What I learned at the San Miguel Writers Conference
I hadn’t been to Mexico since 1976 when I attended a summer session in Guadalajara after completing an undergraduate degree in zoology. I signed up for Mexican History and Intermediate Spanish but spent most of the time hanging out with a Chicana from L.A. We had spotted each other the first day across the patio and immediately headed toward one another. Call it a gravitational pull.
Three birds with one conference
I never meant for so much time to pass before returning to Mexico, but thirty-two years can pass in a bat of an eye out of hell. Speaking of an eye, I had had mine on the San Miguel Writers Conference for a while, mostly because it was in San Miguel de Allende, known for its picturesque streets, vividly colored buildings, and significance in the war of independence from Spain. It was a place for inspiration, and I was all in for that. I wanted a three-fer with this conference: learn new things about writing, explore a beautiful city, and write.
Frida, a pink bedstead, and mangoes
I rented a small room with a kitchen less than a ten-minute walk from the conference hotel. The only drawback was the lack of natural light which lent a slight mustiness to the air. But the Frida Kahlo portrait on the wall above the pink iron bedstead and the ripe mangoes I kept in a bowl on the counter freshened the space. Each morning, I ate a mango, bade Frida adios, and headed off to the conference.
What I learned – the good
The session on scene mechanics was a good reminder to me to turn my exposition-heavy first draft of a new novel into real-time events. The overview class of the different movements of modernism in art and literature gave me new ways to experiment with my writing, and the flash prose class provided masterful examples to study.
A panel on writing and activism featured the journalist Felipe Restrepo Pombo, whose first teacher was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Art is a political act by nature, he said. The act of writing is an act of empathy. Politics and empathy are evident in his introduction to The Sorrows of Mexico, a collection of reportage by seven Mexican journalists on such issues as the drug cartels, teenage prostitution, and the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa.
What I learned – the bad
I had hoped to get more from the travel writing class, but the best nugget was dropped in the first minute of the session when the instructor shared the fascinating finding that the brain is most active when one is wandering around an unfamiliar city. A good thing to know for those of us negotiating the streets of San Miguel for the first time. Also a good thing to know that would’ve been worth mentioning is how travel writing is different from other types of essay writing. Otherwise, why call the session travel writing? And this too: How does one avoid being patronizing, colonialist, or racist when writing about another country and culture? A most appropriate perspective given that overwhelmingly the session participants were white Americans in Mexico.
What I learned – the ugly
I attended the agent panel because sometime in the near future, I will be seeking an agent for my new novels (I have two in the works). I took few notes because I was fidgety and distracted by a glaring omission in the makeup of the panel, one I’m sure was evident to few others in the room. It was an all-white panel. Of course, they were speaking to a mostly white audience. Nevertheless, I pointed out the exclusion of writers of color. Whenever people are challenged on a point about race and diversity, they get defensive and focus on the wrong thing – like saying everyone gets rejections or that white writers featuring protagonists of color in their work are having a hard time getting published too.
I went to the class on humor writing, hoping to find some comic relief. Also, because I occasionally teach a class called “Dissolving or deepening tension with humor,” I wanted to see what I could learn from someone else’s class. What I learned is that two people will approach the same subject differently. Whereas, the instructor of this class used examples from P.G. Wodehouse and Dave Barry, mine come from work by Lorrie Moore and Antonya Nelson. A gender difference, yes. But also a difference in terms of where the focus is on the spectrum of humor – the one-liner at one end and conceptual humor arising from incongruous behaviors at the other end. I’m all for the one-liner – as long as it doesn’t offend.
But here’s an example of humor the instructor used from a Bill Bryson book:
And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years, haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?
Am I alone in thinking that this is racist? Am I alone in thinking that using this as an example will encourage others in the room to follow it and perpetuate racist humor? Should I have mentioned this in class or brought it up with the instructor privately later? Probably. But this class followed the agent panel where I had stood up in front of fifty or sixty people and pointed out the lack of diversity in the room that was reflective of the publishing industry in general. So, yeah, I was done with that for the day.
I left the conference after lunch each day and walked around the city, browsed the markets, peeked inside shops. Three of the eight evenings I enjoyed dinner with friends. The other evenings, before writing in my windowless room under Frida’s gaze, I made dinner in my little kitchen, or I found a quiet little place to eat alone and watch the foot and car traffic pass by.
There are a lot of Americans in San Miguel, which is to say, white Americans. They buy homes and retire there. The women wear Mexican scarves and blouses to blend in with their surroundings. The men unironically wear t-shirts that say Make America Mexico Again.
Gravitational pull redux
A friend has rechristened the city San Miguel de América because of the ubiquity of the expats, which is why when I spotted a group of young, brown American men in front of me as I walked to my casita one afternoon, it was like seeing family. I greeted them, pointed them to the centro and headed on my way. The next day, I was delighted to run into them at the mercado and we greeted each other again. The day after that a friend drove me to the hot springs. I was relaxing in one of the pools, my face to the sun and my eyes closed, when I heard someone say, “Hey, that’s her.” It was the young men again. This time we exchanged names and chatted and hung out because some invisible force was bringing us together. Like the gravitational pull that led me and the L.A. Chicana to each other in Guadalajara in 1976.
On my last afternoon there, a Sunday, I found a space on a bench between two solitary Mexican men in the main plaza. They wore cowboy boots and hats. Their faces were weathered, their mustaches showing gray. The one on my right drank a Corona. Each nodded to me as I sat down. Mariachi music reached us from a nearby café, church bells pealed. Strolling gente left bits of conversation fluttering in their wake. In our individual and shared solitude, the caballeros and I watched life in San Miguel de Allende.
That joke was indeed racist, and ignorant. Wow.
Thank you for your perspective on the conference, the culture, and the town. I wish I could sit on that bench in that square as well, especially near those adorable babies. The conference, not so much!
Donna, I really enjoyed this post. It saddens me to read what I’d always assumed about the San Miguel Writers Conference–that seems to be designed for Anglo writers from the US. I’m a Mexican-American who has lived in Mexico for 13 years (currently in Mexico City) and I’ve always been curious about attending SMWC, but an annual review of the workshop presenters always convinces me otherwise. How is it possible that a conference held in Mexico includes only a spattering of writers of color? (The Lambda Literary writers retreat that I attended in Los Angeles in 2013 was far more diverse!) Sure there seems to be some attempt to include local writers in SWMC, but the whole endeavor still smacks of colonialism: extracting whatever can be used from Mexico for the benefit of outsiders. San Miguel is only a few hours from home, but I’m probably better off flying to Oakland to go to the VONA Foundation’s retreat for writers of color. Sigh.