a housing development, and all of that emptied out. It’s going to be a beautiful forested area. But it’s almost like... I don’t know how to put it, like one book closing and a new book opening. I know some people like all that. I say let it grow. It’s green, it’s alive, it’s thriving. I wish the children... I don’t know why… they don’t have the nerve to run through the woods the way we used to. They say “Oh, no, we can’t go in there,” but I would have been in those woods in a minute!
F: It’s harder to convince kids that they already have that courage, and it’s part of why storytelling is important, to show kids examples of people who have been brave.
L: Yes, exactly. You can show them that if you can face the dragon, and you can do more than just survive. You can thrash the dragon, you can get beyond the dragon, you can overcome the dragon, or you might just make friends with the dragon. At least give them the options. That’s why stories are really important. I always do folk tales for schools. If there’s something inside you, something you’ve got going on, there’s some way of speaking to it through folk tales.
Definitely. I’m always telling people, “Once you tell people stories, you know them.” You might not know them the best, but you’ve shared some of that human connection. You’ve sat with each other. Storytelling and laughter.
F: I did mean to ask about laughter. Your website mentions laughter yoga!
L: Haha! Oh, being able to laugh is so important, and we all laugh in the same language. It breaks down barriers, but it also breaks down stress. It’s good for your lungs, for your heart, for your mind. It gets your energy going. You gotta get a good laugh every day. I think that strongly connects to storytelling—the humorous ways storytelling can relate to others. Once I was storytelling, and people starting coming in from other rooms, to see what was going on, because we were laughing so loud, just the way we told it. So, sharing laughter exercises is something I do. It’s something I do for all ages, and they’re exercises you can do for free. It’s exercise for your insides.
F: One thing I’ve noticed is how close laughter is, even in hard times.
L: Oh, yeah. My husband and I were going up the hill where I used to live, and I always saw it as the longest, steepest hill, and I was kinda quiet. And he looked at me, and I said, “It feels like this hill got a little shorter.” And we laughed, you know, because the perspective of a child and the perspective of an adult on that hill are different. It’s not as steep as I thought it was, it’s not as big as I thought it was, it’s not as tall as I thought it was. Everything is different. That could be bad, good, but it’s something to laugh about—that our memories expand what our reality is, maybe the truth of it, and that imagination connects our past with who we are now—who you are as a person. You’re probably going through the same kind of thing you always have been. But I, I choose joy. I could sit around and feel really sad, but I choose to feel joy. I choose to try and find joy in some way in everything. I think that’s partly what keeps me feeling young and what keeps the grandbabies playing with me!
F: I think connecting to that joy is a huge part of storytelling. I always feel so alive when I tell a story!
L: Oh, yes. I agree. You can see someone who is frowning and then start making them smile and laugh, and that sort of transformation makes you feel good. It builds you up inside.
F: I agree. Thank you for sharing that. I also wanted to ask… on your website, this word comes up a couple of times: Affrilachian. Can you tell me more about that? I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be.
L: Well, it’s actually a word that is still very new. It came out, let me see... it’s been around a little while, since the late 20th century. I think it’s been about 28 years or so, though I’m not exactly sure, probably around 1991. It was created by Professor Frank X Walker. He’s a poet and a professor, and he created the term Affrilachian when he found that the dictionary at the time considered “Appalachian” to be a white person living in Appalachia. It specifically said that. It left out everybody else. Yeah, he had gone to a reading that was part of what was called the “Best of Southern Writing,” but it was supposed to have been called the “Best of Appalachian Writing.” And the coordinators changed the name of the event because one of the keynote speakers was Nikky Finney, an African American poet and activist. And I guess they didn’t think she fit the description, so they changed the name of the whole event to “Best of Southern Writing,” which made Frank question why. And he created that word, “Afrillachian,” which reminds us of the diversity that has been with us in the hills for generations. And when he created the word—the first time I heard it—it was like the sound of spring water. And I said, “Yes! That’s it!” Because my complexion and the way some of my family appears, a lot of people would ask, not who we were, but, what we were. If you said you were black, they looked at you like there was something wrong with you. So finally I had a word for my family, of African American heritage, as well as Native American and European American heritage, from the Appalachian region. It explains us exactly. So I named my first book Affrilachian Tales to honor that heritage.
L: And I am so grateful that Frank made up that word. It just fits perfectly, and I use it all the time.
F: I hadn’t realized the word “Appalachian” had such an exclusionary history. Thank you for teaching me that.
L: I forget which dictionary, one of them, had it as, “White people in the mountains,” something like that… “White people from Appalachian mountains,” something like that. To be that specific meant everyone else was excluded, including people who come from Italy, and Spain, and Portugal, and all the Native American people who had already been there. And some even came there straight from Africa, and finally there was a word for all of us. So, it means a lot to me that it’s in the dictionary now, that it includes everyone.
