In 2013, Jessica Bruder set out in a van (nicknamed “Halen”) to chronicle the wanderings of a new and growing class of American migrants: a community of older people who, instead of enjoying a leisurely retirement, live on the road out of necessity, working grueling, low-paid, seasonal jobs to supplement their meager Social Security income. Now she has spun their stories into Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. At once wonderfully humane and deeply troubling, the book offers a touching and terrifying tour of the increasingly unequal, mobile, and insecure future our country is racing toward.
I spoke to Bruder in mid-September, a few days before Nomadland was published. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Astra Taylor: Your book can be read as an entertaining story of a cast of charming, vagabond characters living life on the margins, but you are also making the case that these people represent something significant about America in the early 21st century. Why is it important to look at this community?
Jessica Bruder: The people I wrote about all made what looks, from the outside, like a radical choice. They’ve sidestepped the growing expense of traditional housing by moving into old RVs, vans, travel trailers and even a few sedans. For those living hand-to-mouth, this is no easy lifestyle. Apart from facing the day-to-day complications of life on the road—vehicle breakdowns, police harassment, scary weather—they’ve elected to make themselves what mainstream Americans consider homeless. (They prefer calling themselves “houseless.”) And that puts them in a hard place, because American culture still largely equates home ownership with citizenship, stigmatizing those who live differently.
But, more and more, precarity has morphed into the status quo. The economic fringe is becoming the center. In other words: “They” are turning into “us.” So I hope that the stories in this book will offer readers a wake-up call—not because the characters’ circumstances seem exotic, but because, in many ways, they’re quite familiar. The price of traditional housing has skyrocketed. Wages have stayed flat. In that context, the decision to become a nomad isn’t radical at all. It’s a logical outcome of the economy we’ve built.
AT: Many of the people you profile are older and they are arguably quite radical, in their life choices and their disillusionment with consumer culture. How do they relate to the wider “Make America Great Again” phenomenon we are witnessing today, which seems to appeal disproportionately, though not exclusively, to older folks?
JB: My reporting ended before the Trumpocalypse began. Still, most of the nomads I met were not especially political. They were off the grid, both literally and figuratively. Many don’t get to vote because they’re so mobile, with legal addresses that don’t necessarily correspond with the states they’re visiting when elections roll around. (For what it’s worth, the one van dweller I know who managed to vote, and spoke openly about it, was a proud Clinton supporter. She also went to Standing Rock. She is an anomaly.) While they share a sense that the system is broken, most tend to live that experience more pragmatically than politically. If you’re working 12-hour shifts at the sugar-beet harvest, you’re going to fall asleep at the end of the day, rather than stay up and write your congressperson.