Border Belt People: Jessica Cory brings awareness to Lumbee literature

By Kerria Weaver

Jessica Cory, a lecturer at Appalachian State University, grew up hearing about the Lumbee tribe from her mother-in-law, who grew up in Robeson County.

These stories inspired her to write about the significance of tribal history.

The Border Belt Independent spoke with Cory about her writing and her interest in the Lumbee tribe.

Q. When did you become interested in writing and what made it interesting to you?

I’ve been writing creatively since I was little. I learned to read really early and remember writing short poems when I was 7 or 8. My mom had a typewriter because she was taking night classes to become a paralegal when I was young. Sometimes she’d let me type my poems on her typewriter, which I thought made them more “official.” I began writing scholarship in my BA program and Ohio University. What interested me about entering into these scholarly conversations was how passionate people were about sometimes very niche areas.

Q. Do you have a favorite topic or genre you like to write about?

I really like to explore notions of place and placemaking in both my creative and scholarly writing. I’ve become interested in how our bodies inhabit certain places, even when we (or those places) are not in physical contact anymore. Recently, I’ve also been connecting ideas of disability to space and how spaces are inhabited (or not) and by whom. In thinking about places, I generally consider the layered histories of places as well, given that my academic training has largely been in African American and Native American literature, particularly environmental literatures.

Q. When it comes to creative writing, is there a particular thing that inspires or gives you an idea on what you will write about?

Oftentimes, my childhood memories are starting points. Other times, items in the news or events will spark something. Sometimes, as angsty-teen as it sounds, I’ll write as an outlet for emotions I’m not sure how to put into words. For example, I’m on the spectrum a bit and don’t always verbalize or show emotion well, so when my dad passed, I channeled a lot of that grief into my writing.

Q. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment when it comes to your writing and research?

Probably managing to balance writing and research (along with teaching four or five classes a semester) while maintaining some semblance of a family life. It’s a tricky balance at times and I have an incredibly supportive spouse and academic community.

Q. When and why were you interested in writing about the Lumbee tribe?

My mother-in-law lives in Tarboro now, but she grew up in Robeson County in Fairmont, where her parents worked as a teacher and principal. She’s not Lumbee but hearing her stories about growing up in the area really piqued my interest about the Lumbee people. In taking courses in and studying Native American literature, I also noticed a gap in representation. While I was reading some really amazing and talented writers, very few were Indigenous to lands claimed by North Carolina, and I wanted to learn more about the native peoples and nations whose lands we occupy.

Q. Did this interest inspire you to write “The Politics of Recognition and the Power of Place in Lumbee Women’s Poetry?”

Absolutely! Once I began diving into Lumbee literature, I was really struck by the themes of recognition, unity, and connection to certain places in Robeson and surrounding counties, and so those became the lenses I used to analyze these wonderful poems, but these and other works by Lumbee writers deal with additional topics and complexities too. My goal in thinking about these poems isn’t to speak over or for the Lumbee writers who crafted these important works, but rather to bring more attention to them so that Lumbee literature can be more widely appreciated and included in discussions of North Carolina literature and Native American literature more broadly.

Q. How did it feel to win UNCG’s Keith Cushman Graduate Prize for Scholarly Publications?

I was honestly SUPER surprised! But I’m glad that the judges of the contest appreciate the attention I’m trying to bring to Lumbee women’s writing, particularly poetry. That was really heartening to see.

Q. What do you hope people will gain from reading your work? What do you hope people will gain from reading “The Politics of Recognition and the Power of Place in Lumbee Women’s Poetry?”

I‘m really just hoping to bring more attention to Lumbee literature and writers. There is a wealth of Lumbee literature but it doesn’t always receive the recognition and inclusion on reading lists that it should.

Q. Thinking ahead into the future, where do you see yourself when it comes to writing?

I have several scholarly pieces in the pipeline right now, including a couple about the need to teach Indigenous writers in Appalachian Studies courses, as well as a couple of creative nonfiction essays I’m working on. One of those creative pieces focuses on the role of mulberries and mulberry trees in my life and the other considers living in Appalachia and grieving its environmental changes while grieving my own bodily changes due to the chronic (sometimes invisible) disabilities of Mast Cell Activation Disorder and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos.

Q. What topics are you interested in doing further research on and writing about?

I would love to expand this essay into a larger project that incorporates discussions of Lumbee fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature (which I touch on briefly in the essay and which Dr. Jane Haladay expands on a great deal in her essay that’s published in the same issue). I would also love to connect with Lumbee writers to learn more about the role that literature plays in their lives and communities.

Appalachian State University professor Jessica Cory with her book on Native American women’s poetry. Submitted photo