Art imitated life for Ben Lerner, a high school forensics champion from Topeka with a novelist’s skill for dissecting the danger of deteriorating political speech and articulating reasons for optimism of a future less caustic.


Lerner, poet-turned-novelist, New York City college professor and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, is author of “The Topeka School,” which draws on his family’s past to reach roots of what carried President Donald Trump to the bully pulpit and the influence of social disrupters, such as the late funeral-picketing Fred Phelps.

“Hate is a way of making meaning. But that kind of hateful attack doesn’t just hurt the recipient of the hatred, it eats the hater alive from the inside out,” he said.

Lerner said solidarity, love and collective action could end death spirals of racism, environmental degradation and profiteering.

“A lot of things in Kansas give me hope,” he said. “My dad recently made a documentary about Garden City that’s inspiring. It shows how one Kansas town is welcoming immigrants, still trying to make good on a vision of an inclusive America.”

“The Topeka School” has received literary acclaim, including The New York Times Book Review designating it as “a high-water mark in recent American fiction.”

Lerner said a subtle meaning of “The Topeka School" title was emergence of great writers in the capital city. Some are his closest friends, while others he admires from afar.