Angela Chen | Longreads | September 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)
“I was born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer,” writes Sarah Smarsh, “roots so deep in the country where I was raised that I rode tractors on the same land where my ancestors rode wagons.”
In her memoir Heartland, Smarsh tells the story of four generations of that Kansas family. The book reaches back to a great-grandmother working multiple jobs and beaten by her husband, but is addressed to a future generation that will never be: Smarsh’s unborn daughter August.
Smarsh, the daughter of a teenage mother who is the daughter of a teenage mother, “was on a mission toward a life unlike the one I was handed.” August is a theoretical child born during Smarsh’s teenage years, whose very existence would have continued the line of teenage motherhood and derailed Smarsh’s mission. August is at once a guiding principle (“what would I tell my daughter to do?”) and a symbol of the poverty Smarsh worked to escape.
Heartland is the story of a family and the story of a class in America, an explanation to August of all she would have inherited and lost. I spoke to Smarsh by phone between New York and Kansas, where she lives. We discussed the invisibility of class, how “the country” has become a clichéd set of imagery, and how politicians on the left can reach alienated voters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Angela Chen: You write that you worked on this book for 15 years, which of course means you were writing it long before you sold it. Was there a moment when you knew you had to do this project?
Sarah Smarsh: I received my first research grant to work on the family history portion of this project in 2002, and so there are passages in there literally written then, when I was a senior in college. Many of those family stories — like the passage about my Grandfather Arnie’s death — were written when they were very fresh, and I knew they were going to build into a book although I didn’t know exactly what shape that would be. I finished my nonfiction MFA at Columbia in 2005. This had been my MFA thesis, and I spent the next decade unsuccessfully trying to get agent representation and a book deal, taking full-time jobs to make ends meet in the meanwhile.
But when it comes to the seed of the book, or being called to write about it, that happened in childhood. My Grandma Betty, one of the main characters of my story, tells me that she remembers a time when we were driving and I was in the passenger seat and I was eight, and I said, “Grandma, someday I’ll write a book about you.” The most touching part is that when she told me, I asked her, “did you believe me when I said that?” And she said, “yes, I did, I just knew you would.” Even though we weren’t a bookish family, my mom being really the only reader in the whole crew other than myself, I had this compulsion or calling, and apparently it seemed plausible enough that she thought it would come to pass, and 30 years later it did.
If a large faction of the country is claiming that you don’t have a fair grievance, that is an incredibly difficult psychological tension to bear.
Was there a particular family member that was hardest to write about? That you wanted to shield, knowing the stereotypes and prejudices that people already have against the poor?
Always, even when writing about perfect strangers, I have real — maybe even higher than is professionally advised — empathy for my sources. I often write about people who are not used to being written about or are marginalized by society. Often, they are at once so happy to share their stories and have someone care, and at the same time maybe don’t understand what it means to have your story be read by so many people. So I always try to say, over and over, this is what I’m understanding and this is how I’m going to present it, does it feel right to you?
This was a process of so many years with my immediate family that I felt very confident about their blessings. But I will say that with my stepparents in particular, I was writing about them in the context of my upbringing, and that necessarily means there’s a more narrow glimpse of them by way of events that involve my own life. I don’t regret anything that I presented, but I feel sensitivity to the fact that they have much bigger stories that put their own decisions and lives into a more whole and compassionate context, stories that just by necessity couldn’t appear in the book.
Early on, you talk about how we have this deep lack of awareness about class. You write: “The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.” How did this understanding — or lack of it — arise? Who was telling you there wasn’t a problem?
That’s a two-part answer. One is that my family was saying class wasn’t a problem. That could be regional or cultural. I was raised in a rural German Catholic Midwestern family and also I was a child and there was not really a childhood anywhere around me where adults are asking children, “how do you feel?” It was just silence in the face of facts that should have been more acknowledged.
The second part of that answer is that, at a much bigger level, society and American culture deny that class is even a thing in this country. Unlike in the United Kingdom, where class is a complicated but more accessible and older discussion, the U.S. was founded on this premise of equality and meritocracy. Along the way, we have begun to reckon with certain holes in that — certainly along lines of race and gender — but class is a later arrival in that discussion of correcting notions about this country as a place where everyone has an equal and fair shot. If you are growing up on the losing end of some sort of inequality, if a large faction of the country is claiming that you don’t have a fair grievance, that is an incredibly difficult psychological tension to bear.
