Sarah Smarsh has reported on social justice, the environment, culture, and class for Harper’s, The Huffington Post, Guernica, The Pitch, Aeon, and others. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from Columbia University, as well as degrees in journalism and English from the University of Kansas, and has taught at Washburn University, Columbia, and elsewhere. A fellow of the Center for Kansas Studies, earlier in her career she wrote about her home state for everything from airline magazines to pop-history paperback series. Her essay “Death of the Farm Family” appears in Issue 08 of The Common. Marni Berger and Smarsh discussed the privilege of rootedness in America and what it means to be “often from” a place.
Marni Berger (MB): You’re from Kansas, but you’re also a traveler. In “Death of the Farm Family” you write: “I knew from the gypsy blood that my body was the only permanent home to count on.” Would you talk a little bit more about the concept of body as place through the lens of traveling?
Sarah Smarsh (SS): The essay most directly confronts that notion by way of the poverty experience. Poverty often forces a sort of transience, of course—the eviction, the job loss, the foreclosure and so on. In this country it takes money to keep a foothold in one place. In a memoir essay I published in the past year with Parcel, “How I Moved 21 Times Before College,” I list the repetitive motions one goes through as a working-poor nomad. Decide to move because the landlord won’t fix the furnace; get some boxes from the grocery store; have a yard sale; disconnect the utilities; figure out what day the trash gets picked up at the new place; and so on. It’s a lot of logistical work to move, as most anyone knows, and the poor expend an incredible amount of energy on this. There’s a line in that essay about the brief moment between places. Unneeded items have been sold and unneeded phone numbers and other place-specific data have been deleted in the brain. And you’ve not yet accumulated the stuff or information of the new place. There’s a lightness. That’s where the rawest relationship to place exists. You’re in your body, and for a moment there’s no other container.
MB: In “Death of the Farm Family,” a single place, a farm in Kansas, becomes a character in the essay; Kansas holds just as much sway over readers as the human subjects. You begin the essay using third person, describing how your family, which is one-half rooted to the land and one-half wanderers on your mother’s side, came to live on the farm. Later in the essay, you switch to first person, in describing how your family, and you, mourn the death of the beloved Kansas farm after generations of love and stories that existed primarily because the farm existed. What was your strategy in deciding when to use third person and first person in this essay?
SS: This recently was pointed out to me by another reader as a noted device in a lot of my writing—that I introduce the realm in third person and then appear myself, unceremoniously, in first person. Those moves actually weren’t intentional in terms of point of view. I just utilized whichever perspective suited the essay’s purpose at a given juncture. Here I wanted the opening passage to be a wide shot. Just as many films begin with a bird’s-eye view of New York or other places before zooming into the specificity of their individual inhabitants, it seemed important to first ground the reader in this place—maybe particularly so because the late-20th-century family farm experience is so under-explored in literature and is culturally, sensually foreign to most would-be readers in an urbanized society.
MB: Your Twitter profile describes you as “often from Kansas”—what does that mean to you?
SS: I hesitated to state there that I’m in Kansas, because there’s never a moment in my life that I claim to know where I’m going to live tomorrow. That’s the gypsy ladies that brung me. But—and this is more my nature, as a real home dweller who likes feeling rooted—I’ve built my life and career around an intentional decision to be in Kansas, to write about it, champion it, reveal it however I can. I’m aware that, wherever I live, I’ll write from a psychosocial space in which Kansas is the supreme force. So I feel comfortable saying I write from Kansas, in a sense, whether I’m in it or not.
MB: How do you think the lens of Kansas in particular compares to other states or regions of the U.S. in revealing the experience of poverty?
SS: Ten years ago I was fortunate to be selected for a small memoir workshop with the late Frank McCourt at the Southampton Writers Conference. He read some of my memoir work about the transient women of my maternal lineage, specifically, and said aloud in class, “This is a story that could only happen in America.” I asked what he meant, and as a child of Ireland he explained that the expansive plane of this country—which stretches longitudinally across an entire continent—enables highway roving and long, destination-unknown wanderings that in Europe or many places would find you stopped at a customs border before you got across the width of Kansas. If we apply that same relativity within the United States, we could say, I think, that Kansas—or Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, all the big-sky places where one still can drive for hours without seeing a building or another person—lends a sense of wildness and freedom in contrast with smaller, more densely populated and developed states. For me, clear cause to tap that wild freedom is one of the beautiful aspects of the untethered life that poverty engenders.
