Xochitl Gonzalez

Of Quietude and Inquietude

Air Date: December 26, 2022

Bestselling novelist Xochitl Gonzalez discusses quietude and inquietude.


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, novelist and Atlantic Monthly contributor Xochitl Gonzalez. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Gonzalez: Thanks so much for having me.

Heffner: You wrote a fascinating article in The Atlantic that I want you to expound on here today, and it was about what I would call noise pollution. And that’s having lived in cities for a long time, but in truth what we, what we believe is a feeling of community when we, when we hear sounds of neighborhoods and want to preserve them and respect them and honor them. But you, you wrote about how, in your words, rich people wanna buy their quietude, and I want you just to expound on the thesis of the piece and then we’ll talk about it.

Gonzalez: Yeah. You know, I mean, the central sort of argument of the piece is that when I was a younger person, a child really, and a teenager, Brooklyn in particular was a much less desirable place. This was, forget about taxis not taking you back, like you were lucky the train was functioning. No. And it was really the type of place that was kind of forgotten about. And no one cared. And it was loud. It was really loud. Each neighborhood sort of had its own sound, and it was kind of a place of ethnic enclaves, minorities, people of color, like of, of religious, religious minorities. And we were all very loud, a lot of immigrants. And no matter what it was, you could be in an Italian American neighborhood, you could be in a Polish neighborhood, you could be in a Caribbean neighborhood, and you would hear the sounds of that culture, the sounds of that language, the sounds of that music permeating the streets. And what’s happened is over the last 30ish or so years as Brooklyn’s gentrified and then hyper gentrified, there’s been a desire not just to come to urban life and to explore urban life, but to transform urban life, to have sort of the niceties of suburban life, such as very quiet streets and all of the accoutrements of living in the suburbs with all of the conveniences of living in the city. And what I was sort of trying to point out is that if we are really going to be living equitably, we can’t presume that one person’s preference for an aesthetic, an aesthetic of noise or aesthetic of sound is what I call it, is necessarily better. And that this idea of quiet being the norm really depends on what your norm is, and having been raised, sort of loving this like the sounds of summer, and that’s sort of where I started, was like the sound of summer was a no, it was a noisy place. Like it was very, and the less money you had, the less insulation you had from that. Like you maybe had a box fan in the window. So I really wanted to just point out that one person’s quiet can feel like another person’s sort of oppression to a certain extent in the sense that, you know, I, I remembered going away to college and I went to an Ivy League school in New England, and it was, you know, a very sonically a dear place. It’s a good way to put it.

Heffner: I hear you. And, and that’s, an astute analysis and, also a genuine affirmation of of a culture and, and the volume of that culture, you know, mattering, , the specific sounds, but also the volume, what I wanna point out in the context of this, and your marvelous book too, is, that there is also increasingly air and noise pollution in our cities as a result of the hyper gentrification that you, that you allude to, which you acknowledge for sure.

Gonzalez: Oh my gosh, I’m literally being, I, I’m besieged by it right now as they’re erecting an eight foot building behind my apartment.

Heffner So this is, this is, I would say more overwhelming than any cultural, enriching contributions in the air. Now of course, during this pandemic, and I still say it’s a pandemic and still believe it’s a pandemic, , you know, the, the air, how much we, we could quantifiably experience safely pre-vaccination regiment. Now even in this era of, of continued public health crisis,, that’s it, it’s, it’s so truncated, as a result of, of the city. So you were closing your windows, because of fear of, of not just, you know, toxic chemicals from construction projects, but this new disease. And I, and I just wonder in thinking about this, whether it’s Brooklyn or any of the boroughs, if what you’re more likely to hear when you open that window is one of more pernicious polluting noises or smells as opposed to one of those culturally enriching, nurturing noises or smells…