You mention that your family thought you were middle-class, though in retrospect you know you grew up in poverty. If you thought you were middle class, who did you consider to be poor?
Not that this came up often, but I think we thought we were middle class because we didn’t starve and we weren’t homeless. There was never, not once, a moment growing up when I thought of myself as poor. In fact, still, every time I say “grew up in poverty,” I feel this inner reluctance to even use that terminology. Partly it’s because we have such terrible language and definitions for discussing these experiences, but also because there’s a part of me that feels like it’s a disservice to people who are homeless for me to say “poor.”
But in the context of this country and even by just the very technical definition that the federal government comes up with, yes, we were in poverty. It’s one of the reasons that class is such a difficult discussion. It’s hard to define and when you add in a layer of denial, it becomes nearly impossible to see.
What would it look like for a country girl today, to be aware of class? How would that change her, even though awareness alone wouldn’t make the poverty go away?
I had wondered this before. I grew up at the last breath of the pre-digital moment. Now, it’s increasingly the case that even kids out in the country have access to the Internet, and this of course shifts their awareness of where they are in the various pecking orders that society prescribes. I think that since I was an ambitious and information-hungry kid, I would have been all over that Internet. I probably would have, in this moment, been following the various kinds of socioeconomic justice movements that are going on and I would have recognized something about my life and struggle.
Now whether that would have motivated me with a sort of hopeful activism or been demoralizing, I don’t know. I will say that in the end, I’m actually really grateful that, growing up, I didn’t realize how screwed I was. I felt the “being screwed,” I felt the disadvantage in my day-to-day life, but I didn’t impose any particular meaning, it was just life as I knew it. Perhaps that allowed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other with just a completely unreasonable optimism, which in many ways is one of the things about my individual disposition that allowed me to beat some of the odds.
While factors like gender and race and sexual orientation continue to impact the outcomes, ignoring economics and that plight is basically saying… ‘you don’t deserve any help because you have no frickin’ excuse for your poverty.’
Nowadays, “country” isn’t just a place, it’s tied to an image, like long beards and being pro-life and pro-guns. How did “country as an image” develop? What’s the effect of people who aren’t country adopting this image?
I think that in this moment of historic wealth inequality, there is almost an envy of the working class. There’s maybe a sense of guilt for one’s own privilege and affluence, and even some romanticization of manual labor that is problematic in many ways. Perhaps these style affectations are part of that. I think there might be an undercurrent of people of means who, rather than being ostentatious, are subconsciously attempting to downplay their own unfair advantage in the world.
As a result, places like Walmart sell pre-torn jeans. These styles of clothing meant to evoke poverty or wear are now sold new at the same stores where people — who have no other option of nice, sparkly, new expensive things — shop. It’s so perverse. Just by necessity, I kept from our farmhouse pieces of furniture and now brand-new, knock-off versions of these things are peddled by Magnolia Homes and Joanna Gaines via HGTV. One part of me finds it funny and then part of me is like, “do you really want to live on a farm? Because if you do, you’re gonna have to get off your ass and do a lot more than you probably are doing in this fancy home that is ‘farmhouse chic.’”
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Do you see it as a form of appropriation? I know plenty of upper-middle-class people who wouldn’t dream of, for example, wearing a qipao, but are happy to have a “farmhouse wedding.”
My personal disposition is that I don’t personally get angry about this, but yes, absolutely. It speaks to an extent to which class is still invisible. Many people who would have a rustic farm-style wedding on which they spend $40,000 would never affect some sort of style that they understood to be associated with a race or culture other than their own.
Take the trend of “barnwood” furniture. Barns to me are symbols of the past and beautiful relics of the landscape that I occupy and now there are hard-up carpenters from the same class roving the countryside and finding barns to tear down so they can build coffee tables and put them on Facebook Marketplace for upper-middle-class people and say “this is made out of barnwood from Oklahoma.” It’s beautiful and I have a coffee table made of it, but I live in this place and I grew up working in barns. It’s a little different.
Regarding weddings, we’re at this moment when big-ag and corporations have destroyed family farms across the country for decades. This is not remotely a new story. But while people of means in cities most often turned a blind eye to that issue, now they want to be farmers for a day and hold their expensive wedding. Some ranchers I know are now augmenting their inadequate income as working ranchers by offering their home as an event space over the weekend. That’s their own choice and they may find it wonderful, but I personally think it speaks to a deep disconnect in our culture between the reality of the working poor and rural America and people outside of that who, in my experience, simultaneously make fun of that culture and appropriate its physical touchstones.
