In 2018, Sarah Smarsh released her New York Times bestselling memoir The Heartland, exploring her childhood growing up on a farm in central Kansas. It was a national book award finalist and thrust her into the spotlight for writing about life in rural America from rural America.
Now, Smarsh is expanding her focus on life in rural Kansas to regions across the country, inviting Appalachian filmmakers, Black Belt farmers, and farmworkers from California’s Central Valley, among others, to discuss what she sees as a shift in America: the trend of young people moving from their elite urban cities back home.
It’s the focus of her new podcast “The Homecomers,” which she discussed with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Ashton Marra.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
AM: Can we start first with the origin story of this podcast? Where did this idea come from?
SS: For a long time, I’ve been a podcast listener and avid consumer of all sorts of media, but podcasting, in particular, seemed like a realm of my own industry where the place I come from was woefully ignored, or at the very least, a sort of unintentional void in terms of content and message and narratives and stories and voices and ideas [being shared from there]. And as it happens, [when] I started journalism school in the late ’90s, I actually thought that I was going to go into broadcasting. That was my original intention, [but] I ended up being what we used to call a print journalist. I’m a writer, we say these days, but it was still in me to kind of hop media and do something in a different format.
So, it was kind of a confluence of personal inclinations, within the realm of storytelling, as well as what I saw as a deep need for rural America specifically. When I talk about where I come from and it being this place that seemed [overlooked] in terms of the content, I wanted to to amplify those sorts of voices in this great, new and definitely here to stay medium of the podcast.
Listen to the full, extended version of the interview below.
AM: So, this season will be six episodes. Can you tell me a little bit about how you went about finding these six people for this first season of the show?
SS: So, I initially got a research fellowship at Harvard University, they’ve got this great research center called the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and they bring in cross discipline professionals to basically spend a semester working on some sort of project that looks at the confluence of media and these sort of politics and policy realms.
I’ve, for a long time been writing about politics and the way that policy affects people and so I’m kind of in that sweet spot, and I said, ‘Yeah, I would, I would love to take you up on this fellowship,’ could I spend my time developing this podcast about what at the time I was calling working class America and ended up migrating into the more specific focus on rural. So, they gave me the space to do the development.
This was in the spring of 2018, and in that time, I actually recorded four out of the six episodes. A couple of the guests, full disclosure, I did know previously just because we’re in sort of the same wheelhouse professionally. It’s a very small space and it’s not very many people who are doing the sorts of things I’m doing.
The last two guests that I found, though, it took me a year to find someone who was the right storyteller and that just kind of clicked for the sort of conversation I wanted to have. Because these are very specific sorts of interviews. It’s not just facts and nuts and bolts and statistics, I wanted to talk to people who are in two worlds. They are from that rural disadvantaged place that they’re speaking about, but they’re also doing work that is entrenched in that place still. They didn’t leave that place, they either went and got some social capital and schooling and came back, or they’ve been there all along. So, that’s a very specific sort of American story. And then within that it had to be someone who was very learned in all the ways of research, but also willing to just open up a vein and and let let their heart pour out for the listener.
AM: At the end of each episode, you think West Jackson of the Land Institute for borrowing the term that he coined, “homecomers,” which is where you got the title of your podcast. Can you tell us what that phrase means and why you connected with it?
SS: While [the show] is about rural America, that’s a vast concept, contrary to some national headlines that would reduce it to one thing or another. That’s an incredibly immense topic. So the driving theme behind this show, what I’m specifically talking about, is what I perceived– by way of some data but also just my sense as someone on the ground as a journalist and someone who travels all over the country talking to folks– is a real shift in the zeitgeist of this American tale that we’ve had for a long time of the small town or the rural kid who is encouraged to or on his or her own volition leaves home for the commercial mecca– the urban, coastal, shiny thing where wages are higher and [there’s more] prestige.
Certainly, there seems to be a shift in the other direction and some of the the numbers are starting to bear this out. And I certainly in a very qualitative way have heard conversation after conversation with with people who say to me, ‘Hey, I read your book about how you’re from this place where we’re encouraged to “get out” yet, you’re still riding, you’re still in Kansas, and you’re writing from that place about the good, bad and the ugly.’
And, and these folks say to me, ‘That’s me. I left small town, Idaho, and I ended up in New York for a couple of years and I went back because I wanted to participate in caregiving for my grandma and cost of living is way lower, and I love being in nature and I can work remotely now by way of technology.’
So, this is a shift in the American story as it relates to place and class and all sorts of other identity markers, that’s just been kind of under reported and under explored, I think. Most members in the national media are white, urban and affluent. I’m white, not urban, and not affluent and so those I have a little bit of less of a blind spot to this particular story that allowed me to see it and and seek to uncover it with these conversations.
So, homecomers is a term that Wes Jackson, who directs the the Land Institute, which is a very kind of progressive, agricultural research center seeking to develop perennial grains that would be a lot easier on our soil and our food production system. He is good buds with Wendell Berry, the great philosopher farmer down in Kentucky and they have together kind of developed a conversation and a dialogue in letters about what I am now seeing come to fruition, something I believe they sort of hoped for for some time and that they themselves were perhaps decade the decades ago, sort of pioneers.
