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International Writers Program is a point of pride
Mar. 30, 2023 2:03 pm, Updated: Apr. 2, 2023 12:20 pm
Women’s History Month, recognized in the United States each March, was founded in 1981 when Congress passed Resolution 97-28, authorizing the president of the United States to declare the first week of the third month as Women’s History Week. The proclamation was signed by President Ronald Reagan and the National Women’s History Project sponsored events across the country to embrace women’s contributions to American history.
With the success of the observance, in 1987, Congress updated the resolution, requesting the president to formally declare the entire month of March as Women’s History Month, and the celebration we continue to recognize today was signed into action, once again, by Reagan.
Iowa’s academia has a long history of supporting women in history, starting with the University of Iowa as the first university to accept women on an equal basis as students, and, Carrie Chapman Catt, national leader of the women’s suffrage movement, for whom, as a graduate in 1880, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics was named at Iowa State University.
This year is especially important to women’s history in the state as it marks the 35th anniversary of the (informal) retirement of Hualing Nieh Engle as Director of the University of Iowa International Writers Program.
The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop began in 1935, offering a master's degree in creative writing to its students. However, it was under the tutelage of graduate Paul Engle (who was born in Cedar Rapids 115 years ago this autumn) that the institution grew into worldwide prominence.
Seizing on its increased global standing, writers from around the world were attracted to the program, including a young, radical, author from the region of Wuhan, China, Hualing Nieh. She had been threatened with imprisonment for her social beliefs and writings and was invited by Engle to join the program at Iowa. In 1971, the two were married and wrote prolifically, earning awards for the program and increasing its reputation.
Five years later, under her influence to add a stronger multicultural component to the literature department, she and Engle founded the International Writers Program. It would augment and complement the workshop by recruiting aspiring poets and authors from throughout the globe, including those of Asian, Latin, and Eastern European countries.
The project, based in later years in the mansion of former Mayor Peter Dey, and now in the former home of historian, Benjamin Shambaugh, would go on to host 1,600 students from 150 nations, and, combined with the workshop, result in 17 Pulitzer Prizes for literature and produce 18,000 books in the United States and around the globe.
Today, the Schaeffer Library, tucked quietly behind the Dey Mansion, honors many of these works and inspires the current generation of students to reach similar heights.
Engle served as Director of the workshop for a quarter of a century. When the International project was organized in 1976, Hualing Nieh Engle was named as a director, along with her husband, of the upstart addition to Iowa’s literary legacy and proceeded to guide it as one of the strongest curricula of its kind in the nation until deferring to the next generation of leaders in 1988.
Paul Engle died while en route to Poland to receive that country’s Order of Merit Award in 1991. Two directors later, in 2006, Lan Samantha Chang, whose parents, similar to HualingNieh, fled political persecution in China, was chosen to lead the program and serves as its director today. Her most recent novel, “The Family Chao,” was released last year. Hualing Nieh Engle, at age 98, has continued as a cultural icon at the university and was the subject of the television documentary, “One Tree Three Lives,’ highlighting her life, in 2012.
Her legacy, and that of her husband, and those of the thousands of writers they encouraged and nurtured over half a century, were featured in the exhibit “A Hub, A Network, An Archive: 55 Years of International Writers in Iowa City,” which ran from August to December of last year in the Gallery of the Main Library at the University. It is available for viewing now at www.lib.uiowa.edu.
Iowa City was named by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008.
It is a source of pride for all residents of the Hawkeye State … you can take my word (or words) for that.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.
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