F: Do you know when that happened?
L: I think it’s been about 20 years. It was created in 1991, so it’s been more than 20 years. It’s also in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia! So that makes it even more special. And I think it was even in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia before it was in the dictionary. So, I had some of it mixed up… some of the timelines on there…but it’s becoming something that is recognized, and it makes a difference. In the southern part of the region, people might say “African American Appalachian,” or even “Black Appalachian.” In the northern part, I didn't hear anybody make that designation as much.
F: I know there’s a strong history of people of color living in Appalachia that often gets erased. That feels like such a loss.
L: Oh, yeah. Down in the area, oh, the southeastern part of Ohio, just beyond Athens University, there was a community of African American families. If you can go there...if you can find it, you can see the foundations of the houses from so long ago, and the people living there have such a history. The community established by Appalachians in the 1800s—going along the trails of the underground railroad and getting across the Ohio river—there are markers for it. And some people don’t know anything about it, even living in that area of Southeast Ohio. I like to try those more obscure stories from the trails of the Underground Railroad and share those with them, just to share a little. There is more to history than what’s in the books. More than what’s written down.
F: Do you do a lot of storytelling surrounding the Underground Railroad? I wish I could come see it.
L: I haven’t done much storytelling about that specifically this year, but I think that has to do with what the students happen to be learning at the time. I wrote those stories in my book Beyond the Briar Patch. There’s legends, tall tales, and you start to get into folk tales again, because they’re always there.
F: Your storytelling encompasses so many different traditions and histories. There’s so much to what you do!
L: I think it’s important to pass on your heritage, to pass on your history, but also to pass on hope and creative thinking. All of that comes from a broad range of stories.
F: I’m really glad you’re using storytelling to carry that.
L: I think it’s the easiest way to do it. “We’re the only storytelling creatures on this planet,” my grandfather used to say. Other creatures don’t sit around and share with one another in that way. We’re unique in that.
F: That’s beautiful. Do you have any upcoming places where we can see you tell a story soon?
L: That’s a great question! I’m running a program in Toledo, Ohio area, for a literacy program called Claire’s Day. It’ll be in libraries, and open to the public. Our books will be available, things like that. It was started to honor the life of this girl, Claire, who loved stories. They started it by bringing people into the schools to be able to share the oral literature as well as the written literature. This will be my second year doing it.
F: It’s amazing that you can use your stories to give back to your community as well.
L: Some people say things like, “This is my mission,” but I don’t even think about it. This is just what I do. And nobody ever made me pay to hear a story. All I had to do was sit down. If you can get me to sit down, I’ll hear your story. If you sit down with me, I’ll tell you one.
L: I feel like I have a lot that I can give back, and yes it is my profession, but it’s a gift of art that would be so sad to lose. It would be so sad to lose that art, spoken word storytelling.
F: I think that speaks a lot to accessibility, that kids can be themselves while they hear a story.
L: Right! And I have ones for the wiggly ones too. We stand up, stretch, do a dance, some finger wiggles. That’s the nice thing about storytelling, too. It is adaptable for everyone, and you never outgrow it.
F: What is Appalachia?
L: What is it to me? Well there’s a lot of different ways of describing... It’s home. It’s heart. It’s a state of being. It’s a place where the past and the present all come together. There’s no place like it. You’ve never seen mountains like that. That’s what I really miss. It’s flat here, and I miss the hills. Here in central Ohio, we have the change of seasons, but if you want to see the real beauty of the change of seasons, go to the hills. There’s nothing like it. Also the mountain range that is the Appalachian region—on the large map of all the islands, on Pangea, where all the continents started to separate—you can see the Appalachian mountains were part of the northwestern part of Africa.
L: If you look at the map, and you look at how the mountains are building—what became North America, the part that broke off from Northwest Africa—that’s now Appalachia. So in my mind, stepping into Appalachia is also stepping into the heritage of Africa. The Appalachian mountain range was a part of what became Northwest Africa.
F: That’s incredible.
L: That one stuck with me. I tell the grandchildren that. I don’t know if it’s as important to them, but I hope it sticks with them. I tell them that—what, over 250 million years ago, this part of America was part of Africa.
F: That’s pretty amazing. I learned so much talking with you! Thank you so much for your time today.
L: Thank you for wanting to talk and for asking questions!
F: Of course. Is there anything we didn’t talk about today that you wanted to touch upon?
L: I don’t know if it relates so much to Appalachia, but I encourage everyone to go to older people and ask them questions and see what they can find. They’ll get a portion of history that no one else can give them.
F: That’s really good advice.
L: Thank you so much!
F: I can’t wait to hear you tell your stories someday!
L: Have a great rest of your day!