“Most newsrooms have an enormous blind spot about class,” says journalist and author Sarah Smarsh as she speaks at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. She’s touring the country for her first book about her upbringing which happens to smash stereotypes about her home state of Kansas and rural life in America.
Smarsh is unassuming. Constantly prefacing, “speaking for myself,” she’s not interested in being a spokesperson or in explaining a region or stratum of the white working-class. In fact, Smarsh explains that painting monoliths and reducing entire areas to one-dimensional tropes such as “Trump country” is precisely what’s wrong with dominant media narratives.
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a gripping account traversing family, poverty, geography, history, and public policy. It’s already been longlisted for a National Book Award and is a Kirkus Prize finalist. Smarsh captures the experience of poverty in the deftest of prose: “I knew how to compare prices on tags before I knew how to read words.”
Smarsh is focused on telling a true story about her family and where she grew up. She’s hesitant to make grand prescriptions. Yet, in simply telling her story, Heartland holds up a mirror to our nation, complicating its myths and narratives.
I had a chance to speak to Sarah Smarsh about her book. The interview included below has been condensed and edited for clarity. For the full interview, please listen to the audio here:
Daniel José Camacho, Sojourners: You researched and wrote this book over the course of 15 years. What kept you motivated?
Sarah Smarsh: You know it felt like such an imperative at a deep level that I'm not sure I sensed that I even had a choice … It was maybe less of a challenge seeking motivation than it was just a challenge for delivering on something I knew I had to do at all costs. So even when I was a little kid I would tell my grandmother specifically — who is a large character in the book — that I was going to write a book about our family someday … For me the motivation was never lacking or the inspiration or wherewithal. It was just more tangible resources like finances and even time.
Camacho: We learn a lot about your family in this book. How did it feel to shift from journalistic writing to writing something that is very vulnerable?
Smarsh: Early in my career as a writer, I had a sort of bifurcated writer's self. There was the journalist in me that was, in some ways, kind of a mercenary and that went out and applied my writing skills for a paycheck, but also because I believe in the media and I wanted to be a sort of government watchdog. And then there was this much more private and personal writer self that was writing memoir passages and tucking those away in a drawer, returning to them when I had the time … what you or readers might sense as “you're a journalist now turning to more personal writing,” that really just reveals that one piece of the writer puzzle was out in the public and the other wasn't yet.
As far as the contrast of those experiences, I had a little bit of practice for this sort of book launch. For about the last five years, I started shifting toward a more first-person driven and personalized journalism. I came out of a very traditional journalism school … was a member of the last class of my school that had just kind of an old fashioned hard-ass newspaper training. This is just right before all of the multimedia convergence sort of came in and transformed university curricula. I was absolutely taught to not use the first-person. You keep your own ass out of there … And so the real conflict for me in these two different approaches to writing was allowing myself to come into writing that was ultimately about public issues and policy and the politics on some level, and to let my own family story and voice be integrated into the more fact-based writing.
Camacho: What do you think is the biggest misconception that others have about Kansas and where you grew up?
Smarsh: If you would have asked me this question 10 years ago, I might have had a different answer. But right now, I think the most common misconception would be that the entire state is white and conservative; let's say, Trump's base. Living on the ground in a place like Kansas or anywhere that's cast as “Trump Country,” one knows firsthand that these are actually diverse places in race, culture, politics, and every other way just like blue states are. And so that has definitely informed some of my essays in the last few years.
Camacho: You write that being white working class means containing both racial privilege and economic disadvantage. For example, you write about how your ancestors migrated west as a result of what you call "profit-motivated propaganda" that was less about developing farmers and more about commodifying the land and exploiting immigrant labor. Yet, you also argue that your pioneer ancestors were complicit in the government-sanctioned genocide of indigenous people. How do you make sense of your heritage in light of this complicated history?
Smarsh: It is a complicated one isn't it? And they all are, of course. When I was a kid … my dad, who was a fourth-generation wheat farmer and a carpenter, bought a little piece of land just a couple of miles from that exact same piece of dirt that he himself grew up on. And he was going to build a new house for my pregnant mother, 4-year-old me, and himself. This would be where he raised his family. In digging the foundation, he found arrowheads, which is a common feature of the Midwestern landscape. Our part of Kansas was only about 50 miles or so north of the Oklahoma line … that was the line between the Kansas territory and "Indian territory,” which was where indigenous tribes were basically forced to move by the young federal United States government.
I remember my dad telling me somewhere along the way — he's a white working-class dude, the image of some stereotypes that people hold about conservative politics or racism. And actually, that is not my dad at all. He told me how stunned he was and moved at that moment, finding those arrowheads. He, like me, was a descendent of people who were themselves immigrants and impoverished, and they answered a call to essentially move west and take supposedly free land in the Homestead Act from the federal government. This benefited them while the tribes that had been there for centuries were driven out.