Gonzalez: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a really interesting topic. I think, , one of the things that’s, oh, I guess I sort of find myself fixating on is a little bit more like public space. Like I agree with you, I think in my neighborhood right now, for two years I’ve been just during the week just inundated with the sounds of construction. And it, I, I can’t think of less pleasant sounds. But I then try to never complain about the construction workers listening to music cuz I’m like, well, I’d rather hear the music than hear the sounds of the saw. But I think what’s more intriguing to me is, cause I think about this a lot, especially in very, very early covid when we were all so, so uncertain and the only spaces that we sort of had to be outside in that first spring was the parks, right? And it’s like, who, like, what are we, what about our public space? I, I think just what is our default of our public spaces? And, and so I find that yes, I would agree with you that the sound of gentrification is actually not quiet cuz it’s the sound of construction. But I think that, it’s about the idea that like our public spaces, how some one person’s use of them might not be what somebody else enjoys, you know? And I think that it’s much more, I I, when we think about urban planning, which I don’t know that we’ve been doing a very good job of in New York, to be honest, in a lot of these urban centers, I, it is sort of this idea of like, is do we need to be thinking about this in terms of our park spaces and in terms of our, you know, our schoolyard spaces and like, is this something that we have to start negotiating not with one, one preference dominating, but with the idea that these preferences need to coexist. Because to your point, sometimes it is nice to go out into the middle of a park on a Sunday and it’s absolutely quiet, right? It’s like all you hear are the birds and you’ve got enough distance between you and the streets that you’re not hearing the jackhammers and all the other things. But for another family hearing that radio is just a thing that makes that feel like a celebration.

Heffner: Right. And I did wanna to touch on this question too, of, of whether the prolonged absence of silence in communities that were not experiencing the construction, but were in neighborhoods where it was not a question that you were going to hear the music from a neighbor.

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Heffner: Or you were gonna hear, you know, it could be very lovely sounds or, or, you know, very unpleasant sounds. But, but is there a, an issue here of class two and economic mobility in the sense that some of the noises over the years have prevented access maybe to the solitary quietude that is conducive to concentration and learning? Is that, is that fair?

Gonzalez: I think it’s not to say that it’s not a fair assumption as much as it’s to underestimate like the children or young people living in those environments and how you can, for some students, some young people in particular, you can learn how to focus through anything. I, you know, I myself, I can tell you I lived with two extremely hard of hearing grandparents, in a railroad apartment with no doors. And we lived with family upstairs on, and then family everywhere basically that with open windows and everyone’s noise was everyone’s noise. And I can quite literally write a book through absolutely anything. I could have 30 people around me. And as long as I know what I’m doing, I can just focus completely on what it is. And so I think that for some people it is a challenge, just the same way that there are students, young people in upper class backgrounds that might suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and a, a number of other things that could have every circumstance, like, and not be able to necessarily always focus, I think for other people that, , that seeming deficit enables them to, to find their own ability to focus and quiet. And actually, I, white noise is my friend, you know, I, I can say I, and I know a lot of people like that. Like the white noise of something happening in the background feels comforting cause like, too much silence is unfamiliar.  So, you know, and, and honestly I can just say like even as a graduate of New York City public schools, my high school in particular, I don’t really remember that being a very quiet place either. And that was a learning environment.

Heffner: That’s true. That’s true. And I mean, you do have the benefit of the Spotify and Pandora today with…I see thinking and

Gonzalez: Oh, I do. Well, I’m just thinking about earbuds and, and like, you know, and po like, I think that there are people’s universal, those are, that’s a class, a classless equalizer because I think that they’ve become a lot of people’s ways of escaping and going into it in inner world for themselves. We see it on, on the subway, it’s changed commuting, but we see it on the subway all the time here.

Heffner: Well, I don’t know how you wrote your bestselling book, but if I’m ever really dedicated to the craft of writing, editing is a different story. But in order to write, in order to write something of length

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Heffner: More than an op-ed. But even if I’m just writing an op-ed, I, I don’t necessarily need noise proof for canceling headphones if there’s not noise on the outside…if there is noise, definitely. But, my brain functions on repetition. So I will play one song over and over again. I mean, in, in college that was probably Coldplay, You know, or something a little older like U2 or Springsteen. , but just this, a single track on repetition, that’s how my brain works. It never tires at that. That’s how I get from one page to the next. And I’m curious about your style there.

