Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
A string of burglaries on a quiet cul-de-sac exposes hidden racial tensions in a new novel by Rachel Louise Snyder. In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” Snyder explores the challenges navigated in neighborhoods perched between areas of affluence and poverty, and the clash between community values and personal fears when trauma strikes. She talks with Kojo about how her own life experience helped shape her first novel.
- Rachel Louise Snyder Writer, Professor of Creative Writing at American University, author of "What We've Lost is Nothing" (Scribner, 2014)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe story takes place on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac that sits on the border of a suburban -- of suburban affluence and urban poverty. It's a place where neighbors recognize each other by sight but don't know each other that well. One afternoon, every house on the block is burglarized. Outwardly, the neighbors band together to deal with the shocking invasions. But inwardly, mistrust sets in.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe residents' reaction to the trauma and to each other is the subject of a new novel by writer and creative writing professor Rachel Louise Snyder. Her book explores how community ideals about inclusiveness and integration can falter in the face of personal fears and suspicion. The much-traveled Rachel Louise Snyder joins us in studio. She's a writer, professor of creative writing at American University, and author of the novel "What We've Lost Is Nothing." Rachel, good to see you.
PROF. RACHEL LOUISE SNYDERThanks for having me. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIYour novel explores the aftermath of a string of burglaries on a single block in a single afternoon. Where did you get the idea for the burglaries and how do they reflect our vulnerability to events outside our control but central to our lives?
SNYDERThat's a great question. I'm not sure any events are inside our control, of course.
SNYDERYou know, it's a crazy story. I got the idea standing on top of a mountain in Vietnam. I was standing there with Caroline Alexander who's a writer for the New Yorker and National Geographic and she told me about a friend of hers in suburban Atlanta that this had happened to back in the '80s where a series of homes had been burgled. And within a couple of years, everybody had left that street.
SNYDERI mean, it really -- the ripple effect in the community was profound. And of course, the fiction writer in me instantly thought, oh, my God, what an amazing premise for a novel. And she's not a fiction writer, so I said, Caroline, can I have that?
NNAMDISee, that's why I refer to you at the beginning as the much-traveled because not anybody else who's standing on a mountain in Vietnam would be discussing what happened in a suburban community someplace. This book follows the reactions of the burglary victims and the community. Why did you set the story in Oak Park, IL, a real-life community known for its pioneering fair housing policies?
SNYDERThat's right. That actually came later. What came initially were the course of voices and the characters ensemble and multiple points of view in the book. And I had set it in Atlanta. I was living in Cambodia at the time, talking about well-traveled, I guess Cambodia...
NNAMDIThere's another 49 countries there, but we won't get into it.
SNYDERAnd so I set it in some, you know, fictionalized version of Atlanta. And it didn't occur to me until about a year in that Oak Park was the perfect setting. I had lived in Oak Park. Oak Park, of course, is known for Frank Lloyd Wright and Hemingway and for its integration programs. I worked in an integration program for six years in Oak Park and I thought this is a perfect backdrop, really, to explore the idea of, you know, integration. What it really means, where it falters, where it works. And I think, hopefully, the novel explores those but not at the expense of story or character.
NNAMDIThe name of the novel is "What We've Lost Is Nothing." We're talking with the author, Rachel Louise Snyder. She's a writer and professor of creative writing at American University. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How diverse is your neighborhood? Would people pull together if something traumatic happened? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk a little bit about your experience in Oak Park as someone trying to help people from different backgrounds coexist.
SNYDERThat was one of the toughest jobs I ever held in a certain way. So my job -- so Oak Park, as you mentioned, has been known for its integration programs for about 40 years. They were trying to address redlining and blockbusting and things like that that happened all over the U.S. And my job was to be a resident manager in a building and I was, you know, I was supposed to show apartments and clean.
SNYDERI was not so good at the cleaning part actually. But my real job was to try to create a rental unit in which people would know their neighbors, would feel like they're a part of community. And so I had all kinds of incentives. You know, we had a little library and sitting room in the basement and, you know, I would have potlucks and garden parties and things like that. And what I discovered was that you could introduce people to one another so they knew who lived across the hall.
SNYDERBut creating that community was a much, much more difficult thing, especially because you're talking about disparate cultures, classes, ethnicities, race, income levels, all these kind of stuff that gets into who we are. And so, that was a real challenge for me.
