To Exist As Loudly As I Can: An Interview with Odana Chaney

By: Felicia Cooper, Story Coordinator

Odana is a sixth-generation Appalachian woman. She runs a doggy daycare in conjunction with a nonprofit animal food pantry. She is also a published poet, with work featured in Women of Appalachia: Women Speak, Volumes III and IV, Travellin’ Appalachians Revue, and About Place Magazine. The following interview is a conversation on dirt, dogs and dearness.

Odana reading poetry at the Bowen House in Logan, Ohio

Odana reading poetry at the Bowen House in Logan, Ohio

What is Appalachia?

Appalachia is, without a doubt, an anachronism. It’s a place that is at once a throwback to earlier eras of coal, seclusion, and grit while also existing as a violent rebuttal of all of these things. It is a place that many people know about, but very little people know.

Do you still live in the town where you grew up? Why or why not?

I do. I grew up and live in Culloden, West Virginia-- a “census designated place” with a population right around 3,000. There is no deep history of the town, but it was named for the last battle of the Jacobite Rebellion in Culloden, Scotland. I spent almost six years living in attics and on couches in Pittsburgh before I decided to take a year at home to regroup. One year, five years, who’s counting? One thing lead to another and now I’m a small business owner pretending to be a poet.

How has living here influenced you and your work?

Odana’s great grandfather and great aunt in the dining room of the home where she lives today.

Odana’s great grandfather and great aunt in the dining room of the home where she lives today.

Living here is the whole reason my work-- both my day job as a pet care provider and my nonprofit AND my poetry-- exists. Living here has made me feel need in every way imaginable. I need to be a part of my community, I need to help the folks around me, I need to bear witness to this special place. Coming home was incredibly hard, staying here is even harder, but it is the first truly fulfilling thing I have ever done.

I noticed in several places on your website, it encourages us to “Take Action”. What sort of action? Why this phrase?

It is no secret that West Virginia is hemorrhaging our potential up and down the Ohio River. I have scads of friends and family who had no choice but to stay-- and scads who had no choice but to leave. I was lucky to not only have had done both, but have had a choice in the matter. “Take Action” was initially just the words I slapped on the page, but I think the phrase illustrates the responsibility I have to the world around me in exchange for the privilege of coming home.

How can folks in towns like yours create action in small ways?

I don’t really feel like I have an answer for this, and I don’t want to pretend that I do. I think that every person’s role in their community (both micro and macro) is unique-- and everyone’s ability to act is different. I think the best thing to be said is to urge others to be intentional.

How did you start loving animals? How did you decide to make helping animals your life’s work?

My work is the best consolation prize I’ve ever gotten. Did you know I was supposed to be an author? I wanted to be like Joan Didion in the 70s, but I forgot you had to actually write to make all the late nights, booze, and broken hearts worth it. Instead, I dropped out of college and kicked around Pittsburgh for a while before I adopted the first dog that was truly “mine,” Scout. I grew up in a house that always had dogs and cats around. Dad has gone to the Indianapolis 500 ever year for thirty-odd years and every year he came back we had some new animal we’d gotten Mom to fall in love with. When I moved back to West Virginia I kicked around the service industry for a while before I fell into a job at a veterinary hospital. I moonlit doing at-home dog sitting and quickly had more clients than I had space in my home. I bought the old, half-abandoned newspaper building at the end of my road and turned it into Dogwood Boarding.

What was it like to start your own business as a woman of Appalachia?

In a word: infuriating. It’s tough calling in a favor to meet with the President of the local bank to pitch your business idea only to find yourself, a 26 year old female, the only firm handshake in the room. Needless to say, I eventually found myself scraping together just enough to secure the building and I have been supporting myself and my business since two months of opening my doors.

What effect does your service with animals have on your community?

It’s a little dry to talk about in depth, but helping at-risk seniors free up food and financial resources by providing them with quality nutrition for their pets means they can spend those resources on themselves while also retaining the comfort of their companion.

Either from close or distant observation, how has that town changed?

Heroin. There’s always been dirt around here, but now it’s the kind of dirty you can’t walk barefoot in. There’s a tent city by the train tracks, and burned out single-wides by the grocery store. The church next to my house cut down all the trees our community planted in honor of WWII Gold Star Families because they didn’t want to rake the leaves any longer. No one that goes to that church lives around here. It’s cold and distant-feeling and sad, but I bought my childhood home-- the one my great-grandparents built-- and live there now. I still can walk to work and stop in for supper at my parents’ house. The name on the grocery store is different, but it’s still the same people wandering the aisles. The trees are still white with snow in January and the hills are always misty hiding the houses in the morning.

Odana’s family: Odana Dora (her grandmother), her mother Alberta, and her aunts posing for photos while harvesting to make wine.

Odana’s family: Odana Dora (her grandmother), her mother Alberta, and her aunts posing for photos while harvesting to make wine.

You created a pet food pantry. What inspired you to do so?

This story is deeply personal to those it is about, and I am still learning to talk about it in a way that is not poverty porn or self-congratulation.

Can you tell me more about your writing? What do you write about?

My writing is an act of trying to stay connected to a place that I sometimes feel is slipping away. Nostalgia is one of my greatest burdens and flaws, but I think it is important to illustrate that nostalgia does not always turn into the toxic otherism that we see so prevalent today. I try to bear witness to the diverse reality of Appalachia, and West Virginia in particular. Mountain sorrow seems to be pretty en vogue today and I have seen my fair share of class tourists taking up mantles they have not earned and rewriting the histories they never knew. I think it’s my responsibility as a woman of Appalachia to exist as loudly as I can in opposition to the men that talk about my home as if they know her.