“Participatory journalist” Ted Conover has had nine lives.
In a packed Branford College common room last night as a part of the Francis Conversations with Writers and Editors series, the Pulitzer Prize finalist shared pieces of these lives, which include riding trains across the country with “hobos,” crossing the Mexican border with illegal migrant workers, trucking across Africa and working as a correctional officer in the Sing Sing prison.
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To a rapt audience, Conover read passages describing them all. He was characteristically modest, asserting that he does not seek to uncover some hidden truth by stepping into the lives of others.
“I’m just a guy trying to learn a few things and I’ve found they are my teachers out there,” Conover said. “I’m just trying to have as interesting a life as possible.”
Conover’s journalistic aspirations began early, as a high school student working for his school paper, but in college he found that anthropology suited his interests better.
“Anthropologists take a lot of time getting to know people by going places and living with people,” he said. “I loved the idea that research could consist of experience and that life is not just something that passively happens to you.”
Conover’s first attempt at sharing someone else’s life began when he rode trains alongside the homeless. His first surprise came when a man sharing his boxcar asked him, “Are you a tramp?” This was his first, but not only, lesson in self-representation. He said that throughout his time on the trains, he found that he saw his native city of Denver from a disturbingly foreign angle.
“I found that things that are familiar to one kind of person are so unfamiliar to another kind of person,” he said. “The same place changes depending on who you are.”
Reading from his book, “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Illegal Migrants,” which covers the time he spent working in a small city in Mexico, Conover recounted his conversations with men who lived in America and returned to Mexico. By witnessing older men suddenly listening to younger men’s stories, Conover found that the Mexican youth who had spent time in America became a higher class of men.
“I learned how intimidating the United States is to a lot people,” he said. “Our vision of immigrants is not usually like that.”
Conover discussed at length his most well-known book, “Newjack,” which recounts his almost year-long stint as a prison correctional officer in New York. Conover performed the job entirely undercover after the state refused to provide him access to report on prisons for a magazine article.
“Newjack” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, but Conover paid for it in blood, sweat and tears.
“I think to stay in a prison can be a wounding thing and I got a little taste of that,” Conover said. “I feel lucky that I don’t have that as my only job option.”
Earlier in the day, Conover attended the nonfiction writing seminar of Francis Writer-in-Residence Anne Fadiman, who introduced the journalist at the talk. Students in Fadiman’s class said they were wowed by Conover’s undercover reporting, and several audience members interviewed after the reading agreed.
“Most people could not do what Conover does because it requires an incredible amount of time and emotional commitment that many people couldn’t handle,” said Annie Doud ’11.
Julia Lurie ’11 agreed that Conover’s risk-taking is unique.
“I think it’s incredible how free he is with his ability to go anywhere,” Julia Lurie ’11 said. “Most people never even think about doing something like that.”
While in prison, Conover said he became close to an inmate with a tattoo bearing a Spanish inscription that the inmate claimed was translated from Anne Frank’s diary. Conover was mystified by the passage, so much so that he wrote to the inmate after he left the job to inquire about it further.
He ultimately discovered the passage that the inmate had translated — and found it a window into the inmate’s struggles.
“It’s easier to stay incurious as an officer,” he said.