NNAMDIIn your novel, one character is a true believer in residential diversity while her husband insists that people want to be with their own kind. You seem sympathetic to both points of view. How come?
SNYDERBecause I've seen both points of view. You know, I'm primarily known as a journalist. For 20 years, I've been a journalist and I've covered a lot of natural disasters. And I remember, you know, I covered the tsunami in Asia. I covered Hurricane Mitch in Honduras if anybody remembers that from 1998. And I remember being actually in Tegucigalpa in Honduras and seeing people in the immediate aftermath of that hurricane who a day before, two days before had been part of a community, had been neighbors.
SNYDERAnd they were fighting each other -- physically fighting -- over bricks and planks of wood and things like that. That's one side of the story. That happens, right, when we have to fight. It's me and my own. The other side of the story is unbelievable acts of courage and salvation and bravery. And you see that, too. So I think I suppose both those characters embody both those ideas.
NNAMDIWell, earlier this month we talked about new research showing that segregated neighborhoods often have a stronger sense of community than integrated ones, the notion that birds of a feather flock together. What's your reaction to that finding?
SNYDEROh, my God, I didn't know about that and then it's so depressing. I just -- I think -- to me, the richness of life comes with learning about other people's experiences and hearing other stories. I mean, one of the most depressing things to me, I shouldn't say this live on the air, but one of the most depressing things to me coming from a background where diversity was a big part of my life and everywhere I've ever lived. I've moved to northwest D.C., which is not as diverse as I would like it to be.
NNAMDIAt least not the part of northwest that you live in.
SNYDERThat's right, that's right. And it's, you know, it's uncomfortable for me. It's not how I want to raise my daughter. It's not how I want to live. I want lots of faces and voices and accents and experiences in my life.
NNAMDIThis is your first novel after, as you mentioned, a career in journalism. How did you decide that fiction was the best way to tell the story?
SNYDERWell, people always ask me why I made the switch. And in fact, the truth is I only ever studied fiction in graduate school. I studied with Tim O'Brien and Andre Dubus and people like that. And I discovered, though, that you could actually earn money and earn a living in journalism, which might sound crazy to people who know the state of journalism today. But that tells you a little bit about the state of fiction.
NNAMDIAnd about you.
SNYDERYeah, yeah. I think, though, I never stopped writing fiction. I never really turned off that part of my brain. And I think that fiction allows us to tell stories that journalism maybe has a different set of rules for. To give you an example, journalism always requires a reason for telling the story at the time it's being told, right? You talked about Ukraine earlier in the segment because that needs to be told right now. The story of integration and diversity is an ongoing story in America.
NNAMDIAnd with fiction, you can tell it anytime. We move on to Anna (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Anna, you are on the air, go ahead please.
ANNAHi. I just wanted to comment on the diversity in neighborhoods aspect. I grew up in Columbia, MD, which is obviously a fine community and known for being very racially diverse. And I grew up in a fairly affluent neighborhood that was -- my family always commented, remarkably diverse, especially our street. It had so many different ethnic backgrounds. And I don't know how we would have reacted necessarily during massive amounts of burglaries.
ANNABut during blizzards, I always thought it was interesting the way our community kind of banded together and people would host the entire street over for parties and for meals. And there is a very deep sense of community. And I thought that was really great.
NNAMDIAnd I'm sure that is the ideal. Isn't it, Rachel Louise Snyder?
SNYDERYeah, maybe I'll move there. I mean, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I think that is a rich life where it doesn't, you know, it doesn't really matter, you form a community regardless of who you are. But when you live in the zip code where I live and, you know, the public schools are meant to be the best in the city, but only a small segment of people can afford them, then I question how accessible they are, how public they really are.
NNAMDIAnna, thank you very much for your call. It affords me the opportunity to ask Rachel to tell us a little bit about her own story. You dropped out of high school, left home, lived in your car for six months as a teenager. How did your experiences shaped your outlook on second chances and on survivors?
SNYDEROh, that little Opel Manta. Yeah, I -- you know, having lived outside of America, I feel like I have a sense, a different sense of it, a sense of looking at it from the outside. And one thing I would say for all its faults -- and we live in D.C., so we have a close view of its faults oftentimes -- is that it is really a land of second chances. And I dropped out when I was 16 because I had been kicked out of my house. Actually, all my brothers and sisters and I were all kicked out.
NNAMDISame time, same day?
SNYDERSame day. We each got a suitcase. It was very generous. And my brother lived at the YMCA for his last year of high school. And he's a professor now in South Carolina. But I think as much as you could probably fault my father and stepmother for that moment, it also straightened me up very quickly. I mean it really was that sort of call to arms. And I realized I had two things going for me. One, I had people who were willing to play on my team and give me a chance.
SNYDERI went to this tiny little college called North Central College, in Illinois, and said, "I'm a high school dropout. I've passed one class." It was typing. It was very useful, actually, as it turned out.
NNAMDIIn today's world, yes.
SNYDERBut I know I can do better. And I don't know why, but this man named Rick Spencer -- who's still at the college -- accepted me and said we're going to take a chance on you. And he gave me a life, you know. The second thing was that I had people on my mother's side -- my real mother's side. My mother died when I was a child -- that had PhDs and they traveled the world. And so even though that wasn't my life, I could see that that was a possible life.
NNAMDIAnd indeed you were able to make something out of your life. You have said in the past that you don't know what you would do if you had to deal with a kid like you as a teenager.
SNYDERI know. I have six-year-old. I'm living in fear of when she turns 13.
NNAMDIBut you lived in Cambodia for six years, before moving to Washington. How is that experience reflected in the Cambodian family in your novel and in the theme of this book?
SNYDERThat's a great question. I think for me Cambodia is sort of under my skin in this interesting way. I mean it just comes up in everything. I'm working on a memoir right now and, you know, it's in between every chapter is a little segment on Cambodia. I think even though I had learned to listen as a journalist, I think Cambodia really made me a listener of other people's stories and other people's experiences. And I wanted to reflect that in some way. The Cambodian family in the story is so wildly misunderstood, you know.
SNYDERAnd they're so thwarted by their own ideas. And they have this kind of push between where they've come from and how they can keep a little bit of where they've come from where they are now. And so they have this kind of internal tension, I think. Yeah, I love the Cambodians in this story. Even though they're kind of minor characters I love them.
NNAMDIThe story is a part of the book, "What We've Lost is Nothing." We're talking with the author, Rachel Louise Snyder. She's a writer and professor and creative writing at American University. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to call, 800-433-8850. Are you suspicious of neighbors you don't know very well? Or do you think they're suspicious of you? How would your block react if every house were burglarized in a single afternoon? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Rachel Louise Snyder. She is a writer, professor of creative writing at American University, and author of the novel "What We've Lost is Nothing." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Where in our area do you feel are the most happily diverse neighborhoods? 800-433-8850. Rachel, these burglaries occur on a street called Ilios Lane. Why have you woven so many subtle Iliad references into this story?
SNYDERYou know, I read the Iliad on a beach in Thailand and listened to a series of lectures at the same time. And I just became fascinated with it. I think -- Ilios, of course, another word for Troy. I didn't want to have a real street in Oak Park because I didn't want anyone to feel singled out. But I do think that the book is a little bit of a recitation on fate and, you know, when human nature is fated to act in a certain specific way.
SNYDERAnd then, of course, the book, interspersed between chapters, it has blogs and Listservs and stuff like that, which my intention was for them to act as a sort of Greek chorus on what was happening in the book and what the characters are seeing from, you know, a three foot view instead of bird's eye view.
NNAMDISo we've got Homer in "What We've Lost is Nothing." You set the story in Oak Park, Ill. A community that's actively embraced fair housing practices and residential diversity, as we mentioned earlier. Could this story just as easily have been set in the Washington, D.C. area? Which local communities do you think are best and are worst at embracing diversity and making it work?
SNYDERWell, I set it in Oak Park partly because as a writer I can't write about a place if I'm standing in the middle of it. So if I ever move away from D.C. I'll probably write about D.C. all the time. But of course I also started writing the book from Cambodia before I lived in D.C. So I didn't know the area well enough.
NNAMDIYou've been here for about four years, right?
SNYDERI've been here about four years, yeah. And, you know, I think Columbia Heights is a great example, where it's still diverse, but it's gentrifying. And, you know, I think any of these neighborhoods that have this happen to them, the thing that I find missing so often -- especially in questions of gentrification, which goes along with what happened, even in Oak Park, you know. People who moved into that area in Oak Park -- those apartments are beautiful.
SNYDERThey're rehabbed in this, you know, lovely way. But I find that the residents that are being displaced, often don't have a seat at the table. Those are the voices that are not heard. And so I think that, you know, any place like Columbia Heights or the U Street district, H Street, any of these areas in D.C., I guess what would be important to me is to make sure that the people who have lived there for a, long, long time have a voice.
NNAMDIWhen were you in Oak Park?
SNYDERI was there twice, actually. I was there in 1992, right after college. And then I was there again from '95 to 2001.
NNAMDIThe more things change, the more they stay the same. I'm looking at an article from the Chicago Tribune, February 19, 2014 this year. Here's the opening paragraph, "A study found a startling level of prejudice against African American and disabled renters in Oak Park, where village officials voted Tuesday to create a citizen commission to study how to address the problem."
SNYDERI believe in literature that's what we call, irony.
NNAMDIThat's last week.
SNYDERYou know the thing you have to understand about Oak Park, is that the programs there are primarily geared toward rental units. So they're not about homeownership. And when you go to the western portion of Oak Park, which is the lovely, fancy, Frank Lloyd Wright portion of Oak Park, there are way, way more white people there. Right? I mean it isn't as diverse as the eastern section of Oak Park, which abuts the west side of Chicago.
SNYDERAnd, you know, there was a police chief who -- when I was researching the book, I went around with this police chief in Oak Park. We basically cased places all afternoon. It was really fun. But he said to me that particularly after 9/11 he was hearing a frustration and a prejudice come from people in Oak Park every time there was a crime, there was this kind of assumption of racial tension. And he said he felt like -- it was very frustrating to him because crime was actually lower than it had been in 20 years.
SNYDERBut the prejudice level and the sort of voices he was hearing suggested otherwise. And he wrote -- I know he wrote a series of op-eds for the local paper saying, come on, people, crime is low.
NNAMDIYou read a lot of neighborhood Listservs in preparation for writing this book. What role do they play in a community's cohesiveness and why did you choose weave Listservs and blog posts throughout this story?
SNYDERWell, besides the sort of Greek chorus that they offered, you know, I belong to a couple of Listservs in my area. And people have no filters on Listservs, and even in blogs to some extent. They, I mean, show me a Listserv where people are not opinionated.
NNAMDIYes. We don't always show our best selves on Listservs.
SNYDERThat's right. And so they allowed people to really, really show a variety of sides in the debate, in a way that I felt like would be so unattractive in any of the characters. So they just allowed an exploration of the issue from lots and lots of different voices.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Sensovan (sp?) , in Frederick, Md. Sensovan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Sensovan. Are you there? Hello? Sensovan wanted to know where you are from.
SNYDERBoy, that's a tough question, actually. I was born in Pittsburgh, and I moved when I was about 11 to Chicago. And I also lived in Boston for a long time. So it depends on who you're asking and what years. I normally identify myself as being from Chicago.
NNAMDIOkay. Here is Sid, in Washington. Sid, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SIDHi. I live on Capitol Hill -- and thank you for taking my call.
SIDI live on Capitol Hill near Lincoln Park. I grew up in Rosemont, Ill. It's a gated community. And I lived in Oak Park right after college, between 1985 and 1987. I've also lived in a group house in northwest Chevy Chase, D.C. And I have to say that perhaps my neighborhood is unique, but just to give you an example. I was just reading my neighborhood Listserv about the murder off of Florida Avenue on 5th and K Northeast last night.
SIDAnd our community is really tight-knit. We all look out for each other. We have an orange hat patrol. When there's a crime wave the neighbors ban together and they let each other know. I don't know if that's unique, but I have to say that I just really love my neighborhood. And it just seems like such a contrast to what she's describing in the book.
NNAMDISid, how diverse would you say your neighborhood is?
SIDIt's less diverse than it was when I first moved to the neighborhood in 1991, but there's still a lot of diversity. And we have block parties. We have a regular monthly jazz band performance session in the neighborhood.
SIDIt's near a dog park, so I think that's a big part of it. A lot of the dog owners have gotten to know each other, and then that expands the circle to other neighbors. And so…
NNAMDIThank you very much -- oh, I'm sorry. Please finish your thoughts, Sid.
SIDSo I'm just saying that my experience has been different. And I did live in Oak Park for a time and so I'm interested in reading the novel.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. It's interesting that Sid says her neighborhood is less diverse than it used to be. During that show that I mentioned earlier, when we talked about segregated neighborhoods, one listener posted a comment on our website saying, "Gentrification is essentially the process where people with more money invest in a neighborhood on the cusp of the city's gradually receding ghettos. And then wait for the locals to move away." What do you think about that?
SNYDERThat is cynical, but perhaps not entirely untrue. It's funny because with Sid's call just now, I know every single area that she's talking about, including Lincoln Park, the dog park. I have a Cambodian street dog that I rescued and we brought her back to the States. And when I was working on my first book, I lived for six months in Capitol Hill. And that was our dog park. So we would take our little Cambodian Ruffy in there. And it was a wonderful area.
SNYDERIn fact, in a lot of ways I like it much better than where I currently live just because there was more commercially going on and you've got Eastern Market over there, which is nice. But I didn't find a lot of diversity, although more than in a lot of areas of Northwest D.C.
NNAMDIHere's Anthony, in Baltimore, Md. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYHi, Kojo. How are you?
ANTHONYYes. I've a very good listener because I've been listening to you for the past 20 years.
NNAMDII appreciate that.
ANTHONYExcept that this is the first time that I am calling in, you know.
NNAMDIOkay. Go right ahead.
ANTHONYThe reason I called in is because what you are discussing is currently happening right now as we speak.
ANTHONYIn a community that I know of. And my real name is not Anthony. Okay.
ANTHONYThat is a false name because I don't want -- I'm in danger. I'm in the middle of it.
NNAMDIAnd you say there's a spate of burglaries going on in your community right now?
ANTHONY(unintelligible) more than a state of burglaries and there's a whole bunch of people of a certain type in that community be targeted. And what's worse is that when the police officers, about three or four of them, come into take a report, they usually advise the victims quietly to move out, not to file a report or a complaint. You see?
NNAMDIThat is fascinating, but we're running out of time and I would really like to hear Rachel Louise Snyder's response to that. The police advising people to move out of the neighborhood. What's…
SNYDERYou know, I feel like -- I don't know the neighborhood. I don't know what people are there. I don't know who he's advising, who are the victims, who are the perpetrators. So it's hard for me to comment.
NNAMDIWell, the reason I asked is because some reviewers have said you're trying to push a political agenda in this book. What was your intent in writing this novel and what is your own prescription for encouraging more diversity in our communities.
SNYDERI've read some of those reviews and I feel like, you know, part of me thinks, well, maybe they're uncomfortable because the, you know, the book hits close to home. I also feel like, as a writer, you know, the story comes first, the character arcs always come first. And I think that Oak Park did -- I mean, I think what they've done has been impressive. You know, there are debates, even in Oak Park, every decade or so. Should we keep this up? Should we keep putting money into it? Maybe it's run its course.
SNYDERAnd, you know, I of course think that those debates shouldn't happen because it's been a fantastic program, but as I said earlier, what I would say is that I feel like we don't spend enough time listening, especially this day and age. We spend more time trying to get our own point of view across.
NNAMDIYou've spent a lot of time listening. You've traveled extensively around the world. You've written a non-fiction book about global trade. You've hosted the public radio series, "Global Guru." How does globalization affect the complexion of our neighborhoods and our communities?
SNYDERNot enough. I would say it has a much bigger reflection in urban areas than suburban areas, in my experience.
NNAMDIWhat's next? I understand you're working on a book about predictions.
SNYDERYeah. Oh, I -- No. I turned that into a New Yorker article, actually, that came out a few months ago.
NNAMDIOh, so what are you working on now?
SNYDERSo now I'm working on a memoir.
NNAMDIOh, you did mention that earlier in the broadcast. So now we'll all find out about where you lived, where you grew up and the 50 countries you've lived in, including four years in Cambodia. Rachel Louise Snyder. She's a writer. She's a professor of creative writing at American University and author of the novel, "What We've Lost is Nothing." Good to see you again.
SNYDERThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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