Julia Wick | Longreads | November 7, 2014 | 11 minutes (2,674 words)

“I am bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes.” That’s the first line of Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poor Teeth,” which appeared on Aeon earlier this month. Like much of Smarsh’s work, “Poor Teeth” is a story about inequity in America. It is also a story about teeth, hers and her grandmother’s and also the millions of Americans who lack dental coverage.

Smarsh has written for Harper’s, Guernica and The Morning News, among other outlets. Her perspective is very much shaped by her personal experiences: She grew up in a family where most didn’t graduate from high school, and she later chaired the faculty-staff Diversity Initiative as a professor at Washburn University in Topeka. I spoke with her about her own path to journalism and how the media cover issues of class. 

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Class is really at the heart of your work. How has your perspective been shaped by your own experiences?

I’m native to the working class, which over the course of my Reagan-era childhood became the working poor. I’m from a long line of farmers, carpenters, factory and restaurant workers, and I’m the first person from my family to go to college—the first among the ones who raised me to finish high school, actually. So I have a built-in awareness of unchecked privilege or unasked questions and unheard voices, as relates to the economy, in any piece of writing.

Before I could read words, my mom was holding a coupon next to the canned nuts, telling me to run to the baking aisle to check the price on bulk walnuts. So, when I was a budding investigative reporter, nobody had to teach me to follow the money.

How do you see privilege manifesting itself in journalism?

Reporters often find themselves writing about social or political problems. Health, education, crime—the troubles in these sectors, largely, are the troubles of poor people. But most often those human subjects are talked about rather than spoken to. In choosing my sources I’m always conscious of whether I’m talking to official types or to people my grandma would call “common.” They’re experts in different ways, and while educated policymakers may know more about systemic solutions for, say, allotment of food stamps, you can bet your ass that the high school dropout who refuses to apply for food stamps knows more about the cost of food.

Also, media treatment of economic disparity as an issue distinct from other current events is itself symptomatic of privilege. Poverty isn’t a beat. Money is foundational to just about every human experience in our lopsided global economy. If you don’t realize that, you’ve probably never gone without it.

That’s a really powerful distinction you’ve brought up, between expert sources and those on the ground.

I’ve seen that many times, how journalism colleagues of mine will—by and large not consciously, I think—select the sharpest quotes from an interview with, say, a hospital spokesperson and conversely select the least flattering language from whatever sorry S.O.B. provides the anecdotal lede about not having health insurance. I’m sure I’m not immune to these things. Prejudice and projected narrative are forces in all of us. But I try to be aware of it, and that sometimes cracks the projection and lets someone else’s truth through. That’s one reason nonfiction is such a transformative art form. It allows—it requires—a honing in on specificity, where so many realities throw off the blanket fictions.

You do a really beautiful job of that in your essay “Poor Teeth.” Reading your piece I couldn’t help but think of Linda Tirado, whose essay “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense” went viral, and how she ended up removing her partial dentures on camera in a YouTube video in response to critics who had charged her with fabricating her story.

Yes, the most interesting thing to me about that was the incredulousness she was met with. Why was she called upon to essentially prove her story? I presume her story was met with such disbelief because it’s hard for some people to reconcile a certain level of intellect with a story of real poverty. Those two narratives are usually kept separate in media and pop culture. And if you believe those generalizations, that poor people are stupid, unemployed and lacking Internet access, then Tirado’s powerful argument essay blogged between work and college classes is either going to blast open some psychological schema or be labeled by your brain as fiction.

If there’s a lack of class diversity, specifically, among the voices we’re hearing, how do you see it affecting coverage of poverty as a whole?

There often is a tone in writing about the poor. There is a presumption that people of a certain class are mired in misery. When you’ve actually lived in those spaces, you can attest that there are plenty of beautiful and delightful things about being there. Blessings I wouldn’t trade for anything—freedom from expectation, the wildness of a childhood that wasn’t micromanaged, honesty and humor about one’s own dysfunctions where people with more to lose often spend time pretending to be perfect.

