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Sarah Smarsh covers Kansas and ‘Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth’

"The more uncomfortable I feel, the closer I must be to some truth."

A soybean farm in Kansas. CREDIT: Getty Images
A soybean farm in Kansas. CREDIT: Getty Images

I first came across Sarah Smarsh’s writing four years ago, when she published an essay called “Poor Teeth.” “I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes,” she wrote then, as she described the oppressive forces — economic, but also geographic and cultural — that kept millions of poor Americans from accessing basic dental care.

Her piece was about something that was, literally, right in front of my face. But I’d never seen put quite like this. Plainly but with fire, Smarsh wove stories about her family with clear-eyed analysis of health care legislation, making glaring how absurd it is to believe that what’s personal and what’s political aren’t inextricably linked. “My family’s distress over our teeth – what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake – reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition.”

At the time “Poor Teeth” came out, Smarsh was at least a decade into a project that would take her sixteen years to complete. Her book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, came out this September. In it, Smarsh traces her family’s lives across generations, from the three that came before her to the one she is determined won’t come after her.

Her book is written to an imagined daughter, August — imagined because Smarsh succeeds in not becoming a teenage mother and, in doing so, breaks with a kind of family tradition. But her story isn’t really about “getting out” or transcending the past; Smarsh still lives in Kansas, and her journalism is preoccupied with people like those with whom she grew up and the ever-expanding distance between wealthy and poor Americans.

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Heartland tracks her family’s experiences along a half-century’s worth of social and political change. She details how policies issued from afar altered the lives of Smarsh and her loved ones in the most personal, intimate ways. The morning after the midterm elections, Smarsh spoke with ThinkProgress about her writing, weaving her personal experiences into her journalism, and how it feels to see national media outlets’ sudden obsession with the place she grew up. 

Sarah Smarsh. CREDIT: Paul Andrews
Sarah Smarsh. CREDIT: Paul Andrews

It feels very serendipitous to be talking to you today, the day after the Midterms. How are you feeling?

Well, foremost, I’m over the moon that Laura Kelly, a Democratic woman and public schools advocate defeated infamous voter suppressor and Trump acolyte, Kris Kobach. My home Congressional district, the Kansas 4th, was a little bit of a heartbreaker, in that we had a great, first time candidate, working class progressive guy, who really gave the Republican incumbent a run for his money, but ultimately didn’t win after a long, hard campaign. But also I’m heartened, of course, by the victory that’s gained the most national attention: the first out lesbian representative from Kansas, and one of the first Native American women to go to Washington, Sharice Davids.

So from where I sit, it was kind of a mixed bag. But in terms of the health of my state, the governor race is the one I was most concerned about. So like many reasonable Kansans, including moderate Republicans, I am breathing a sigh of relief.

You framed your book, Heartland, as this letter to August — the daughter you didn’t have, but who you spent a lot of your life thinking about and worrying about. When in the writing process did you settle on that structure?

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I did not come to that until very late in the book’s development. I worked on this book for 16 years. While it has some synchronicity with the current political and cultural moment, it was certainly not conceived for that purpose.

And that dialogue that you’re referring to, between me and a would-be daughter born into poverty, was not contrived for the book. It was a real lived experience for me. Late in the writing process, pieces weren’t clicking together. It felt like something was missing. At the last hour, I had the classic creative epiphany. This deep, almost subconscious thing. This child I didn’t want to bring into poverty had everything to do with the themes of the book. And by letting the reader into that, the pieces of the narrative that weren’t quite flowing just clicked into place.

What is it like to have something so intimate out in the world? It seems to me like August is even more private or personal than the stories about your family members.

It remains excruciatingly uncomfortable. But I have found in my work as a non-fiction writer, and especially in the past few years, as i’ve been integrating a more personal testimony into my journalism, that the more uncomfortable I feel, the closer I must be to some truth.

I’m trying to integrate the public and private spheres that we often keep so separate when we discuss our lives. Ultimately, they’re all experienced as one. So I think that when we are able to bear witness at a very personal and intimate level to the most painful pieces of our personal trajectories, it can shine a really powerful light on, not just universal themes but downright contemporary, public and even political themes.

