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Summer Words, Western voices

Stewart Oksenhorn
Ross Kribbs photo
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The Aspen Writers’ Foundation has never been particularly provincial. In its three-decade history, the organization has brought to Aspen great writers from all fields of writing (fiction, poetry, journalism) and from all over the map: John Irving, Erica Jong, Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel Schorr, Michael Ondaatje. For last year’s Aspen Summer Words event, the first time the AWF presented its summer literary gathering under a unifying theme, the foundation cast its line farther than ever, focusing on writers from the literature-rich country of Ireland.

But to celebrate its 30-year anniversary – a span which makes it the oldest literary organization in Colorado – the AWF has opted to look not far and wide, but closer to home. This year’s Aspen Summer Words, which runs through Thursday, June 29, is presented under the banner, Voices of the West: Crossing the Great Divide. It is a theme meant to honor not only the regional writers of the American West, but also as a tip of the pen to the town that has supported it through good times and tumultuous ones.”The comment I got over and over after last year was, ‘How are you going to top this?'” said Lisa Consiglio, who has been executive director of the AWF since the fall of 2003. “We thought the perfect way to honor our own backyard was to honor the American West. It was the perfect way to pay homage to our town.”The focus on writers of the Western states has not meant any compromise in the quality of the writing. Among the participants in Aspen Summer Words – which includes a writing retreat for the serious writer, and a literary festival for readers – is the usual collection of bright lights: Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author N. Scott Momaday, and former U.S. Congressman and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, both from New Mexico; Gretel Ehrlich, the author of 13 books who splits her time between Wyoming and her native California; and the Montana couple of Annick Smith and William Kittredge, writers and editors who were also co-producers of the film, “A River Runs Through It.” (New Mexico mystery writer Tony Hillerman was a late cancellation, due to a family medical situation.) Nor has the theme translated into an esoteric glimpse at narrow, regional issues. “We wanted to expose elements of literature that really capture the typical reader’s interest,” said Consiglio. “That can be politics, spiritual, environmental, beauty. The West has it all.”

La FronteraThe Literary Festival includes a variety of presentations: a ceremony awarding the Aspen Prize for Literature to Momaday; the Defenders of the West panel discussion with Momaday (replacing Hillerman) and Udall; and the Partners in Art conversation with Kittredge and Smith; as well as a book-signing, wrap party and more.The sense of the West as a setting for an all-encompassing, universal story comes through best, perhaps, in La Frontera, a discussion featuring Denise Chávez, an American Book Award winner from New Mexico; Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, a San Diego Chicano; and Ted Conover, a Colorado native and New York resident (best-known locally for his 1991 memoir of the Aspen high life, “Whiteout”). The event, set for Tuesday, June 27, at 7 p.m., centers around a region of the American West that has received ample national attention lately: la frontera, the border separating the U.S. from Mexico. While the political angle has landed in the headlines the last few months, the writers have presented a broader perspective – on the land, the people and the politics, and most of all, the crossings themselves – the human experience on that charged expanse of space.La frontera encompasses what can be considered the essential literary tale, one that dates back to the Old Testament and Homer’s “Odyssey”: the journey away from one’s roots into a new land. It is not only a bedrock literary theme, but the foundation of the story of America, one that gets closest to the truth of what America is and has been: a land of dreams, a destination for those in pursuit of a better life. Where once that story was centered on the East Coast – Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island – it is now told around la frontera.

