In the garden I stood holding up a T-shirt from the stall when I heard his voice. “Hey, you already bought two, leave some for me.” I turned and saw Tony Doerr, one of my favorite writers, smiling at me. I put down the T-shirt, tried to fold it again. “Just messing with you,” he said. “They’re great these T-shirts, aren’t they?” The day before I had bought a couple of them but hadn’t noticed he was watching. I hadn’t even seen him nearby. At that moment I realized how acute his observation skills were. To our right and in a slope, lay the Barry Cerf Amphitheater where writers such as Danielle Evans, Natalie Diaz, Jim Shepard, Joshua Ferris, Aimee Bender, and others had read from their work. This was July of 2017 at Reed College in Portland, where the Tin House Summer Workshop takes place.
With Tony Doerr I talked about self-destructive characters blended with poetry —the work of Denis Johnson—, and even if it didn’t last for more than ten minutes, the conversation was imprinted on my memory. So were the mornings riding my bicycle to campus and hearing the sprinklers going off, the smell of fir trees, the long-lasting friendships I made with other writers and from whom I learned so much. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the travel and hospitality industries, but not only. Within the cultural sector, struggling theater companies have tried to go online with moderate success; movie theaters have reopened in certain places with limited capacity; concerts are still off the radar. How have literary conferences and workshops had to adapt to the new reality?
Magda Bogin in a novelist, translator, poet and librettist. She has taught in the writing programs of Columbia, Princeton and City College, CUNY, and was editorial writer and editorial page editor at El Diario/La Prensa, the Spanish-language daily in New York. She is a former Kellogg National Fellow and the recipient of fellowships from the NEH, NEA, NYFA and NYSCA, the Russian writers’ colony at Peredelkino and, most recently, from Château Lavigny, in Switzerland. She is the founder and director of Under the Volcano.
On World Book Day, Magda Bogin speaks with Travel Tomorrow about her passion to promote literature in Mexico and abroad, the effects of the pandemic on international literary conferences and how they have had to adapt, the feasibility of hybrid models of attendance, and more.
1. Under The Volcano’s first edition took place in 2003. Could you tell us more about its genesis? How and why did it come into existence? What are UTV’s goals?
Under the Volcano was created as a refuge for a small group of accomplished writers, to give them a chance to focus on their work in a space outside normal time, without the pressure of work or home. The program was modeled on music master classes, which assume that participants can already play their instrument and are ready for feedback from master performers. In other words, no one needed to learn what a paragraph was… So we offered master classes and mentorship with world class writers, initially in English. A simple premise in a gorgeous place—Tepoztlán is a legendary village in the foothills of the great volcanoes, just an hour south of Mexico City.
2. The pandemic has turned the world upside down. The travel and tourism industry has suffered but not only. How has the cultural sector had to adapt to the current situation?
Our resilience to continue is an adaptation strategy by itself. We were determined to keep the program going, but we had to figure out how to embody it in these new circumstances. When we saw digital media as an opportunity to continue with our workshops and also to develop the same kind of community we’ve always had when we’re in Tepoztlán, we got excited and started to work towards an all-online edition of UTV. We’re very pleased with how it’s going!
3. What impact, financial and otherwise, did the pandemic and associated travel restrictions have on UTV?
Writers, especially our younger ones or those facing higher costs for childcare, have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. As a not-for-profit organization, our mission is to identify and include talented writers from diverse backgrounds. We always subsidize about half our participants, but several of our valued scholarship supporters had to cancel their donations. We saw rather quickly that we would have to reduce the cost of our tuition. This lit a fire under us, and we held a fundraiser last December featuring Isabel Allende and others to raise urgently needed funds for scholarships.
Some of our costs went down, such as the expense of daily shared meals for 80 participants in our Mexico program. And some went up: we hired a professional tech team to produce our online master classes and the associated special events we created in place of the public events we always held in Tepoztlán.
We had to reduce the salaries of our director and associate director, but as a matter of principle we kept the same honoraria for our master teachers.