It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I feel like there’s this push among journalists who really want to be sure they sound “objective” to totally remove themselves and their lived experiences from their writing. But as you say, there’s value to doing just the opposite; there’s a way in which you can be more accurate when you’re more present in your work, and more up front about your biases and your life. How did you come around to writing this way?

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It was a pretty long road for me, coming to that approach. I was a member of the last class of my journalism school to receive a kind of, old fashioned, hardass newspaper training. I graduated from J-school in 2002, kind of the dawn of the digital era as we know it, at least in terms of media convergence. So I had a much more 20th century school of training that was, like you said, you keep your own ass out of it. There’s no first person usage in sight. And that is exalted as virtue.

I do find great virtue in that approach, in certain contexts. But what I came to realize as a daily “hard” news reporter, along the way, is we had enough of that. And we should still have it. But we have plenty, maybe more than we need, in terms of data-based information. And what we are sorely lacking is a context for that information to make sense or even, God forbid, be meaningful.

So I just felt like, paradoxically, while I had been trained to be very suspicious of letting my own story into non-fiction writing, by doing so, I ultimately decided I was being of best service to the genre in the current media landscape. Of course, we’re flooded with first person narratives now — that reached its zenith in the blog era, maybe for five years or so, when the first person confessional essay dominated digital creative spheres — but that’s not really what I did. I think what I did was spend years deeply researching and considering an issue and then, initially with some reluctance, fold my story into that, to augment its effect.

So much of what we know about our families comes to us like mythology. We get stories in which our parents and grandparents as archetypes, and their experiences are exaggerated for effect or simplified to make sense. Can you describe the process of reporting out your family story? What held up to your fact-finding and what didn’t?

Part of my challenge, setting out to write the book — which is very much a generational tale, in terms of my family as a story. It’s being called a memoir but it’s not just my perspective or story; a lot of the passages are constructed from years of interviews with my family members about events for which I wasn’t present or even born. Letters, archival research, court records, piecing together marriages and deaths, the timeline of a very poor family. In poor families, record keeping can fall by the wayside for other priorities, like daily survival. I had a bit of an uphill battle, just piecing together the chronology of my family.

Ingalls, Kansas 10-24-2014 A harvested field now is being burned to rid the field of any left over weeds prior to being replanted. Wind turbines are seen in the distance. Another form of a crop: wind energy. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Ingalls, Kansas 10-24-2014 A harvested field now is being burned to rid the field of any left over weeds prior to being replanted. Wind turbines are seen in the distance. Another form of a crop: wind energy. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

And compounding that was the fact that I come from a very stoic culture. A rural, midwestern, German, Catholic ethos is not one where people are walking around talking about their feelings, reflecting on what things mean. No one’s in therapy. And in part that’s because no one could afford it or had time for it, but it’s also just not the culture. So while I had this initial challenge of just piecing together a timeline from chaos, I also had the challenge of getting people from that world to talk to me about their deepest and darkest moments.

What I found was, if I formalized that interview process with my family members, it was useful in a number of ways. The first being, the people I love and who raised me, might be averse to touchy-feely conversations, but they do, 100%, respect work and the idea of work. If I showed up with a tape recorder and said, “this is me doing my job,” they were quite forthcoming.

They’ve always been incredible storytellers, but it turns out, they’re not secretive people; they’re just people of a class or place where no one had ever asked or cared, and they couldn’t believe anyone could want to know. And when I created the space for them, they were happy to do so. It was a long and at times painful process, and though it differed from day to day reporting in terms of the personal significance, the people I’ve always turned to in my journalism are people from a class and place where they aren’t used to being heard.

It seems, in some ways, that the region where you grew up is now getting a ton of attention. You say that you’ve interviewed people who are “from a class and a place where they aren’t used to being heard,” so I’m curious if this post-2016 experience has been something like overnight celebrity for an entire group of people. What do you make of the coverage, a lot of which comes from reporters who aren’t local but are sent in by national outlets based in New York or D.C., of your home?

