In June, shortly after the George Floyd protests began, Abraham Knofler was so upset with Bedford Stuyvesant’s Burly Coffee for posting a Black Lives Matter sign in their window that he harassed a barista for minutes on end — all while not wearing a mask.
“I’m not a racist, you are,” Knofler was filmed saying to the barista in an 11-minute video. “This sign is offensive, you need to take it down.” He later told Gothamist that, while he didn’t expect the cafe to remove the sign, he still wanted to make the point that “all lives matter.”
“[This instance] does capture [a theme] of When No One Is Watching — racist white people who move into predominantly Black neighborhoods and splatter their racism everywhere while thinking they’re not racist because they’re liberal and live in Brooklyn,” esteemed author Alyssa Cole tells R29Unbothered over email of her new thriller novel.
Cole’s call-out points to an overarching societal theme that her story’s protagonist, Sydney, is all-too-familiar with. And as Sydney — who was born and raised in Brooklyn — watches her neighbors disappear amid the rapid materialization of condos and for sale signs, she’s left to ask: “When does coincidence become conspiracy?” When No One Is Watching is inspired by Cole’s own experiences, and examines gentrification via the erasure of Black people from Brooklyn’s history — with quite the suspenseful twist.
“It will mean different things to different people,” Cole explains. “Generally, it means a lot has been and continues to go on that people don’t pay attention to when it’s not right in front of their face (and as we can see from the current moment, it’s not even always a matter of things being hidden, but people refusing to see what’s going on if that means disturbing the status quo).”
We caught up with Cole to discuss her new novel, and how stories like this one take on an especially poignant meaning amid one of the most turbulent periods of social unrest yet.
Without spoiling the plot entirely, can you elaborate on what this story is about?
The story is about a woman named Sydney who moves back to her Brooklyn neighborhood after a shitty marriage and discovers that everything is changing faster than she can keep up. She decides to plan a historical walking tour of the neighborhood as a distraction and a way to preserve history. Theo, a new white neighbor, volunteers to help. Together they start to notice that something strange, and maybe sinister is going on.
For the story, I drew a lot from my own experiences of living in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, seeing my childhood neighborhood change so much, and also as a way of processing how it feels for me as a Black woman who does researches history books set in various time periods to see the way oppression and greed have manifested from the very beginning of America’s history.
Your book has been compared to Get Out. Tell us about the decision to write this story as a thriller novel.
It’s honestly not super different from what I’ve written before, as all of my books, whether sci-fi, historical, or contemporary romance, have greater or lesser degrees of mystery and suspense. My Loyal League series is historical espionage romance built around a secret society of Black spies trying to take down the Confederacy. But I’ve always enjoyed thrillers and the genre was a great vehicle for the ratcheting suspense, anxiety, and moral gray areas of this specific story, which I would have told differently if the relationship was the driving factor and not the mystery.
There are two powerful quotes — one from Zora Neale Hurston and the other from W.E.B. Du Bois — at the beginning of the book. Tell us about your decision to open the book with them.
I thought the juxtaposition of the quotes showed two ideas that were central to the book—the certain kind of ugliness that drives gentrification (and capitalism and white supremacy in general), and also the fact that history as it’s presented to us is entirely subjective and not necessarily the whole truth just because it’s in a textbook.
Do you feel When No One Is Watching takes on a particularly poignant meaning amid the COVID-19 pandemic and our present social climate?
Honestly, a lot of the last few months has been watching with dread as things that are frighteningly relevant to the story have made headlines in the news. Like watching the Breonna Taylor horror unfold (as of the writing of this, her killers have not been arrested and the attorney general was yucking it up at the RNC, making it clear they won’t be charged anytime soon), and then learning the warrant that was illegally executed was done so in the name of clearing the neighborhood in gentrification efforts.
What do you want your readers to feel as they're reading When No One Is Watching?
It depends on the reader. Some people I want to feel seen, understood, and validated. Others, I want to feel uncomfortable and do some self-assessment. I want everyone to enjoy the story, which is anxiety-inducing but also has its fair share of humor, romance, and action, too.