MB: A common perspective on poverty is its effect of stagnancy—but you feel that poverty makes it difficult to stay in a place? How have you seen this play out in your family?
SS: Poor people are less likely to own homes, and they’re often too busy working to be out immersing themselves in their communities. When they do have time outside work, it’s invariably cheaper to stay home, and they might feel judged for their clothes or grammar in public spaces. So the poor often are isolated from a place even as they’re the ones keeping its air conditioners, roads, engines, and restaurants going. Meanwhile they often have grave problems that require fleeing—bill collectors or, say, abusers who are particularly dangerous for having little to lose. In the early ’60s, to escape her severely abusive husband, the young grandma about whom I often write—Grandma Betty from my essay in The Common—put my then-baby mother in some jalopy and drove on an impulse to Chicago, where she knew no one. She worked on factory lines while a Puerto Rican woman in her building—padlocks on its apartment doors, that being cheaper than installed deadbolts—babysat my mom. A few years later, Betty and my toddler mom, plus Betty’s kid sisters and own mother, set off from Wichita with clothes, a little gas money, and no idea where they’d stop. Their car broke down in Limon, Colorado, so that decided that. The grown-ups got jobs at diners on the new Interstate 70, Betty married a local and had a son, my mom started kindergarten. But after a few years, they were off again. What Kansas can reveal about poverty, I think, that more congested spaces do not, is that we all have the option, at any given moment, to leave. The Midwest and West just make it obvious with a visible horizon and no traffic jams. Now, if you’re too poor even to have a jalopy, or too depressed or physically disabled to get in it and drive, that’s another matter. I was lucky that my family wasn’t short on vitality.
MB: You write keenly about family. Have your family members read your work, and if so, what have been their reactions?
SS: Ah, the belly of the memoir beast. I go there often by living with and loving the full human beings that in my writing appear as characters. But no, I don’t get much in the way of reaction to or discussion about my writing. I let them know in passing when a new piece is coming out, and if I’m talking to them specifically for writing research I of course say as much. But we have a pretty Midwestern thing going in that one doesn’t really talk about one’s work. You just do it. In the general sense of awareness about what I’m up to and not objecting as I proceed—and I do check in for any concerns–they’re very supportive. Maybe a bit trepidatious about stories being revealed or mystified at my finding them worth telling, at times, depending on the family member, but for a bunch that by and large doesn’t read books or sit around contemplating the power of narrative, they’ve been heroically supportive by just letting me do my thing. My mom is a fellow reader and creative type who understands the operation.
MB: Your work has an interesting style of fusing personal experience with political. How do you approach this style: do you begin by considering a political issue and then bring in your personal perspective, or do you consider something personal first and later tie it to a more expansive issue?
SS: In general, the personal hot-spot comes first, and then the universal—and in my case often political—relevance presents itself. I never set out to make some sort of public argument and then scan my personal experience for supporting evidence. But we’re living in a political context, so those connections beg to be explored if we’re going to proceed with awareness toward social progress. Kansas has both populist and libertarian streaks that have spawned incredible, progressive moments in state and U.S. history in the realms of women’s rights, mental health, industry, and others. I’ve always had some awareness of our being at once a mass of people and a collection of individuals, or a country and a collection of states. I recently finished a memoir essay about near-death experiences within my immediate family that involved work- or home-related proximity to air pollutants, and only after finishing it did I realize it was a commentary on industrial pollution’s disproportionate effect on the poor. I may or may not now weave in research and reportage to that end. So, even if I start an essay with a wide lens to hint at the big-picture context first—as I did in “Death of the Farm Family”—my cause for writing the essay was the singular story of a person, place, or experience. Discovering the metaphors, connections, or even inherent arguments that materialize from actual events is for me the magic of nonfiction.
MB: Will you continue to pursue the themes of social justice and inequality in your work?
SS: Yes. Especially after my recent Aeon essay, “The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World.” I’m getting notes from all over the world about dental care, shame and classism, both from those who recognized themselves in the essay and those who said they’d had their eyes opened in some way and would carry more compassion in future encounters. Experiencing that sort of connection, wherein the reader feels seen and then I feel seen because they saw themselves, is just Heaven brought down to earth. That could happen by way of a lot of topics, but in writing specifically about marginalized populations who have less voice in literature and in media, it’s a rarer experience for them and me both. My heart exploded somewhere around the 24-hour mark of these emails and messages, and there’s no going back.
Marni Berger is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Maine.