Gonzalez: I make playlists and I listen to them throughout the duration of the project. So, and with my novel with Olga Dies Dreaming, I had different playlists for each POV, and so I probably would listen to them, but to your point, it, it became kind of, I never got tired of it, but I did listen. I mean that you’re listening to something for like a year, right? Like, you sort of really get into it. My, my next book was, is unfortunately set mainly in the nineties. So I’ve been listening to a lot of, like, a lot of really weird pop music from the nineties. But it’s been…I find that it helps me get into character to think about what that character would listen to. And then in the process it sort of becomes ambient, you know? And, I do find that, I think because I am just very interested in music, and I always felt like I grew up sonically with a lot of music on, it tends to weave its way into my writing. So, in that sense it serves both as white noise and inspiration.

Heffner: I hear you. And, and I think for me, I don’t think I could. It’s not that I have distractability, or attention deficit issues in general, but just the expectation of the next track, even if it was a playlist that I had composed, and maybe I, maybe I would tire if I had to write 300 pages of a, of a book that I have not done yet, but I could see myself maybe doing one song a day.

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Heffner: But really just one song, because that’s the way it’s wired. I, I, I couldn’t anticipate the next song and it would just that, I don’t know if distraction is the right word, but it, it would, it would, it would, I would lose focus.

Gonzalez: Yeah. I wonder, It’s interesting because, , you know, if you ever get to read Quincy Jones’ biography, it’s really great. And one of the things he talks about is he is unable to drive because he sees, he does everything to rhythm. His songs playing in his mind. So I wonder if some of it’s rhythmic and that you get into your zone and you like ride one rhythm. And that’s kind of interesting. Like, and the disruption of that might creak the thoughts. It’s kind of fun and some, it’s fun to think about, like, it’s fun to think about, like noise that, that’s also creative or noise that can be inspirational. And I, I I find that really actually interesting, like an individual preference. Really interesting.

Heffner: I do wanna give you a chance to delve into your book, your most recent book, your new project. For those who are not familiar with it. , but just to close out the Atlantic article, because, you know, I was really obsessed with that piece. It  got me thinking just about, not the multimillionaires or billionaires who are, who are buying quietude or quiet spaces, but just the fact that we all should have a right to that quietude,  just as we should have a right to the cultural experiences, in the music on the street. But I feel like a result of the hyper-gentrification and the, and the classism of, of the present era is really the, the people who want a choice of quietude can’t have a choice of quietude anymore. whether quietude in it of itself is a, is a virtue or not. I’m not really commenting on that, but I, I just think that it, it’s become a sad realization that you can only buy silence. Again, you accept that there’s some merit to silence. It’s not just a bad thing, but, but the sad thing is, is that I, I I think you can only buy the, the silence or the quietude now, I, I, you know, and, and otherwise you’re, you don’t have access to it in a lot of ways.

Gonzalez: Well, one thing that came up a lot, in talking with people about the piece and that I think, I, I think if I, I would call it a sub subtle pushback is that to some extent, what I think a big, the underlying current of this is that we just don’t know one another. And I actually think most of the time people are decently civil, you know, surprisingly civil, actually. But when they’re engaged, and not like, so I think that like, you know, when somebody knocks on a neighbor’s door and says like, “Oh, you know, I’m so sorry. I’m having like a very difficult night.” Or, you know, “Oh, I’m gonna have my daughter’s communion reception in my apartment tomorrow.” I hope it shouldn’t go too late. I think that when we take these moments to ask for what we need or explain express where we are in a personal situation, I actually think most of the time people are considerate. Not always, but most of the time. But I think one of the issues is, is that people don’t want to engage with one another. And we have a lot less community that’s part of the nature of hyper gentrification. We don’t necessarily know our neighbors. , we don’t tend to make as many allowances, you know, like I I I this idea of like, well,

