"I am the bone of the bone of them that live in trailer homes."
So begins an online essay by Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh. The highly personal essay explores the relationship between class distinctions, dental care and opportunity in America.
"When you meet someone," Smarsh explains, "the face is the first presentation ... the mouth is part of that. And it's the part of it that's reshaped by money oftentimes, or not, and the people who don't have the means to do that suffer for it, not just for the pain of a toothache but for the judgment that is very readily cast on them and a knowing about their place in our economic ladder."
It's a story she knows well. Her grandmother, a young woman in her thirties at the time of Smarsh's birth, had a full set of dentures by the time her granddaughter came along. And her father, a construction worker, had a cavity that became an abscessed tooth that progressed so far that he contracted sepsis, or blood poisoning.
Knowing that tooth decay was not just a health risk but also a symptom of poverty that could beget more poverty, Smarsh was vigilant in the department of oral hygiene from a young age. She writes of nights out in college when her friends would come home and pass out as she alone mustered the energy to floss.
Smarsh had a nomadic childhood, shuttling back and forth between relatives living in trailer homes and on farms and in inner-city Wichita, Kan., neighborhoods. She grew up playing in dirt driveways, and writes about the ‘tells’ of her childhood circumstances: crooked bangs from at-home haircuts, a paper sack instead of a unicorn backpack, and enrollment in a free-lunch program.
But Smarsh does not call herself poor. She says she knows people who would assure her that she hasn’t seen poor.
"This is the beauty of nonfiction writing, and it's why I do it,” she says. “When we tell a specific story … the stereotypes can get obliterated or pushed aside by just bearing witness to what was. And however we label it, that's up to you. I can show you what went down in my childhood, and you can call it whatever it is, to you."
She worked her way through an undergraduate degree from the University of Kansas and went on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Columbia University. Deciding to incur the debt of a graduate degree from an Ivy League school was in some ways a hard choice, and in some ways not.
"What, I'm going to have lived in a trailer and say, 'No, I'm not going to go to Columbia'? No, I'm gonna make this happen somehow.”
Smarsh has given up a plum academic job in order to dedicate more of her time and energy to telling the diverse stories of Kansas with a strong sense of place. But the civic and creative commitment to live and work in Kansas is not a sacrifice in her mind.
“I feel more at home here,” she says.