Most journalists, I’d wager, don’t have direct experience with poverty but are somewhat aware of their own privilege, and that translates to treating reporting of poverty preciously and yet at a distance—this pity tone, which is just an indirect outlet for their own fears and biases. Do you think you’re telling the untold story because you drove your own car into the ghetto to get some quotes and a few shots of shivering children for a 10-inch write-up on the cost of natural gas and a family who had their heat turned off? If you’d stuck around you might have seen that family build an electric-blanket fort in the middle of the living room, huddle over a game of Monopoly and crack up all night long about how screwed they are. You’re not qualified to pity anyone, and you’re not necessarily envied in the ways that matter most.

How can the media address these issues?

This is why we need more diverse voices in social discourse. Not the usual suspects aiming to give voice to them, but their own voices writing the stories. It’s no longer enough for even the most earnest upper- or middle-class white male reporter to write about marginalized or disadvantaged populations. We need writing from those populations, to witness them being all sorts of individual human beings. Access to higher education is the most crucial step toward that goal.

We also need diversification of sources—journalists asking themselves, who am I interviewing for this story? Who’s this professor I’m about to call? And then admitting, “Oh, heck, I’m terrifically liberal and even have two black friends, but what do you know, the source I planned to interview is another upper-class white dude who went to the Ivy League.”

Diversity among sources is one area where TV journalists are ahead of print journalists, I think, which is probably because they’re dealing with the visual, and many of the demographic markers we’re discussing are visually discernible. In print, since the race or background of the source usually is irrelevant, it’s not made known in the writing. But writers better make those efforts even though they’ll be less seen or congratulated for it.

Economic class also is a marker that isn’t always visually discernable.

When there’s a concerted effort toward diversification in any system, socioeconomic class is often forgotten for that reason. When I was an undergrad I benefitted from a federal program that encourages first-generation, low-income and minority students into graduate school and the academy. As a white person I was always the racial minority at those events and often would be asked to explain myself. When I was a graduate student at Columbia, I attended a diversity conference on campus, and a young woman said to me, “No offense, but why are you here?” I was glad she asked. I was yapping about diversity of class perspective any chance I could get, speaking at tuition protests on campus and the like. When I was a professor I chaired my university’s diversity initiative and made sure that class was included in the institutional definition of “diversity.” I’m heartened to see a swell of attention to this issue lately in academia, actually. If journalism, literature, publishing, all the letters are going to be enriched by direct perspectives of those who have lived on the so-called wrong side of the tracks, education is how it’s going to happen.

Tell me about how you got started as a reporter.

My first efforts at journalism happened when I was a kid tagging along with my grandma, Betty, at the county courthouse in downtown Wichita. She was a probation officer for the criminal courts, and we couldn’t afford a babysitter, so I roved all over this veritable Wichita skyscraper of eleven floors unsupervised, witnessing the drama of the courthouse. The new female D.A. was all shoulder-padded up, clicking across the marble lobby floor. Paroled murderers, drug dealers, sex offenders and such walked past me into my grandma’s office for meetings, and I’d eavesdrop—an experience that taught me the nuance of reality. I heard these broken men talking about their own victimizations and struggles. My grandma—who herself was the victim of many perpetrators over the years—would deliver tough love. She’d understand their reasons but not let them give excuses. She’d say, “Don’t give me that dysfunctional childhood bullshit. My family invented dysfunction.” But then she’d hug them and they’d shuffle off crying.

Betty wasn’t one to censor and, to keep me busy while she worked, she’d suggest I pore over her caseload files—all paper then, which is kind of noir-romantic now. I was eight, paging through grisly police reports about homicides while this great old judge—the first African-American judge for the county district court in Wichita—was smoking a cigar. I’d read files to bone up for that day’s trial, and Betty would give me a legal pad and tell me to take notes during the proceedings. Then I’d go through the public entrance to the courtroom and watch the court stenographer and Betty walk in through the bench entrance, followed by the judge. Betty would wink at me from the bench while I wrote down my observations of the defendant and arguments. Later I’d sit at her office typewriter and type up my “report” on district-court letterhead and present it for her review. Then we’d go back to her tiny place in poor-ville near downtown and watch cop shows all night. It was awesome.