In any story, I always place the greatest culpability on whoever has the greatest power in the situation. And in that situation, it would be the government, corporate, railroad, and other factions, not the poor European immigrants. However, it is a complicated history because they were also white and benefited from that. So my dad said to me he found these arrowheads and it struck him like, “wow this government and the people we come from did some bad things.” “And you don't have to have a college education to know that” — I remember him saying that. So how do I make sense of it? I just try to express the truth of the stories that I have witnessed firsthand, some of which go against what we're told in textbooks or national discourse or cable news. My goal is never so much to make sense of anything as it is to just convey it and let it be whatever it is.
Camacho: In several instances, you also bring up your Roman Catholic background and you describe growing up around a highly embodied expression of faith. A people bonded, it seems, more deeply through labor than through dogma. The body and the suffering of Jesus was central and more than a metaphor. And you also describe a of Midwestern Catholic “ethos of silence,” which discouraged complaining. Can you say more about the role that religion plays in your experience?
Smarsh: I can only speak for myself and other people who are also under the umbrella of white working class will have very different experiences. But my very German, Catholic, stoic, rural Midwestern culture that I come out of was, like you say, very tactile in its spirituality. There wasn't this uncomfortable merging of the political sphere and the religious sphere. I think that in the last couple of decades the religious right has really achieved breathtaking success in leveraging various social issues to ensure that people, who might otherwise vote Democrat, now vote Republican.
That sort of proselytizing or being in the context of a church and then receiving some message about how I was supposed to vote did not happen in my upbringing. And I don't know if it was because it hadn't happened as a cultural shift yet or because our rural remoteness made us a little bit late to some trends. But for me, Catholicism was every Sunday morning going a couple miles down the two-lane, country, blacktop highway to attend mass in a small clapboard 200-year-old church that my ancestors, who farmed that same land generations ago, had built themselves. My paternal grandfather rebuilt the steeple in the 1950s when my dad was a kid. My dad and his five siblings all went to school in the little school house next to it. It had closed by the time I was a kid. That's where I had all my sacraments. My parents were married there. It was where we buried my grandparents on my father's side. It was where on Labor Day this very small farming community gathered for an annual picnic.
Back in the ‘40s, in that same spot, my grandpa — who was a bit of a wild guy— would build a dance floor, sort of like a little deck right there on the prairies so that people could dance under the stars of the Labor Day gathering. The church was a physical place and it was a gathering point. Yeah, we went inside and genuflected, stood up and sat down and repeated our memorized prayers in unison. But nobody ever, in my upbringing, was going around talking about dogma or wagging a finger about religious right or wrong or passing some sort of politicized judgment on any other group of people. In that way, it was a very quiet faith.
For me, it was experienced in a deeply personal way. I did leave the Church in my mid-20s. But there were some really beautiful things about it. And as you mentioned, the physicality of Christ on the cross really — I think now when I look back as an adult — spoke to us because he had blood running out of his hand on the cross and my dad had blood running out of his hand from where he accidentally drove a nail into it when he was working on a construction site. So it made sense to us in a very literal way.
Camacho: You talk about your mom and how she voted for Jimmy Carter. You also share that you were born a few months before Reagan's inauguration. What you say is that your life and the economic demise of American workers kind of unfolded in tandem. In many ways when reading your memoir, I felt like it was exposing a lot of failures of neoliberal policies that soon followed. And you do that really through concrete human stories. What would you think would be an alternative economic system or approach? Or as you put it towards the end of the book, what would an "honest economic system" look like for you?
Smarsh: I would leave it to people who have studied such things to articulate the specifics of how to accomplish it. But I can say that what would be true in action in the sort of society that I envision or aspire to at the end of the book would be that every child would have something that reflected more of this American Dream that we're telling ourselves … rather than the current, essentially, plutocracy and capitalism-gone-wild world that we're sending underprivileged children into with the notion that if they work hard they're going to reap their due reward.
So maybe that would look like free public college for everyone. Something like that at once solves the problem of kids who can't afford that sort of education if desired and also remove the stigma of meeting need if it's available to everyone. To some extent.
I think too — this is kind of another no brainer to me — some sort of regulation that reins in the CEO pay or underpayment at least of their workers that has resulted in this historic moment of wealth inequality. I find that the neoliberal idea is so often about public programs. And whether they're (neoliberals) in cahoots with Wall Street in the meantime is another conversation. But the late 20th century, early 20th century liberalism is … it is almost more like a sense of charity among the privileged like “yes, please tax me because I'm very grand and I want the poors to be able to have the service.” But when you are the person who is going to need to go apply for public programs and you're going to need to pee in a cup in order to do so, somehow it feels less like support than it feels like somebody throwing some change at you.
Meanwhile on the conservative end of the spectrum, this idea that the free market is some sort of just system is even more absurd and insulting. Where I think we should be focusing our energy and maybe even uniting across these divides, and you might even call them the philosophical divides, is — why don't we just pay working people more money? The majority of people who receive public assistance in this country are employed. They might be part-time employed by Walmart and then not be able to pay their bills and receive public assistance by way of taxpayers just to survive so that they can go on laboring for Walmart's profit. I think that a lot of these conversations that paint solving poverty as this great mystery — apparently, they're just being had by people who, deep down, don't want to solve it. Because I can tell you how to solve it: give people money. End. The end. Give people money. Over. Fixed.