“This is something [mythologist] Joseph Campbell could have written – a mythic journey, through trials and tribulations, to get to something blissful,” said Urrea, whose 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “The Devil’s Highway,” told the true story of an illegal border crossing that resulted in 14 deaths. “And many people fall by the wayside. A few heroic figures make it to the other side. It’s this ancient, ancient story of the immigrant and his journey; it’s everything from ‘Ulysses’ to ‘Mad Max.'”It is also a relatively modern narrative, one not far removed from even native-born, middle-class Americans. “Maybe the old-time hobos don’t like to admit,” said Conover, whose 1984 book, “Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes,” led to “Coyotes.” “But Mexican-Americans descend from the original line of hobos – they’re immigrants traveling to where the jobs are. It wasn’t a big leap to my great-grandfather, who immigrated from Norway in the 19th century. He had everything in common with the guys I was seeing on freight trains.”It is a story being told in different ways. Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway” is a stylized, tortured account of one border-crossing gone very wrong, offering a look into the realities of an everyday occurrence that carries enormous risks. Conover’s 1987 “Coyotes,” a New York Times notable book, is a first-person, insider account of undocumented Mexicans that lends much insight into why people cross the border, and the effects on individuals, families and communities. (A new edition of “Coyotes,” with updated writing, is due for publication this week.) Chávez’s 1994 novel “Face of an Angel” conveys the textures, emotions and personal dynamics of small-town New Mexico. Though different in form and style, the trio of books address similar themes: the harshness of the landscape, the cultural gap dividing the nations, and the magnetic pull exerted by the U.S. economy. These ingredients allow for all the great elements of storytelling: crime and punishment, fortune and misfortune, family and dreams, and a literal life-or-death battle against nature and nations.

“It’s a gauntlet, the great Sonoran desert that so many cross through,” said Conover, whose most recent book, 2000’s “Newjack,” an insider account of life as a guard as Sing Sing prison, earned the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The incidents of death among migrants crossing rises every year. It seems to me scandalous. The migrants Luis wrote about were abandoned by their coyote [the common term for a hired guide to lead a crossing]. That so many people should be put at risk by the failure of organized crime to do a better job doesn’t reflect well on us.””It’s an interesting ‘news’ place – there’s something horrible going on every day,” added Urrea, who followed “The Devil’s Highway” with “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” a historical epic based on his great-aunt and her life at the border.Even more extreme than the physical terrain is the colossal social and economic gap between the U.S. and Mexico. The economic disparity not only drives the practice of crossing, but also reflects the opposing values of the two nations. The close juxtaposition of the divergent cultures allows a clearer understanding of each one alone.”It’s so interesting that you can take a step across from the First World to the Third World without getting a malaria shot, without traveling 18 hours on a plane,” said Urrea, who experienced his own cross-cultural tugs – his father was from Sinaloa, a state in northwestern Mexico; his mother was from New York.

“It’s about extremity – environmental extremity, and people in extreme situations, in two different countries,” said Conover.After the crossingThe cultural cross-pollination doesn’t end with Mexicans’ crossing into the States, or getting caught – or worse – in the attempt. As Conover emphasizes by documenting his extended stay in Mexico, the final chapter isn’t necessarily written at the border. In their search for higher wages, Mexican men leave behind families and villages; Conover notes that some rural towns are left with only women and children, like a place where the men have gone to war. They return with U.S. dollars – and venereal diseases, horrific memories of brushes with the law, physical ailments from the hard work, and feelings of Mexican inferiority.”We see America’s cultural dominance, when these immigrants return home with a desire for fast food, jeans, sneakers, high-tech gadgets, and what effect that has on their home culture,” said Lara Whitley, the AWF’s director of marketing and public relations, who was instrumental in developing the La Frontera program.

With immigration reform on the minds of politicians, bureaucrats and citizens from Washington, D.C., to Southern California to the Roaring Fork Valley, the panelists for the La Frontera event are as likely to discuss the current situation as they are their past books. Urrea and Conover are well-versed in the issues. Conover, having witnessed the fray from close up, and from both sides of the border, comes down on the side of openness, and accepting that the chance for freedom and prosperity will always be worth any risks for a good number of immigrants.”The criminalization of Mexican migrants leads people to believe that this is different,” he said. “I understand the misgivings of Americans toward undocumented people jumping the line, not waiting their turn to do it through traditional channels. But a thoughtful person thinks, this is how our country was made. We have issues with the legality, but the phenomenon is the same. They’re coming for the same reasons your forebears and my forebears came. They’re the latest chapter in American history.””What’s universal there is the hope for a better life, for you and your family,” said Whitley. “And that’s what the frontier is about, what the West is about. And that continues. No matter how big of a fence you build, people still have their dreams.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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