4. What have been the pros and cons of running the entire program online?
Overall, running the program online despite the challenges has proved to be a smart move. We’ve not only survived to tell the tale, which is itself a triumph, but when we return to Mexico in 2022 our Zoom year will have added vital layers that we’ll want to maintain as we go forward.
There were many silver linings once we realized that we had to re-imagine the whole program. In a sense we were moving a whole village into cyberspace!
We learned that compensating for something lost could yield more than something gained. especially in terms of building community, which has always been central to the program.
Instead of a ten-day program in Tepoztlán, we expanded to three weeks online in order to give our participants more breathing room, more time to write, and more ways to interact with one another.
In addition to their individual master classes and private consultations, this year’s participants have access to a variety of online events that bring them into contact with the other writers in the program. There are weekly Open Mics, where all are invited to read in either English or Spanish. There are guest presenters such as the head of the Knight Science Writing Program at MIT, who spoke on the narrative of science. There are talks by top literary agents. And we’ve hosted writers and, for the first time, scientists in linked conversations on crucial issues for writers in all genres, whether poets, fiction writers, essayists or journalists.
The pandemic and its implications were reflected in everything we did.
We came up with a substitute for the series of public readings and conversations we always held in the beautiful spaces available to us in Tepoztlán—the lovely outdoor bookstore and café, La Sombra del Sabino or the UNESCO World Heritage museum attached to the cathedral on the central square, we created an online series of linked conversations called A Community of the Imagination. These events created an online space where all this year’s participants and faculty could share in a larger dynamic that was designed to inspire and shape people’s idea of what their own writing could do.
6. One of the most valuable aspects of an event such as UTV is networking, spending time with instructors and classmates. Can this happen also online or is something being lost nonetheless? How is UTV trying to deal with this change?
We anticipated this, we knew in advance that we’d miss a lot of our Tepoztlán way of being together, to stroll out after our workshops and conferences and enjoy the company, the food, the mountains, the sense of belonging to such an amazing group of people. But we built it into this new program in so many ways! We made room for fun activities, like Open Mic Night, social meetings with music and drinks, a fun space where we can pretend to be together, have a party and dance in such a way that it feels like no pretending at all. As we started to say, virtual is the new real in many ways now.
7. What do you foresee happening in the years to come? Will hybrid be the default mode for literary festivals and conferences?
We can’t speak for others, but for a program like ours, based in a beautiful Mexican village, there’s no question that we’ll go hybrid in the future. Our mission has always been global, and while we long to be back in Tepoztlán, our migration to Zoom and other online platforms means that we can bring the world to our village, both in terms of participants and the extraordinary writers and thinkers we’ll be able to present as guests. We expect to have a solid group of 50-60 writers in residence with perhaps an equal number in attendance from afar. Ultimately, while the program will remain selective and intimate, this new model will allow us to grow and to become more international.
8. What is the importance of hosting an international literary event in Tepoztlan, Morelos? What does UTV mean to the community?
Leaving aside the usual economic aspects one could refer to, maybe one of the most useful things UTV does is showing to the world, through our Volcanistas from Mexico and from abroad that Tepoztlán is an organized community in which people are strong-willed, conscious and proud of its way of life, determined to defend it but also open to growth and be permeable. We want to honor Tepoz spirit by means of being here in a gentle and respectful way, making space for activities and conversations they could be interested in and enjoy, and also feel part of it.
The program has also been an important economic engine for the local population, generating income in the food, hospitality and transportation sectors.
9. What does 2021 International Book Day make you reflect on, especially in a period such as this? What lessons can we, as a society, learn from this pandemic to improve the way we live and travel for future generations?
That, as Ursula K. Le Guin said, “Truth is a matter of stories”. Books are not mere objects, they could be catalogues of horrible things to deal with, keepers of sanity and beauty in turbulent times, or open invitations to imagine other futures and feel hope. More than ever we need language to deal with our harsh reality: pandemic and climate emergency consequences. We need to give imagination and words a better place in our lives in order to develop a new approach to the world, to nature, and to ourselves.