I think the limitations of “parachute journalism” are inevitable, and you can have a damn good, well-intentioned reporter from New York swooping into rural Iowa, and doing a good job or a bad job, but the best possible job in that situation is still going to be lacking.

I just find that people who don’t have direct ownership or experience of the place that I’m from, or class, often ask the wrong questions, and that’s how we end up with the wrong sort of stories. instead of constantly and erroneously asking, “Why did we all vote for Trump?” Maybe the question is, “Why did white people at every income level vote for Trump at the same rate?”

It has been frustrating for me to watch the long overdue attention to my home be highly politicized and often with a misleading framework. The constant references to so-called “Trump country” or the notion of the white working class as “Trump’s base.” I’ve written at length in the last few years about how I find those framings really convenient for middle and upper class suburban whites whose aunts and uncles live by golf courses and, I suspect, voted for Trump, too. It comes across to me, at the very least, as a subconscious scapegoating, and at worst, a directly classist approach to covering the news.

There’s definitely been good work along the way. And the best work is when newsrooms in the media power centers attempt to harness journalists and reporters on the ground for national coverage, since those people already know the communities and might have been laid off by their local paper ten years ago, but they’re still on the ground with the tools to get the story right. I’ve seen those efforts and that’s heartening, as a member of the news media. But on the whole, it actually feels less problematic to remain invisible than to be misrepresented.

Hearing you say that reminds me of the part of your book where you write about how you were required to list your mom and her husband’s joint income on your federal aid applications, since your grandparents, with whom you lived, hadn’t legally adopted you. Your “actual need,” as you write, qualified you for Pell Grants that wouldn’t need to be repaid, but because of your mom’s husband’s small income, you could only get federal loans with subsidized interest:

“That excruciating experience was a formative one, I see now. I started my college career needing something I didn’t get because the need went unacknowledged on a form that didn’t ask the right questions.”

It makes me think about how so many of these forms and structures and questions that we think of as being objective or inevitable, like they fell from the sky, were actually the creation of individual people, who bring with them their blind spots and biases and are going to miss things and make mistakes.

Totally, because it’s college-educated, presumably well-off people who construct something like a federal aid application for would-be college students. What you’re referring to is that need formula that presumes that a kid’s parents are paying for her college, and I was, by way of generations of teen pregnancy, largely raised by my maternal grandmother. When you factor in a brief marriage by my young mother to a guy with a modest but stable salary, and the federal government requires me to list his income on my aid application when I’ve been living with my grandparents since age 11, that was a real wake-up call to me.

I couldn’t have, at age 18, articulated it as well as you did, the structures that are created and then maintained by powerful people. But I could feel it. I felt there was something that was unfair. And I wrote about it for the student newspaper, and it touched a nerve. I knew I was onto something, starting to question even seemingly liberal forces maintaining the social order.

As you write in your book and just pointed out now, you felt class long before you had the language for it. It reminds me a bit of women who’ve said #MeToo made them recategorize events in their lives and apply the word “assault” in contexts they hadn’t known it applied. When did you become aware of class and see where your upbringing fit into that bigger picture?

I’m not sure i even know what that word meant, in any real way, until I was in college. I remember reading some 19th century British novels that were required in some sort of literature class when I was in high school, and “class” was front and center in the text, and I was totally not getting it. Even as I was living very severely the effects of class inequality in this country. Yeah, it was a lack of language, and our country as a society not facing up to its reality, which is, it turns out, not a meritocracy, but rather increasingly, an oligarchy, and at the very least, a historically wealth-unequal place.

One thing your book made me think about is the ways in which women in poverty are particularly vulnerable: to danger, to hardship, to having their lives upended. I think I understood that just instinctively — that it’s harder to be a woman no matter what class you’re in — but you really get into the details of how gender exacerbates the hardships and limitations of a life in poverty. You explore that through all the generations of women in your book. What did you learn about that in your research and writing that was new to you, after having lived it yourself?

You began with a about the framing device for the book, this letter to the daughter I didn’t have. And that’s having to do with my biology, making me a potential child-bearer, and how that intertwined with my experience of my family’s story. I sensed that, as I talk about in the book, at an almost cellular level, but I didn’t quite understand it until I made the journey of research and conversations with my mom and grandma.

