The first time I ever heard about a “residency” for writers was in college. I nodded along with the other students even though I had no idea what the instructor was talking about. I think the word immediately struck me as intimate: residency is that place where you live – your home – but the word also confused me because it has a long term, if not permanent, feel to it. More than 20 years later, I see a similar mixed reaction from others whenever the subject of a residency comes up – and it comes up a lot for me because residencies have been a part of my professional life for the past 15 years.
So what is a writers’ residency programme? How does it work, practically, and what does a writer get out of it? It’s a simple question with a complex answer, and the Covid-19 pandemic makes it even more difficult to answer.
The Art Omi residency
In 2005, I was hired as the director of the writers’ residency programme at Art Omi, a non-profit based in the Hudson Valley, two hours north of New York City. The organisation has a 300-acre campus that includes a sculpture park, art gallery and café. Tucked away on the property, high up on a hill away from public access, is a cluster of cottages and a restored farmhouse from the 1830s. This is where, during the warmer months of the year, the residency action takes place. Each artistic discipline gets use of the facilities for a set period of time: visual artists come in June, dancers in July, musicians in August, and writers bookend the other programmes in the spring and fall.
Each year we invite writers from around the world to apply for a stay in one of our cottages. Most come for four weeks and we have space for ten writers at a time. Everyone gets a room of their own with a work space; a fully stocked kitchen, which they share; prepared dinners, the only regularly scheduled gathering; and hundreds of acres to roam freely. There is some programming, we host a few readings and we invite book editors and agents to come up to visit from New York City, but really the primary objective is to give each person time and space to focus on their work.
We invite writers working in any discipline that involves text: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, scripts, translations, and everything in between. Most residents come from outside the United States because our mandate is to bring together an international cohort – people from different languages and cultures and approaches to art.
We only ask that everyone speak enough English to survive small talk, though this is not rigidly enforced – part of the goal, after all, is to push back on the hegemonic proliferation of English. This lax policy does lead to some interesting misunderstandings, like the time I thought the playwright from Kinshasa was asking if we had beers. The question warranted an enthusiastic “Yes!” from me and absolutely terrified the playwright. Everything got cleared up when I realized he was asking about bears, not beers, and my answer changed to an enthusiastic, “No!”
Sometimes the miscommunications can be more serious and my experiences – and mistakes – in this somewhat fragile linguistic environment have taught me valuable lessons: err on the side of overcommunicating, stay away from sarcasm (which can be especially challenging in New York) and create an environment where people feel free to express whatever sensitivities they might experience.
Translators can be particularly helpful with some of these thornier situations. Their art requires that they move fluidly between cultures and languages, which often makes them dynamic in conversation and good at asking the questions that elude writers. I’ve met a lot of impressive translators over the years, perhaps none more impressive than Arshia Sattar.
The beginning of Sangam House
Arshia was a resident in 2007, visiting from her hometown of Bengaluru. One evening we were sitting outside, enjoying a moonlit view of the Catskill Mountains. Other residents drifted in and out of our conversations about Miles Davis and Chicago in the 1990s and mid-career challenges, and somewhere in the middle of it all Arshia suggested that she and I start a residency in India, something similar to Art Omi. I liked the idea but too many fantasies are hatched late at night, next to an empty bottle of whiskey. I told her we should revisit the possibility in the morning over coffee. So we did, and under the stark light of morning the idea began to take real shape.
Thirteen years later, Sangam House, the programme that Arshia and I envisioned, is still going. Just like Art Omi, we emphasise bringing together writers from different cultural and linguistic traditions, except at Sangam House we reserve about half of our space for writers and translators working within the dynamism of Indian languages and cultures. The other half of the residents come from outside of India, from all regions of the world.
Every winter we invite approximately 15 writers to stay with us. Most come for four weeks and share the experience with three or four other writers at a time. Sangam House does not own property; instead we are nomadic, partnering with other arts organisations that have facilities to share. We spent two years in Puducherry with Adi Shakti, a theatre company, then moved the programme to the village of Hessaraghatta, outside of Bengaluru, where we shared a campus with the dancers of Nrityagram. In 2018 we moved into the city of Bengaluru, where we are now hosted by The Jamun, a guesthouse dedicated to supporting artistic expression.