Heffner: I’m, I’m there with you. I’m there with, Yeah. I think it’s, it’s the, it’s the forced nature of the, of the noise pollution, if you want to call it…whereas I, I, I’m with you entirely that we’ve, we’ve lacked, we’ve lacked or lost a sense of communitarianism in our day to day lives. , and, and I’m only, my, my grievance, or my, my experience at least of grievance in so many different situations is just that it’s out of your control, whether that’s construction, whether that’s, , you know, teenage kids having a party with the, the subwoofer on, you know, slamming down, you can hear miles away. Yeah. I mean, so welcome to my world, but, you know, from place to place and, and being somewhat nomadic over the course of the pandemic, I can testify to that. It’s kind of inescapable, at least the construction piece, not just in the boroughs of New York City. All right. Now to your, to your piece, your novel, please tell our viewers who have not read it yet about it. I would like to give you that platform do that…

Gonzalez: That. Oh, thank you so much. Yes. My novel is called Olga Dies Dreaming, and it was just named a TIME 100 books you must read for 2022, and it takes place in Brooklyn. And a big theme is gentrification. And our protagonist is Olga Acevedo. She’s a middle aged wedding planner, and the book sort of acts like a Trojan Horse, it starts out and you think it’s about a wedding planner to the ultrarich, and she meets somebody and you, it seems like it’s going to be this sort of romcom and then it rides its way into politics and corruption and gentrification and colonialism in Puerto Rico. And it takes place in the months before and after Hurricane Maria. And so it’s a bit, I’d say it doesn’t quite neatly fit into any category, but I think if you’re into politics and it’s found a surprising audience amongst nonfiction readers in DC like that are like, I’ve never read a, I hadn’t read a novel in seven years, and I’m really digging this novel. So it’s been wonderful. It’s been really wonderfully received, and it’s opened up such great conversations about things like gentrification and the changes in Brooklyn. And, you know, what happens to sort of working class communities, as you know, we become a little bit more, white collar and a little bit more and more elite to a certain extent in the city. And then also opened up a lot of really profound conversations that with readers that I’ve been so moved by around Puerto Rico and its status is a territory slash colony and even disaster capitalism and disaster relief to Puerto Rico, relative to other places in the U.S. So it’s been, it came out in January and I have to say it’s been almost 11 months of really, exciting engagement with readers and other, , and writers who wanted to talk about the book or write about the books. It’s been pretty exciting, and I hope people enjoy it. And it’s very funny. It’s very, very funny,

Heffner: Judging by our conversation so far. I, I think our viewers can, can trust that and, colorful and, , and spirited and, , lovable and, and important, and, and the motifs, like you’re saying, are, are connected to, the, the wellbeing and longevity of our cities and, and our interconnectedness as people.

Gonzalez: Yeah.

Heffner: Having had this year of feedback essentially, I’m always curious from novelists how they want in, in their minds at least, even if they don’t want to turn into an advocate or an advocate or an activist, how they see most tangibly it translating into forms of bettering humanity better. I mean, bettering our society and, and in the case of Brooklyn specifically, or New York, or the United States of America or Puerto Rico,

Gonzalez: I do think I was advocate, I, I’ll admit to advocating, and I think I definitely was advocating in a Brooklyn sense that we need to be better community members, right. And that we are definitely better together than we are in isolation. And, um, and you know, I think I’ve had wonderful conversations with people about how to be a better gentrifier, and it’s really about getting to know people and valuing that community around you. So that’s been pretty terrific. And I definitely think that was what I was advocating for. And in terms of Puerto Rico, you know, it’s funny, in the course of the year I went from saying I’m agnostic and I’m not gonna say anything to just saying to I’m presenting that there’s many points of view to now, really, I think the status quo is not good. It’s not up to people on the mainland to decide it should be given to the Islanders when a vote that would actually count and not the plebiscites that have been happening. And I think one more round of hurricane seasons definitely pushed me further in that direction. And, at the end of the day though, the book I’ve, I were to say what it’s about, it’s really about self-determination and self-actualization. And that goes for the heroine, Olga, and I think it goes for Puerto Rico as well. So it’s been, yeah, it’s been kind of, it’s been fun in the sense that in the beginning, what I really heard from was a lot of Latinas in particular that are like, I’ve never seen me in a book like this. And now as the year’s gone on, I’m having slightly more nuanced political conversations about it, which is also fun and, and in a and beautiful, in a different way.