AM: This kind of push of young people of young generations out of the rural places that they’re from to bigger cities to find success, it feels like a very Appalachian narrative to me, but is perhaps larger than that. Why is that narrative so important to you? Is it a personal statement? Did you personally feel like you had to leave your home in Kansas in order to succeed?
SS: In some ways I did. I grew up on a wheat and cattle farm about 30 miles west of Wichita. I was raised by a teenage mother and by a couple of grandparents who left school and six and ninth grade, respectively. I’m a fifth generation Kansas farm kid, I was a child in the ’80s, when we were first starting to talk about something called the farm crisis. All around me, small town businesses were shuttering and family farms were going under.
What we call “rural flight” is not a new story by any stretch of imagination. It’s been going on since the Industrial Revolution. Most counties in my home state of Kansas, for example, their population peaked around 1900 so it’s a 100 year old story. It’s just that the the destruction and the social imbalance that it has wrought is just now being tended to in national dialogue.
So, why is it so important to me? Yes, because it is my story. And it’s deeply personal to me. Growing up, I was an ambitious, a bright kid.
There are folks who come from rural and small town places who are just like, ‘this is not my jam, I have got to get to the city. And the second I get there, I’m going to be a city person. And I’m going to do that the rest of my life.’ A lot of people have that story and happily so. But for me, the getting was that I wanted to get out of a certain sort of circumstance, I wanted to get out of poverty, I wanted to get out of lack of economic and professional opportunity.
I didn’t want to get out of my place, though. I love Kansas, I love rural Kansas. I love my family. I love my community, but those two goals, unfortunately, were somewhat opposed to one another. Our current economic structure, such that it is, so I did [leave]. I was a first generation college student at the University of Kansas. And then I did go on, after a brief reporting state in Kansas City, to live in New York City for a couple of years.
And people thought I had lost my mind when I left New York in my mid 20s, to move back to Kansas. This was in 2005 so this is not a recent story for me, but people thought thought I was nuts. ‘You just now got all the connections and contacts and mover and shaker kind of friends in Manhattan where your selected industry is located, [they said].’ Meanwhile, the media industry is utterly collapsing in places like Kansas due to the digital shift and trying to reckon with those sorts of new business models.
And yet it felt right, for various reasons. I did it and I’m not going to say that the universe suddenly rewarded me for being true to myself. I was poor for most of my 20s, I took on a lot of jobs adjacent to my ongoing journalism career just to pay the bills. It was very hard road to hoe as a journalist in Kansas at that moment, but it has ended up though being a real asset for me on the national stage in that there just aren’t very many folks with a national platform who really have and currently are residing in the place that I report on and and write about.
So the story of an American homecoming, if you will, across all sorts of lines, whether it’s places like Appalachia where a coal miner’s daughter is encouraged to leave, or the Black Belt of the American South where the African American descendant of slaves is encouraged to leave, or any myriad iterations of this from coast to coast and corner to corner of this country.
The conversations that I host in The Homcomers are all over this enormous nation and what they all have in common is the idea of home and that sense of responsibility and love and place being somehow at odds with the way our current economic and class structure works. The people who are going back, or who are saying, ‘I’m not going to leave for any extended period of time,’ to my mind, they are they are heroes in sort of rectifying what has become a severe social imbalance between rural and urban America.
AM: Then do you feel like you’re seeing a shift in this narrative around home? I see so many people in my life personally who have moved away and are starting to think about coming back to West Virginia, where I’m from and also based for 100 Days, just because their families are still here, they’re getting married, they want to start families of their own, and I see them grapple with this idea of failure. ‘If I come back, I have failed.’ At a national level, as you have these conversations with people, do you see them push away and push back at that idea of ‘if I go home, I have failed?’
SS: It really gets to the heart of the American psyche, to my mind, in that our sort of foundational tale of ourselves is about individualism, it’s about the ambitious seeker striking out and making good and doing better than her parents. It’s all quite aspirational and the story that we have tracked along that aspiration has to do with an exodus from places that our classist society views as backward, undesirable, ‘why would anybody want to live there,’ you know?
The term that some sociologists use to refer to people seeking a college education then being kind of siphoned away from particular areas of this country is brain drain. There is a sort of condescension inherent that the people who stay behind must be dumb.
Of course, that’s not the case at all. Some of the most brilliant people I know are people who never left, but they might have had a different set of opportunities, or lack thereof, perhaps. They had a different value set at work when they were making decisions about what to do with their lives.
So we’ve got to get more sophisticated as a country about how we appraise the the relationship between one’s location one’s merit. Our vision of the successful American, I guess, those components are also contained in the the proud residents of rural and small town spaces, but we correlate those attributes with urban America, and that has to do with money. It’s got to do with all sorts of things, but when you’ve got a popular culture continually reinforcing that narrative– not to mention political headlines that reduce those sorts of debates to red states and blue states as though the state lines separate different kinds of people. I occupy both of those places simultaneously, and I am the same person.