The nomadic model suits us for practical and creative reasons: we have a limited budget with an all-volunteer staff, so buying property is out of the question, but we also value what our collaborating partners bring to the Sangam House experience. We get to crash dress rehearsals and share the dinner table with world class actors and dancers and directors and artists of various expressions.
Adjusting to the pandemic
Sangam House’s capacity to respond to the Covid-19 crisis is, in fact, strengthened by our nomadic lifestyle – flexibility is integral to our design; we are inherently nimble without a home of our own. Our only concrete hope, really, is to stay in the south of India where the linguistic diversity is particularly acute, where so many writers are working in languages that are marginalized by the monetisation of literature, which is so largely driven by English. But even with our dexterity, we must admit that there are many unanswered questions when it comes to the immediate future of residencies – and they all orbit my very first question: what’s the real point of these programmes?
I’ve come to look at it this way: Sangam House, like Art Omi, thrives because we understand that successful writing requires time. And not just any iteration of time – only one type will do: fully supported, fully uninterrupted time.
This mandate does not make for easy fundraising. Supported, uninterrupted time mostly sounds like a luxury to anyone who doesn’t subject themselves to the nasty task of writing. In more than one meeting over the years with potential donors, I’ve heard Arshia say something like, “We tell writers to use your time at Sangam House however you must: write, read, research, daydream – whatever is required.”
I used to cringe a little inside every time she included daydream. I would say to myself, “Don’t say that! No one will ever give us money to help people daydream!” But the more time I spend chasing down the perfect sentence, the more I realise how right Arshia is every time she says this. It is not always easy to understand, let alone articulate, how many sparks are required to finish a book – or even where the sparks come from. The only person who thinks that a writer doesn’t need to daydream has never written a book.
When it comes to the purpose of a residency, the quality of the time matters as much as the quantity, and quality is not only established by having chores looked after, meals prepared and real life held at bay, but also by sharing space with a handful of people who are in pursuit of the same concentrative experience. There is a certain intimacy to every good residency experience, sharing meals and walks and questions with colleagues who know what the fight feels like, who know when to encourage each other and how to thoughtfully challenge assumptions.
What Covid-19 changes
This aspect of the residency experience, the act of creating intimately shared spaces, is directly challenged by the pandemic. At Art Omi, we had to cancel the spring season but are hoping to move forward with the group of writers scheduled to come in the fall. Sangam House has opened its application cycle for the upcoming season but, like all residency programmes, we must admit that the future is uncharted.
In some ways, the idea of a residency feels endangered – if not permanently then certainly for the foreseeable future. A residency isn’t something that can be moved over to Zoom. Facilitating a shared physical space is such a big part of nurturing and protecting a writer’s time. In some ways, the experience becomes about the time zone, the kitchen and the dinner table, the weather and the bird songs – everything that the writers experience together while grinding through the solitude of writing.
At Art Omi and Sangam House, we will try to get back to something that looks like what we were doing before Covid-19 but it certainly will require practical changes like masks for everyone, more space for each person, a heck of a lot of hand sanitising stations, and various other safety contingencies that, while necessary, chip away at how we share space.
At Sangam House, we’re also focusing more and more on Yali, a programme funded by the Aditi Foundation that nurtures and mentors translators who are working between Indian languages. Much of the work is done in a small workshop model. By facilitating brief, intensive sessions between an accomplished translator and someone who needs help completing an early career translation, we are emphasizing different ways to create fully supported, fully uninterrupted time.
Whatever the future looks like, I am certain that residencies will not go extinct. This isn’t just because they’ve been around formally for over a hundred years but because they’ve been around informally for the duration of civilised history. Whether it was the bathhouses of the ancient world, the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment, or the icehouses of south Texas, writers have always been nurtured by – and perhaps even required – the act of congregating.
In a world with Covid-19, the residency experience might be obscured by social distancing, partial hidden faces and regular temperature checks but writers will wrestle with these obfuscations together – so we can all get back to our desks and get the thing done.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.