Revising the Narrative on Rural America
Two authors of acclaimed but thoroughly different memoirs of growing up in rural American communities dive into their experiences growing up in the heartland, what they think urban Americans get wrong about our rural people and places, and how they are using their platforms to address some of the most complex challenges that rural communities face today.
Author Tara Westover says that outsiders have decided for rural Americans that the defining feature of their lives should be the 2016 presidential election. To Westover, not only is that wrong, it’s also counterproductive:
Westover sees the narrative around rural America being distilled down to one choice rural Americans made in the 2016 election, and in doing so the whole country loses valuable context about the nuances of rural Americans.
What’s needed to improve the conversation about rural America? Tara Westover has an idea:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity
Tara Westover: I think the tropes of journalism needs to change. But another difficult part of that is that so few journalists and filmmakers come from these regions...So you’re starting off already with almost no one who has a basic familiarity with those places and cultures. And what I’ve noticed too sometimes is that there's such pressure to turn in a particular type of narrative that even when you get people who has some knowledge or familiarity, there’s such a hunger for information that confirms the stereotype. But even then, sometimes people who know a little better, they turn in that type of narrative because there’s an idea that people are really hungry for it. And they are hungry for it. People like things that confirm what they already think. So I think some of it is on journalism to stop giving people what they want and to stop shaping what they want.
The United States is in collective denial about the role of class in society and politics, says author Sarah Smarsh. Smarsh contends that we don’t have shared definitions for even ubiquitous terms like middle class, yet it’s impossible to understand about rural America without diving into class. Westover agrees with Smarsh, speaking from her experience at Cambridge University:
Religion is a fundamental institution in many pockets of rural America, but discussions of religion in context of other institutions (politics, education, law and justice) often fall back on shallow cliches. Sarah Smarsh talks about how to thoughtfully engage with religious practitioners in the heartland: