Kojo speaks with "Speak No Evil" novelist and D.C. native Uzodinma Iweala about his second novel and how his local upbringing affects his storytelling.
Guest Host: Jim Asendio
A new D.C.-based novel explores the burdens of a covert life, connecting a local military analyst to a warzone thousands of miles away. When he makes an error that results in the deaths of dozens of school children, he’s forced to face the consequences of a life of secrecy. In the wake of the tragedy, he begins a journey that takes him around the world. We talk with author Frederick Reuss about “The Geography of Secrets.”
- Frederick Reuss Author, The Geography of Secrets (Unbridled Books)
MR. JIM ASENDIOAnd welcome back. I'm news director Jim Asendio sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. It's a life not unfamiliar to many Washingtonians, a job in intelligence with a high level of security clearance where even the closest person to you may not know the nature of your job and what you do each day when you leave the house. In the novel, "The Geography of Secrets," a man discovers his father's covert life as a CIA agent, something even his mother never knew. And is also the story of an intelligence analyst, who maps coordinates for the military, who discovers he's not the only one keeping secrets. Well, Washington is a city of secrets and the closer you look, sometimes the more you realize what's being hidden from us, covert operations, dirty political secrets. Well, to talk about this quintessentially Washington story is the prolific author. This is your fifth book now?
MR. FREDERICK REUSSYes.
ASENDIOAuthor Frederick Reuss, thanks for joining us.
ASENDIONow, it's interesting, when I heard about the segment, it brought to mind -- I've been in Washington now for years and there are people who I've met who are -- they just say, oh, I work in Virginia or I work out there off 95 where the military patrols. And I'm going, okay, so what do you do? So where were you at, the grocery store? And it's very interesting that very typical people that you would not really notice have these very fascinating jobs, have the very stressful jobs and very high security clearance, from what I understand. There are at least several thousand jobs right now that require high security clearance that are going wanting because so many people don't have that security clearance.
ASENDIONow, I understand that you're somewhat of a foreign service brat and so you've been around the world and had to pack up -- or perhaps not in the middle of the night, but several times throughout your life. Can you tell me about how that experience, being a child in that environment, brought you to write a book like this?
REUSSWell, the book was as much a personal exploration of a personal geography as it is an attempt to map the geography of the city. In which our residing -- according to the latest figures I've seen -- and there was a brilliant Washington Post exposé this past summer called "Secret America," that put it in very, very specific numbers. They're supposedly, according to the Post numbers, something on the order of 850,000 people who live in this country with -- involved in and with top secret security clearance. That's a lot of people. That's more people than live in this city.
ASENDIOEspecially, if you figure 850,000 people, who can keep a secret?
REUSSWell, and that's a good point. What -- and that gets -- that is what got me wondering, well, what constitutes a secret? Is it something that is withheld from the outside or something that is held inside and not allowed to get out? And it's that order of secrecy that interested me as a novelist because it seems to me that secrets bear -- carry with them a heavy cost. And you can look at it on a cultural level, on a political level and on the individual level. And it seems to me -- come to almost the same conclusion that they're not very pleasant things to live with.
ASENDIOWell, just recently we've had a situation where a very well known civil rights photographer who covered the civil rights movement, it was just revealed in a newspaper article that he had been in informant for the FBI. And he had been in many of the situations, the meetings -- Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders. And apparently, from this article, passed information to the FBI. And here it is, years later after his death that -- in 2010, that people are shocked. And even his family members say, we didn't know that.
REUSSThat's another aspect of public service that is often -- let's say, it must be unsaid, the clandestine service of the U.S. government, which is based here in Langley, and also has aspects throughout the federal bureaucracy. It's not just the CIA that is clandestine -- that has a clandestine service within it. There's also the defense intelligence agency and it's a vast, vast landscape. And for me as a foreign service brat and not unique, I -- as a matter of fact, last week, just met two people with whom it's -- we realized we were -- our parents were stationed in India the same time and we, of course, were little kids. We didn't know each other, but those types of things happen in Washington all the time.
REUSSAnd it's what makes this city unique. It's what also, I think, gives the people who live here a special, let's say, disconnection with the country that people -- it's a political trope that people rely on to, you know, cast Washington in this -- as this other world where things happen that bear no relation to the rest of the country. But where the government has extended itself into, around the world, there are aspects of what happens and what are going on that can't be spoken about and that's just a fact of life.
ASENDIOWhether it's in literature or in movies or in television, you often come across stories where the children in the -- people in the diplomatic service are discussing things or the wives or the husbands and they thought that someone was an attaché at an embassy and it turns out they were the CIA operative. I mean, how does that affect your life, you know, particularly as a child where you know that your parent is doing a government job, but you don't necessarily know, and probably don't know, what that job is.
REUSSWell, when I -- what brought me to write the book was the passing of my father in 2000. And I had always accepted as a given that he was with the United States Information Agency, which is no longer in existence. It was a Cold War institution that President Clinton closed down in 1998, I think. And after he died, I began putting things together, as one does after the passing of a parent, in a slightly different order. And I began asking questions, which led to Freedom of Information Act requests and so on, all of which were denied with the classic, we will neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence that the great bureaucratic obfuscation and so that pushed me further along the project.
REUSSAnd in the context of the current wars that are going on and the way that they're being fought today, by remote agency and the incredible technological power that exists now to enable warfare to go on in that way and to preserve, on the home front, this almost pastoral sense of noninvolvement is a contradiction. And one that, I think, needs to be talked about more openly.
ASENDIODo you think it brings that contradiction either to more of a conflict situation because you can -- not too long ago, you had to be in an -- in-country somewhere to have an effect. And as you say, from Langley or from inside an office in Washington or a control trailer somewhat in the southwest, you can be flying a drone that has been -- the coordinates have been mapped by someone in Washington. And you can rain death upon someone thousands of miles away, but drive home to go to McDonald's and watch football that evening.
REUSSAnd not talk about it with anybody.
ASENDIOAnd not talk about it, exactly.
REUSSAnd it's that burden, I think, that over time has to have an effect on anybody. We talk about PTSD for soldiers returning from the battlefield, but we don't talk about the effects of internalization, the psychological and emotional effects. Which, I would venture to guess -- I don't have any hard figures, but I would venture to guess a public health official would find a lot to talk about or a lot to investigate. There are psychological burdens that are born by people who do work -- that they -- even if they are completely at peace with themselves for the reasons, they still need, somehow, to unburden. One needs to unburden one's self. And when you can't do that, you have problems.
ASENDIOIn the novel, the characters talk about being of Washington, but not necessarily from here. And I understand you feel that yourself. How do you explain that? That, yes, I'm here, but I'm really...
REUSSBut not here.
ASENDIOBut not here, exactly.
REUSSWell, having grown up all around the world, I didn't have what would be a typical experience growing up, of having a hometown where your parents lived, your grandparents and maybe you have other relatives. Washington is a transient place and it's not just people in the diplomatic chorus. It's, you know, people who come and serve in Congress or lobbyists or -- Washington is, by its nature, and was designed to be a transient place. That's why we don't have the right to vote. And so I'd say it's a very common mode of being in Washington, to be not from here, but to live here and call this your home.
ASENDIOBut it's interesting that many of the people who are in that situation, they are so much closer to -- whether it's the levers of power or the levers of actually making something happen in a foreign land. And to be here, but not feel that they are here, I can see why people would say it's inside the belt way or Washington is a different place because it very much is a different place. It's not your typical -- I grew up and went to this elementary school with the same kids. And then, we went to the junior high, then we went to the high school. We went into college, some people came back. I mean, you talk about living all over the world. You're much more a citizen of the world who happens to be American.
REUSSWell, I considered myself a Washingtonian, ironically, while I'm not being from here. The geography in the title is an important aspect because geography -- if it's an attempt to locate a place, it is used in this context as well as a way of locating one's self. A map is something that you use, not just to find someplace else, but to find where you are. And the characters in the book -- which is a sort of kaleidoscope of not just secrets, but geographical locations that all fit together in a constellation that, you know, hopefully will entertain and amuse. But I think is a portrait of what a contemporary interior life is like.
ASENDIOI found the device that you use, but with the latitude and a longitude by actually locating. And then, if you do it with Google Maps, Google Earth, you can actually go on your computer and see. It's almost like an interactive game while you're reading the book. And it's fascinating because so many of the moments in our life are geographically significant. And if you start to map your life out on a globe, you'd go, wow. You know, that's who I am.
REUSSOne of the greatest things I think that's come along is Google Earth. I love Google Earth and the notion that you can do just that. You can map your life by location. One of the ironies of that is with GPS, people, I think, become dependent on a technology that shows them where to go, but they lose contact with how to get there themselves.
ASENDIOExactly, exactly. There's no more you turn at the water tower and remember last year, that wasn't there. And people will follow the little screen in their windshield, sometimes to their peril. They're going someplace, but they're not really in the place that they should be or the space that they should be because they're thinking further ahead and not -- you know, that's actually -- it happened to me downtown. They apparently changed the street from a two-way street to a one-way street, but the GPS hadn't been updated so I turned in going, okay, why is everyone coming at me?
ASENDIOYou know, do you have a job that you can't talk about in government, in Washington? And what do you tell people that you do or what do you think about remote warfare? Do you think that Washington is a city of secrets? We'd like to hear from you. Call us on 1-800-433-8850 or e-mail us at email@example.com. You can get in touch with us on Facebook or you can send us a tweet to @kojoshow. I'm Jim Asendio, sitting in for Kojo today and we are speaking with author Frederick Reuss.
ASENDIOHe is the author of the new book, "A Geography of Secrets." Tell me how geography -- we hear so much these days where the American power or influence has been projected and it is very much a geographic picture. But not many people think about geography. They think of -- it's some place. It's over there and not really the relationship of where that border is and what nation is attached to that or what's the history of that. And we seem to be able to have these public discussions that we really don't know too much about.
REUSSWell, one of the -- it is a contradiction that I'm -- just a few years ago, there was a lot of talk in the media about how geographically illiterate Americans were. I am not sure what the current numbers are, but Google Earth, it seems to me, and GPS and the way that people have now begun using that satellite imaginary to get pictures of where they are on the planet is a significant cultural event, I think. People now can look at their house from space. They can, by punching in numbers, fly over the Grand Canyon and see what it's like. The topography of the Grand Canyon. It's phenomenal what's possible.
REUSSAt the same time, there's that technology becomes a barrier between the direct experience of a landscape and a place and what the pictures show. And that's a contradiction, I think, that's well-played in those guys who are flying the drones halfway across the world. It's like a video game to them. I mean, I say that with all caution because it's not a video game.
ASENDIONow, we have this comment posted on our website from Anthony. It says, "Ironically, there is a Medal of Honor ceremony going on right now at the White House honoring an airman who died in Laos conducting a secret mission during the Vietnam War where the United States military was not supposed to be." And he says, "By the way, your book -- it's a fantastic book, by the way, I've read it. It's just amazing that when -- it's usually years later and almost decades later that we hear about things that have been done in our name. And is there any way of breaking away from that cycle that -- where we actually do understand what's going on in our name right now, whether it's through a hearing on Capitol Hill or just because we're so connected worldwide? You talk about Google Earth. You can actually get live, you know, satellite feeds from places. Is there -- what's the downside of being disconnected and what's the upside?"
REUSSWell, there's always an upside to being connected. I suppose depends on what the purpose is. People -- I think, for example Google Earth has this -- there's this hobby that's evolving now called geo-tagging, where you go and you post photographs that you've taken at various specific places on the internet and you can actually -- other people can see them. At the same time, there's, I think, a public awareness of the world that needs to be combined somehow with the geographic and politic sensibility. Finding out what's going on the other side of the world is always a good thing, whether it's on a video feed or getting on an airplane and flying there. And keeping secrets, I think, is always generally a bad thing. And putting those two together are what I am attempting to do. And the book, I hope, will take people along that path, too.
ASENDIOWell, you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jim Asendio sitting in for Kojo today. We're speaking with author, Frederick Reuss, whose new book is "A Geography of Secrets." Let's go to Fairfax, Va. Tim, you're on the air.
TIMYeah, hi. Hey, thanks Jim and Frederick. Yeah, I just -- I'm a 20-something, like a lot of other 20-somethings, move to the area, take a job out of college and have a number of peers who are sort of in the same demographic. And I just found to be stunning how many people I've always considered to be friends who can't talk about their jobs. However -- and one example is this, would be a friend who I actually was a roommate with for a couple years. Never knew what he did, couldn't share it with me, all I knew is that he worked at CIA.
TIMThen a golfing group, these three guys I was golfing with, all had secret jobs. They were all friends of mine. I didn't know anything that they really did, but they were using just open language that I couldn't discern. They all afterwards individually told me that they knew exactly where the other person worked and what they did. And I was just blown away. But I guess that's how my reaction to your question about, you know, is D.C. a city of secrets. I guess, I think, you know, depending on who you're hanging out with, it can be sort of stunning that way. And I'll take my comments off the air.
REUSSThat's a very -- I have heard the same and I've been in similar situations. One of the things that got me writing the book was at my father's funeral, a gentleman appeared who claimed to be one of my father's best friends. But I had never met him before or ever even heard his name. And that was one of the more unsettling moments and that's what opened the door and got me thinking, hum, what's going on here? I've heard other people relate similar things about that and it's a little bit troubling.
REUSSI mean, there's a lot of attention being paid now to what is becoming intelligence industrial complex. Not just government, but also private contractors who are essentially running the intelligence and security apparatus of the government. It's become a huge, huge business. And I think of it visually in terms of if the Cold War visuals were missiles embedded in silos in the Midwest ready to go off at any time, well, now you think maybe those, you know, the secrets embedded within these 825,000 people who supposedly are conducting our nation's security and intelligence and -- (word?) image to me.
ASENDIOLet's go to Rockville, Md. Jason, you're on the air.
JASONHi, guys. I was calling because I'm also a foreign service brat. We spent most of our time in the Middle East. My father's last tour was in Jordan as a public affairs officer. He worked for USIA and I was wondering whether or not you had found out any more information about your dad. As with my dad, he was a very, very secret. Well, not secretive. Well, I guess secretive man. And then, it's just that I find it interesting that he was able to hold all these things inside and he couldn't talk about anything, you know, either to his, you know, his family or to his wife about these things.
REUSSYeah, well, USIA was one of those organizations that was supposed to not have anything to do with the CIA. In fact, abroad, it wasn't called USIA. It was called USIS to -- so that foreigners didn't conflate the two. Yeah, I was -- I submitted my FIOA applications to the state department. And what came back was more interesting for what wasn't there than what was there. And then, when I moved onto the CIA, I was denied. The request was denied and then I appealed and the appeal was denied. So I've pretty much run up a -- you run up against a big brick wall. And unless you're able to invest a huge amount of money and time with legal, you know, with lawyers, there is really very little chance that you're going to get very much.
ASENDIOWe've been speaking with Frederick Reuss. His new novel, "A Geography of Secrets" is just out. Mr. Reuss will be reading from his novel this Saturday, September 25, at 1:00 p.m. at Politics and Prose. That's at 5015 Connecticut Avenue. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Diane Vogel, Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with the help of Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is a managing producer. The engineer today is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are all available at our website, kojoshow.org. You're also invited to join us on Facebook or to send us a tweet @kojoshow. Our news director, Jim Asendio sitting for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," and for Kojo Nnamdi, thanks for listening. And again, thanks for joining us, Frederick Reuss.
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