Heffner: I think I understood what you meant by agnostic. But what about in the context of, of our American communities, , you know, our, our U.S. communities, , Puerto Rico is an extension of that, but the New York within the States. But you know how we can, I mean, the two things are connected, right? Nothing will ever change in terms of the, the territory, non-state territory of Puerto Rico, that is, that is America, too. Nothing will ever change about that unless we have a change of consciousness on the, on the mainland.

Gonzalez: Well, I think that one of the, the goals in writing the book was, , you know, I started writing that book in 2019, , 2018, what am I talking about? 20? Yeah, like early 2019. And the conversation at the moment was really. There was a lot of conversation around restoring voting rights, , to former, , former inmates. There was a lot of, you know, at that point it was sort of Stacey Abrams doing amazing work on the ground in Georgia about trying to expand the electorate. And I sort of saw this as an extension of these conversations, because you have in Puerto Rico, , citizenship, that’s not true citizenship. And it’s by simple like the Kafkaesque circumstance. Like, I happen to be born on this island and living here, and I would have a totally different set of rights if I moved to Florida, let’s say. And so I really did wanna highlight it as a, as a civil rights issue, as an issue about citizenship, as an issue about enfranchisement. And so I think that that has, it has awakened things. And I’ve been really moved, not just this book, but there’s been a movement in the arts amongst artists of Puerto Rican descent and the diaspora on the island to start calling attention to some of these inequities. And I, I just know that the response that I saw, even around Hurricane Fiona was very different, right? Like, it was less, “Oh, this is sad that this is happening here” than “How, what are we doing? This is not acceptable”, that, I mean, that was…

Heffner: You were one of us. We are, we are one and the same…

Gonzalez: Yeah. Yes, that’s right. And this is ridiculous and not good. And we can’t, And, and I think that people are starting to wrap their heads around the fact that it’s, it is, it’s absurd and semi and semi arbitrary to a certain extent. And like, if we find this tolerable, what other injustices can become tolerable? And, and, and, and so that’s been really wonderful. I think the book, you know, I think the book brought a lot of pride and, and thought provoking, thought provocation to the diasporic community community. But I think it’s been great to see people take this on as something that like, it’s like, I just didn’t even know, you know? And we, even though that it was part of the United States, and it’s part of the story of the Spanish American War, like it’s a part of history. It’s like, we don’t really look at these, like, these things and when we’re taught history. And I think that it was illuminating to a lot of people and, and made, , made people really actually care, I think. And that’s been kind of fabulous going into, like, I did an event in Greenwich, Connecticut, like where, you know, I had a few, a few Puerto Ricans that showed up, but like, generally speaking, it was a very affluent, like white crowd, and people were asking the most, thoughtful, educated, informed questions. They’d done more research after reading the book. And, and that, that’s been really, really profound. And I think if we find ourselves in a state of slightly less dire political chaos, we might actually get to advocate for the Congress to take up, there’s a bill to vote on the status that would force us to take the status quo off the table and go in one direction or the other. But, you know, we, we’ve been literally living in triage, as you know, like, so it hasn’t been high priority, but hopefully at some point we can see that taken up again.

Heffner: Xochitl Gonzalez, thank you so much for your insight and for your novel. Appreciate it.

Gonzalez: Thank you so much. This is delightful.