Walk a mile in Ted Conover’s shoes at English in Action event in Aspen
If You Go…
What: Ted Conover, presented by English in Action
Where: Aspen Design Room, 625 E. Main St.
When: Wednesday, Sept. 10, 5-7 p.m.
Cost: $30 at the door
More information: http://www.englishinaction.org
Ted Conover’s writing projects have taken him onto railroads as a hobo, on the border among Mexican migrant workers, into Sing Sing as a prison guard, and into meatpacking plants as a meat inspector. But reading his work, you find his 30-year career in participatory journalism is less about vicarious adventure than it is about understanding people who, on the surface at least, are unlike him.
Conover speaks tonight at the Aspen Design Room at a fundraiser for English in Action, the El Jebel-based organization that provides one-on-one English tutoring for immigrants. The nonprofit is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a series of “Community Conversation” events.
His talk is titled “You in the Picture: Cultural Exploration and the First Person,” and will examine instances where his immersive approach has succeeded — and failed — to help him bridge differences and understand a subject.
“I think the reason I was invited has something to do with my participatory style of reporting,” Conover, a Denver native and former Aspen Times reporter, said from his home in New York. “The talk might look at the idea and practice of that, in terms of what’s possible in getting to know people of a different culture. How far can empathy take you? How much are we limited by our own cultural lens, including stereotypes?”
Reaching out to immigrants as English in Action does, he noted, is not entirely different from what he does as a writer. More specifically, it’s akin to his mission for his 1987 book, “Coyotes,” for which he lived among migrant workers and the hired hands who ferret them across the Mexican-American border.
“No matter where you’re coming from, whether it’s making an important public gesture like I believe (English in Action tutors) do, or as a writer looking for an untold story, that seems important,” Conover said. “I think we start with something of the same impulse.”
If a writer today were to attempt what Conover did in the mid-80s for “Coyotes,” he would likely find a different story with different characters.
“I think today’s migrants are more urban, more worldly, they don’t expect to work in the fields so much as they do in the kitchen, the warehouse or the lawn crew,” he said. “There was almost an innocence about some of the people I traveled with and I think I’d be less apt to find that today. The U.S. and Mexico know each other better and Mexican presence in the U.S. is much more established and mature.”
When the book was coming out, he noted, he often had to explain to people what a “coyote” was and why that was the name of his book. Today, as border struggles flare and the American immigration debate continues, the slang term for those who smuggle people across the border is a part of the general public’s vocabulary. The increasingly touchy political debate over immigration is also evident in the book’s marketing over the last 27 years. Originally subtitled, “A Journey Across Borders with America’s Illegal Aliens,” current listings for it have changed the final word from “Aliens” to “Migrants.”
He calls the book “the most enjoyable of all my big projects,” citing the camaraderie he felt while on the project. It was preceded by his debut, “Rolling Nowhere,” about traveling as a hobo, and followed by “Whiteout,” about his two years living in Aspen as a reporter and cab driver.
“I was just getting off from traveling with railroad tramps for a long time,” he said of his time on the border, “and it was such a nice contrast to not think, ‘I’m going to have to worry about my wallet when I fall asleep.’ It was in many ways the opposite of my previous experience.”
Conover’s interest in various us-and-them cultural divides was shaped, in part, by his experience in high school in Denver, where he was bused to a school with a predominantly African-American student body.
“Being placed in the position of a minority group really opened my mind to the ways in which your status in the world affects so much the way you view it,” he said. “It was definitely a crucial thing for me.”
The other primary influence, he said, was discovering anthropology in college at Amherst, which inspired him to use anthropological methods in his reportage. His honors thesis turned into “Rolling Nowhere.”
This summer, for an Outside magazine feature, he returned to the rails with his son. Other recent projects have included working as a USDA meat inspector for a feature on meatpacking in Harper’s and the book, “Routes of Man,” about how roads shape local cultures around the world. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 book, “Newjack,” about his time embedded as a prison guard.
By making himself a part of the action, and investing himself in his subject, he said, he can use his own emotions to find the heart of his story.
“I think about, ‘What side of me is this bringing out? How does that feel? What parts do I really love and what parts don’t I like?’” he said. “And that produces some of the most interesting material.”
While most of Conover’s projects have placed him in little-explored subcultures or gritty circumstances, “Whiteout,” his Aspen book, is an outlier among his titles, in that it largely explores the extreme wealth and celebrity culture of late-1980s Aspen.
“It was curiosity, in part, whether the immersive method would work with more comfortable people,” he explained. “I had a lot of fun — probably too much fun — and I still like the book, but it’s a different animal from the others.”
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