Smarsh writes about growing up in a family of working-class farmers in Kansas during the 1980s and ’90s in Heartland (Scribner, Sept.).
Why write this book now?
I actually started in 2002 with a research grant to begin piecing together my family history. I was a college senior, the first from my family to go to college, and the campus environment had opened my eyes about my family’s disadvantages as rural laborers. Later, as a journalist, I gravitated toward covering economics, class, and rural issues. Over the years, the book coalesced as an integration of my family’s private stories with my professional understandings of public policies and realities. That’s another way of saying, I didn’t write it because of the 2016 election.
What role did being female play in your breaking the poverty cycle?
Social mobility is more difficult for women or any group that’s been historically marginalized. I tried to make clear the strides and sacrifices made by the women before me, reaching back several generations, that gave me more of a chance than they had. It’s a story about a family and society rather than some individual triumph.
What’s the biggest challenge of poverty?
Someone who works at a computer with time to mess around on Twitter might not understand that the constant, grueling labor many people do to survive can preclude you from political engagement or awareness. So one serious challenge is lack of civic agency required to change the system that harms you. If you have a dream, it’s hard keeping it alive when the vast majority of energy is required just to live.
You addressed this book to your inner child, or “unborn spirit.” Why?
It made me nauseous to think about someone reading it. I knew from publishing personal essays that this feeling means you’ve hit on something true. The direct address wasn’t contrived for the book, but rather reflects my experience growing up and actually having this private dialogue. When some pieces of the book weren’t quite clicking together, I added that very intimate and unique thing about my psyche. It let the reader in and transformed the narrative.
Has shame prevented a social movement by poor people?
More powerful than shame in one’s potential action is lack of understanding the extent to which you are getting screwed. There’s a reason why, in a world of historic economic inequality, people who have been exploited for their labor are intentionally kept outside of the social structure that makes decisions. The power that lies within them is incredibly dangerous to a small handful of people who profit off their labor.