Fellowship supports immigrant and first-generation writers

Iowa Writers' House aims to diversify artist voices

Sadagat Aliyeva, Des Moines (Courtesy Iowa Writers’ House)
Sadagat Aliyeva, Des Moines (Courtesy Iowa Writers’ House)

For Des Moines resident Sadagat Aliyeva, writing has been a way to explore the different worlds she has lived in, from her hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, to Iowa, where she moved with her family in 2004.

“Sometimes I feel like I am lucky,” she said. “I have seen two different worlds. I have seen different opinions. Besides the physical place changing, it has kind of become a spiritual journey for me in realizing who I actually am.”

Now she hopes to share that journey and her stories with the wider world with the help of a new program.

The Iowa Writers’ House, an Iowa City-based nonprofit, launched the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship this month to support Iowa writers who are immigrants or first-generation Americans.

Over the coming months, the program’s first three fellows will receive support to pursue writing projects, culminating in publication at the end of the fellowship.

Along with Aliyeva, the fellows are Melissa Palma of Waterloo and Jesus “Chuy” Renteria of Iowa City.

diversity voices

The fellowship includes three weekend residencies spread over six months. The residencies feature intensive workshops and a chance for the writers to work together and compare notes.

Each fellow receives a $500 honorarium, room and board during the residencies and a transportation stipend.

At the end of the residency, the Iowa Writers’ House plans to publish the finished work.

The fellowship is funded by an Art Project Grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Andrea Wilson, executive director of Iowa Writers’ House, said she hopes the fellowships help diversify the voices telling Iowa’s stories.

“There are people here that aren’t getting their stories told,” she said. “The goal is to help provide them a platform for education and for launching themselves as artists.”

dual cultures

Renteria, a first generation Mexican-American born and raised in West Liberty, said he wants to examine the push and pull of the different identities and cultures he feels a part of.

“Growing up in West Liberty, there were all these internal struggles,” he said. “There’s almost a class system between undocumented and documented people. There are struggles with my identity and Mexican-American culture and Mexican culture,”

He also struggles with the intersection of language and identity — he said he understands Spanish but doesn’t always speak it as well as he would like. At the same time, he faces misconceptions other Americans sometimes have about Mexico and Mexican culture.

“Being a third culture kid, ... sometimes I didn’t feel like I was Mexican enough for some people and American enough for other people,” he said. “It’s been a process, coming to the idea that my identity is valid, and my voice is valid.”

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