Journalism has always been, at least to some degree, seen as a bastion of the elite, but it seems like an unfortunate side-effect of the industry’s current turmoil is that it’s raised the barriers to entry, where writers are asked to take an unpaid internship for six months before getting a job, or to write for free in exchange for “exposure.”

I feel like I’m a relatively young writer and that shift has happened within the course of my career. I entered J-school fifteen years ago. I took unpaid or underpaid internships, at great short-term sacrifice, but it was before digital had totally transformed everything, so at least there were a good number of salaried print and broadcasting jobs to hope for in the long-term. I actually never thought of journalism as an elite institution. I saw it as brave, justice-oriented types going out into the night and getting their hands dirty for a middle-class income.

Right out of college I got my first job making $25,000 dollars a year at an alt-weekly in Kansas City. I lived low-rent and pinched pennies, but I felt like the profession was delivering on its promise, that I’d get to reveal people and things through writing and get a little money for it. Now, as you note, the uprooting of the print industry and the scrambling for viable online business models has cut writing budgets so dramatically that an economy has arisen around this convenient idea that exposure alone is pay.

That’s a damaging shift if we care about diversity in the media, because it’s a very certain club that can work for free and still pay the bills.

So you started with an internship? How did you make it work?

My first internship was at the New York NBC affiliate in their investigative news unit. It was unpaid, and I’d always worked by necessity over the summer, but how could I miss the opportunity? A young alum of my J-school, a brilliant angel of a woman I’m still friends with, showed me this online invention called a listserv, specifically for communication among University of Kansas alumni in New York. She posted my plea for housing there. A native New Yorker who had gone to KU’s architecture school invited me to stay for free with him and his wife all summer in Brooklyn. I did all sorts of things to make it happen and still at a financial loss.

Let’s talk for a minute about your essay “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” It’s a literary personal essay about class, gender, work—and, at the story level, Hooters—all relayed as a dear daughter letter. How did you come up with that framing?

I almost always know the last line of something I’m writing before I write anything else. I heard the ending, and I knew the essay was about an integration of two things, the self and the child self.

I’d been thinking a lot about “your mom” jokes, which at times have genuinely cracked me up, along with “that’s what she said” and the like. I was realizing that, however funny they struck me in some ironic feminist way, at their heart those jokes are sexist degradation of the womb as a de-sanctified victim. Then it occurred to me that “dear daughter” letters—Maya Angelou, Tina Fey—were the opposite trope, a feminist declaration of the mother as protector of her womb’s sacred contents. I thought about the logical signature at the bottom of such a letter being “love, your mom,” and I saw the two things to be integrated in the essay—the joke and the letter.

The other thing about that piece that really struck me was the way that it was handled. In another publication the headline might have about been the working at Hooters part, which is such a small component of the story, and would have really stripped it of so much. But there was absolutely no click bait aspect to it.

When I wrote it I wasn’t really thinking of where it would run. It wasn’t until I finished that I realized, oh, this is a piece that publications will want to package salaciously around its built-in T&A storyline, even though it’s not an essay about working at Hooters. Many respected publications package even high-quality work with click-bait now. The piece at hand was the most sacred and vulnerable thing I’d ever sent into the world, and I knew I wasn’t going to let that sort of cynicism anywhere near it. That whittles down your list of places to pitch very quickly. I was really happy it landed at the Morning News. I asked that the headline not include the word “Hooters,” as I didn’t want it to become an advertisement, and that the image that ran with it not be related to the female physical form. Not to suggest that they would have done those things anyway, or even that it would be wrong in some context, but that’s what felt right for me, and they honored it.

While that’s on the gender point, I think there’s a lot of class commentary also inherent in negotiating how we’re packaged as writers, how our work is packaged. A lot of writing sort of sells out the self in order to get a paycheck, because that paycheck is needed. Which is kind of a literary parallel to working at Hooters. And I trust that the writers in that camp have their reasons. We’re all trying to figure out how to get fed.