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Sarah Smarsh: There are many versions of Kansas

  • Published Friday, April 25, 2014, at 6:20 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 27, 2014, at 7:45 a.m.

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I’m an expert on Kansas.

By way of roots. I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm kid. My people and their stories were planted here.

By way of research, too. Since reviving my high-school newspaper in the mid-’90s, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, attended events, followed issues and unearthed documents to write about a thousand Kansas stories for local and national newspapers and magazines. I’ve published two Kansas pop-history books and revised a Kansas travel guide.

And by way of leaving. I’ve lived on the East and West coasts, in the South and Western Europe. That lent crucial perspective for assessing my home state and my relationship to it. (“It wasn’t until I got to New York that I became a Kansan,” playwright William Inge said.)

But my rarest understanding of Kansas comes from the many roles I’ve played as sociocultural border-jumper within the state. I’ve waited in line for Kansas-issue peanut butter and sipped champagne with a former Kansas governor. I’ve been a racial minority and adolescent criminal in diverse Kansas neighborhoods and an overachieving head cheerleader in a small, white Kansas town. I’ve received Kansas free lunches as a public school student and Kansas paychecks as a university professor. I’ve been a rural and an urban Kansan, a conservative and a liberal Kansan, a Catholic and an agnostic Kansan, a “pro-life” and a “pro-choice” Kansan.

I lived in 21 Kansas houses, trailers, apartments and farmhouses by the time I finished high school and went to eight different Kansas schools by the time I was 14. I’ve been a Kansas waitress, bartender, secretary, call-center representative, wheat-harvest laborer, construction-site hand, tutor, journalist, grant-writer, development director and tenured academic.

I’ve seen many versions of Kansas because I’ve looked at her through many versions of myself.

Kansas today endures an extreme political moment that, in its inherent call for course correction, gives way to prescriptive ideologies for fixing the state, accusatory statements about who broke it, exasperated threats to leave it and proud posturing to defend it. Recently, realizing I’d been guilty of all these, I thought, surely I can contribute something more constructive.

As a shape-shifting character from a picaresque Kansas tale, what perspective might I offer?

I’m an expert on Kansas, and you can trust me on this: What Kansas is depends on who you are. When you change, Kansas will, too.

Sarah Smarsh of Lawrence is a journalist who grew up in and around Wichita. She recently launched freestatemedia.org, a Kansas storytelling platform.

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