When I was first living in New York, and in my 20s, people would talk to me as though I were somehow different from the average Kansan. And it was because they had negative stereotypes about the average Kansan, but they liked me and so to square that sort of psychological schema, they had to envision me as sort of exceptional somehow. There are parallels to this in the ways that people configure individuals through in spite of their racist thoughts and sexist thoughts and all sorts of things.
But the shame that someone might feel about returning home, even if that’s their dream, or what’s right for them, and their family, or heck, even what’s right for their well being and their profession even, that’s not internal. That is external, it’s being put on those people. And it’s our job as a society to correct that narrative and to celebrate someone who would return or even seek to stay.
If any of us are interested in a balanced society, folks who love being in the city should be excited about the shift that I’m talking about. Because we need people in our rural lands to protect the Earth, to be what I would hope we will be eventually stewards of a Green New Deal, to diversify and create a more inclusive rural America. There’s important work to be done there that’s intertwined with urban folks outcomes as well. So, I think collectively, we need to stop. We need to cut the snobbery and start looking at the the merit and the value that is inherent in going home.
AM: So far in this conversation you’ve said words like brain drain, or shame, shame of returning to your your home rural community. It seems to me that when we talk especially about the economic structures of rural communities and the young people who have been pressured to leave them in order to find success, that what they leave behind is essentially the destruction of our rural communities. And there is a strong correlation that with the idea of a loss of hope. Do you see a connection in this kind of push away from rural communities and the demise of the rural communities that we are from?
SS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that most of people who I know who have made that type of migration, it was, at its core, an economic imperative. There’s sometimes cultural matters at work. And there’s sometimes just personal sensibility. But what all of these stories have in common is, if you’re going to get by, if you’re going to be able to pay the bills, if you want to aspire to a sort of middle class life, that ain’t going on here anymore.
I want to be clear that the sort of homecoming that I’m talking about, it is not, ‘let’s sugarcoat it,’ and the conversations that I have in The Homecomers by no means do so. The sort of rural advocates and kind of small town community builders [we’re speaking with], their class background is wildly different. Some of them grew up in deep poverty, or working poverty, or in the middle class, or lower middle class, upper class, but what they all have in common is that what is now enabling them to fight for the place that they’re from and the place that they love is some semblance of economic and cultural agency.
So, that’s why for them it is, in some cases, they had no choice but to go off and get the sort of economic stability that could only be achieved somewhere else and then going back to that more disadvantaged place, they’re there to do that kind of work. I say that because there are some people who leave a place because they were run out of town as a person of color. Some people leave a place because they were mercilessly mercilessly picked on as, as a member of the LGBT q community. Some people left a place because they were poor, some people left a place because all the above, but this the sort of national homecoming trend that I’m seeing is across cultural and racial and gender lines, and what these folks have in common is they come from somewhere that has been written off in the national story as dead or dying.
The statistics often bear that out. These aren’t Pollyanna folks who are denying the numbers, but they are choosing to devote what social assets they have acquired to fight for a place that a lot of people have given up on. And it’s not for everybody, and I’m not trying to pitch this as an easy road, but what I find is, when I talk to people who are doing that sort of work, their lives are so full. They’re incredibly enriched by a sense of returning to the very spot that that made them and would often with a sense of gratitude, in spite of its dangers and shortcomings.
AM: Your podcast isn’t overtly political in that there is no mention of specific candidates or specific elections, at least up through Episode 4 which is how many have been released at the time we’re speaking.
I’m curious, did you have to make a conscious choice to not talk politics? Or did it just not naturally come up in the conversations that you are having while recording these episodes?
SS: While I do wear my politics on my sleeve as a commentator, as many journalists do, but depending on the project, I often try to aspire to a sort of objectivity that just makes a space for a dialogue rather than me making some argument. The Homecomers would definitely be in that column.
I wanted to host conversations that had to do with rural America and its struggles and its beauties at a moment when that place tends to be reduced to very simplistic political headlines. I would love to see somebody count in headline references to rural America since the 2016 election what percentage of those were a political frame. That is an important story, but it’s actually quite dehumanizing and unfair to a place to to constantly only view it through a political lens and put every human life through a political blender when most the people I know on the ground, regardless of their politics, their lives are much broader than that.
I wanted to host conversations that gave people space to talk about something other than the current administration in Washington, which for some of these people might as well be Mars in terms of the work on the ground that they’re doing. So I suppose that I had a hand in shifting and shaping where those conversations went because I didn’t ask them about politics, but I would say it’s also true that organically it just didn’t come up. I didn’t sort of ban myself from bringing it up.[My guests] are doing important work. They’re experts in their fields. They’re also proud sons and daughters of places that they love that usually get short shrift in the media and they’ve got all sorts of things to talk about that have nothing to do with American elections.
Sarah Smarsh is the host of The Homecomers and author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” She was a 2018 finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Prize.