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An Interview with Sarah Smarsh, Author of ‘Heartland’

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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. Read more…