One recurring theme in your book is that invisibility and erasure leads to shame. For example, in college, which is ostensibly the place where people have “made it,” there weren’t resources for people like you, only for people of color or sexual minorities or international students. What sort of changes should be we making to combat this erasure? And how do we make sure that we’re not stigmatizing people who need those resources?
In early adulthood, we separate two groups of people into the “educated” and the “uneducated” and that is a huge line in the sand in so many American lives in terms of what their outcomes are going to be. While factors like gender and race and sexual orientation continue to impact the outcomes, ignoring economics and that plight is basically saying, “all of these issues about our lives matter except for capitalism.” It is saying, “you don’t deserve any help because you have no frickin’ excuse for your poverty.” Of course, that’s not how it works.
I was a professor for five years, and in my service work in academia I was always pushing for definitions of diversity to be expanded to include socioeconomic class, which of course intersects with everything else. For me, the ultimate solution would be free public college for everyone, regardless of household income, rich or poor. The beauty of that is that it simultaneously corrects the problem and removes the stigma of need.
Who is showing up for someone’s vote goes a long way, especially in communities that have a lot more to do with old-fashioned handshakes than some more urban environments.
One issue you address directly is also one that is a big question of the moment: Why do the rural working poor vote Republican?
This has so many layers. The Republican Party saw an opportunity among that demographic and the Democratic Party decided not to acknowledge it. Just the sheer force of attention is huge in this discussion and who is showing up for someone’s vote goes a long way, especially in communities that have a lot more to do with old-fashioned handshakes than some more urban environments. Conservatives have successfully and artfully claimed that space and people who are born there are no different than someone who was born into a liberal enclave in New York City. It’s easy to get on our high horse about liberal ideas from a different place, but if these same people had been born into it, I’m not sure of the likelihood they would be saying something different. I do think that often people’s political affiliations and votes have more to do with group culture and where they’re from than with a real, examined and informed foundation.
There are myriad ways that “country life” is socialist: asking your neighbor to help you pull a broken-down tractor out of the field, checking on the old lady down the dirt road because her husband died ten years ago and she lives three miles away from any other neighbor. Community is incredibly important in a rural context. However, simultaneously, there is a sense of geographic and economic removal from basically all the places that politics and public policy happen. In such a way, it is easy for Republicans who want to tear down government to weaponize that and make government the bad guy.
These are people who are not on Twitter all day dissecting politics, they’re by and large trying to survive every day and probably not even watching the news in the evening because they’re so tired and disgusted with their lives that they just want some entertainment. In that life, which those of us who are part of the chattering class can forget, it is possible for there to be a large distance between what you really believe and what you live out in your day-to-day life and the party that you say you’re for and who you vote for.
When I got to college, I gained a formal understanding of all these aspects of political discourse. That created a shift in my politics but it wasn’t as though my beliefs about people changed. I always loved all people. I genuinely thought that because of where I was from and very limited information sources that affirmative action was unfair. When I got to college and learned that your outcomes in life are statistically impacted by your race, I realized, “oh, affirmative action is the fairest thing in the world.”
How do we solve this disconnect?
One solution is fighting for our public schools. It’s remarkable that a lot of liberal Americans claim that they’re all for public this and that, but they send their own children to private school and fail to make the connection between the civic crisis we find ourselves in today and the lack of understanding among so many Americans of what democracy even means. We need a revitalized, robust civics education. Of course, power doesn’t want that because it’s very dangerous for people to understand their own right and the history of this country and its crimes against its own people.
Then it’s all about enfranchising people, getting people to vote and to believe their vote matters. Democrats framing the question as “how do we get those conservative white rural people to vote for us?” is the wrong question. In terms of political efficiency and expediency, the far more important question is, “why don’t we show up there and see if it turns out there are a whole bunch of people who agree with us who haven’t been voting?” These are people who have lived in places where 7 out of 10 local races are uncontested by the Democratic Party, who have maybe felt unhappy with our choice of national candidates for myriad reasons. It’s about acknowledging that these places that we call “red” contain millions and millions and millions of people who have never even voted before.
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Angela Chen (@chengela) is a science journalist at The Verge, previously a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. Her reporting and essays have also been published in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Aeon Magazine, Pacific Standard, Hazlitt, and more. Her first book, ACE, is forthcoming from Beacon Press.