A lot of people ask me, why did you “break the cycle” and they didn’t? And the way that I look at it is, my mother, for example, she and I have many commonalities in terms of intellect and creative disposition. So one pretty clear demarcation line is she got pregnant when she was 17 and I didn’t.

But maybe to put a finer point on it, I think that there is required, in the progress of a group, a generations-long eeking out of wins and gains. So just in the last three generations of my family, you have my grandmother, who largely raised me, who was a physically battered young wife in a world where there was, not only no Violence Against Women Act, but no cultural acknowledgment of domestic violence, and that was all of 40, 50 years ago. There was no Title IX ensuring that she would be protected in various ways in a professional or academic space. And so, as soon as Title IX came along, she was a woman in her early thirties, and she seized a federal grant to get training to do office work, and she got her first job where she didn’t have to break her back physically.

My mom, a young mom in the early 1980s in a rural place, was living those realities before the Family Medical Leave Act. So for her, while Roe v Wade had come along by the time she got pregnant, we were still very much in a moment where the female role as mother was sanctified and leveraged by conservative forces to keep women from economic progress.

And these are things that, as a kid, you live the effects of, but you don’t understand or see. I came to understand, even the 17 years between my mom’s childhood and mine, that’s the difference between a male history teacher feeling entirely in the right not calling on little Jeannie and happily calling on little Sarah in 1990 and telling her she can be whatever she wants to be.

Of course, I faced sexism and all kinds of hurdles for my gender, and sadly, we might have already had a regressive swing, where little girls after me might have had a harder time than I did. I think I happened to come along at a sweet spot: the gains of the feminist movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s had taken hold, and the conservative backlash against women had not yet made major gains. Understanding through the research how vulnerable we are as individuals to those immense structural and systemic forces, it was very humbling. My story isn’t about individual triumph; it’s about generations of women.

This is unrelated, but I’m really interested in your thoughts as “farm” as an aesthetic — the Joanna Gaines-y-ness of it all. What is it like to see your lived identity as an affectation among wealthier people? What do you make of all these farmhouse weddings, thrown by people who have never lived on a farm? Is that cultural appropriation? Is it dopey but harmless? Is it “American” and therefore belonging to anyone?

I actually talked about this a little bit in an interview I did with Longreads, and I talk about this a little bit in the book. I don’t think it would be a stretch at all to call it cultural appropriation. Personally, I’m not necessarily angered by a well-off person, orchestrating a “rustic farm” wedding that costs $40,000, but I do sort of shake my head at it, and I find it ironic and troubling, that a lot of times the people who are attempting to affect a farm-chic aesthetic in their suburban homes would also be people who would look down on my family or make fun of the place that I’m from.

I’m not psychologist, but I’ve done a bit of theorizing about what might be at work in this strange paradox. I think, on the one hand, there is a sentimentalizing of rural America as a pastoral scene. But that’s always been the case. I think what’s new is that there is, in a moment of historic wealth inequality, a sense of unease among the privileged about their disconnect from the land and the earth, and they might themselves only be two or three generations removed from a farm. It might seem like distant memory, but 100 years ago, we were a more rural society than an urban one. I think that generational memory is what some people are reaching out for. That’s in the realm of like, turning your suburban house into a faux-farm where nobody is doing farm work.

There’s also a style parallel to this that might be a little bit more overtly insulting to me, when there are fashions or styles that mimic poverty, essentially. It’s hard not to be gagged by, like a dirty-wash jean that costs $300 but my father, leaving a construction site, with jeans that are dirty from work, will be poorly treated by someone at a place of business for his appearance.

It’s like how people learn slang on the internet divorced from its context — how a white person doesn’t need to know any black people to pick up black slang on the internet, and then use it stripped of its context in their own lives. You don’t actually need to go to a farm to know what the farm “look” is. You can just see it on Pinterest.

I think that’s a great point. And a good moment for me to say, I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is intentional or even self-aware. It’s more often a subconscious but dangerous blind spot to class that can result in problematic appropriations, media narratives, policies and stereotypes.