Local writer Danielle Monroe’s eight-part fictional podcast “Republic of Camberville” (2019–) made its official debut on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts and Spotify on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Monroe, who dedicated the podcast to “the dancers, drug addicts and dreamers who call Camberville home,” sees “Republic of Camberville” as a chance to mine the rich spectrum of life stories in her adopted home.
“I’ve been in Somerville for 11 years … I came to the city from Michigan,” Monroe explained in a phone interview with the Daily. “It’s a town where a lot of people come and they stay, or they come for a while and they leave … so you can tell a lot of different stories, from a lot of different perspectives … and still have them be very genuine and realistic.”
To depict the intricate world of Camberville, Monroe’s podcast weaves an interconnected web of characters and plots in its eight episodes. The first, “Salsaholico,” which was released in August as a preview, follows Raaj, an aimless Indian-American student from Maine who becomes dangerously obsessed with his salsa classes. Other characters include Raahi, a 15-year-old boy producing a sci-fi radio play with his mother’s help, and Mandira, a veteran au pair from India tasked with taking her boss’ children on a wintertime car ride while the children’s mother struggles through a difficult home birth.
In crafting the expansive range of the characters and perspectives in “Republic of Camberville,” Monroe leaned into the cities’ longstanding nonconformist streak as well as their network of distinct neighborhoods.
“When you use Camberville, since it’s not a ‘real’ place … you can give it its own mysticism,” she explained. “It’s very, very pocketed … if you think about East Somerville, which is predominantly Spanish-speaking, and Central Square is very different from Davis Square … you have lots of people living very different lives very close to each other.”
Monroe also sought to capture the many changes that have affected the area and its unique culture over the past decades.
“There’s this really funky arts scene and the long history of music and busking that are being threatened right now with rising rent prices and gentrification,” she observed.
Accordingly, an episode deals with the construction of a luxury condo complex. In that story, Monroe connects the growing effects of development and gentrification with the ever-lingering evidence of the nation’s colonial beginnings, particularly relevant given the area’s intimate connection to the American Revolution.
“They’re building high-end condos, and they find Native American remains,” Monroe said. “So, it parallels what Somerville and Cambridge are going through right now … if you walk through Davis Square, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a new luxury condo under construction.”
This subversion of traditional narratives surrounding progress, development and history feels particularly apt coming from Monroe, who embarked on the project in the wake of a period of personal turmoil.
“I lost three close members of my family in a very short period of time,” Monroe explained. “It started with my father and ended with my brother-in-law … he died in a car accident on July 4, 2013. By Oct. 4, I had been fired from my job because I had to go to India for the funeral … and I also found out I was pregnant with my first child.”
In the midst of these tragedies, along with the discovery of her pregnancy, Monroe was forced to temporarily put her writing career on the back burner. However, it was also during this time that she began formulating the ideas that eventually coalesced into “Republic of Camberville.”
“I had the idea to do this anthology fiction podcast set in Somerville and Cambridge,” Monroe recalled. “But I also knew that I didn’t really know what I was doing … I’d never recorded and never edited before.”
Not wanting to leap straight into the cauldron with “Republic of Camberville,” Monroe decided to try her hand at nonfiction podcasting with her similarly-themed “Artists of Camberville.”
“I was really interested in some of these other interview podcasts, and I had the idea for ‘Artists of Camberville,’ which would allow me to get my feet wet in the podcasting world, and experiment and make mistakes,” she said.
Monroe’s experience with “Artists of Camberville” helped her establish a foundation for the ins and outs of podcast production. More importantly, however, it reaffirmed her faith in Camberville’s vast array of stories waiting to be told.
“I thought I would do a couple of episodes, but then these amazing stories just kept coming at me,” she explained. “One [artist] grew up closeted, in a conservative Christian household, and went to three months of conversion therapy, and now he’s getting married to a minister in the Methodist Church … Another artist called me two days before our interview was going to start and said, ‘I actually really want to tell my story about how I survived child sexual abuse.’”
Beyond its own method of storytelling, “Artists” granted Monroe a new perspective on the varied range of people in the area. Additionally, the area’s prominent role in higher education provided a segue for her to draw from her personal history to add Tufts to the narrative tapestry of “Republic of Camberville.”
“We actually have a character who is at Tufts,” Monroe said. “She has to fly back to Michigan because her twin brother has committed suicide and her mother is really not doing well … so she has to go back to take care of her and figure out what the next phase of her life is.”
The oftentimes harrowing subject matter of “Republic of Camberville” also draws on darker aspects of the area’s history, intimately linking the struggles of the characters and the places they occupy. Monroe highlighted Raaj, the central character of “Salsaholico,” as a prime example.
“He’s a brown man who’s walking through a city that, at times, has a very complicated relationship to race and racism … and he also doesn’t realize that he’s struggling with mental illness,” Monroe observed. “And he’s sort of absorbed some of his surroundings and some of what other people think … and he takes that very sensitively.”
Raaj’s story also provided Monroe with an opportunity to broaden her role in building narrative atmosphere beyond the traditional confines of the writer’s desk.
“For salsa music, it’s very challenging to find royalty-free music,” she explained. “I did get some music, but the clave beats that you hear are actually me playing the clave … you can’t have salsa music without a good clave.”
While Monroe has no current plans to begin moonlighting as a salsa musician, her experience creating “Republic of Camberville” has enhanced her appreciation of the area and its never-ending font of stories.
“It’s such a unique area … and it would be very different if it was in Boston,” Monroe emphasized. “Having it in Somerville and Cambridge gave me the opportunity to explore even more … you can speak to the town, but also to experiences other people are having in towns all over.”
“Republic of Camberville” is available to listen on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A reading of the podcast with Danielle Monroe will be held at The Fuller Cup in Winchester on Friday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m.