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IOWA CITY — The world has changed a lot since 1966, when Hualing Nieh Engle suggested to Iowa Writers’ Workshop Director Paul Engle — while grilling steaks out by Lake Macbride — that they start an International Writing Program.
“He thought it was the craziest idea he’d ever heard, and 55 years later here we are,” said Christopher Merrill, who since 2000 has been directing the program Hualing dreamed up and helped launch with her husband and co-collaborator in 1967.
In many ways, the world’s gotten smaller — with the internet emerging and virtual sharing exploding and social media connecting, amplified recently by a pandemic that united the international community around a common trauma and forced more into a virtual space of global inhabitants.
And yet, a need — and desire — persists for the bringing together in one physical place a collection of international talents eager to promote mutual understanding and amplify creative and collaborative energy around the centuries-old craft of writing.
Of course, Iowa City — as made evident in recent U.S. News & World Report rankings listing University of Iowa as No. 2 nationally in the writing disciplines — makes an idyllic and iconic host for such a gathering.
“People know about Iowa — about the workshop and the writing programs,” Kenyan writer Carey Baraka told The Gazette on a recent Thursday afternoon, having arrived in the state as one of this year’s International Writing Program residents just three weeks prior.
In its 55th year, the UI program this fall — following a two-year hiatus from its traditional format — welcomed back to campus 33 established and accomplished authors from the likes of Bangladesh, Sweden, Mexico, Palestine, Ethiopia, Poland, and Barbados.
The group is diverse in every sense, including ethnicity, age, gender, and style of writing — including a mix of fiction and non-fiction writers, poets, translators, researchers, playwrites, essayists, screenwriters, performers, and journalists.
“Because as a fiction writer I tend to be suspicious about poets,” resident writer Pavla Horakova of the Czech Republic said, prompting a laugh from her peers, “listening to them explain how they intellectually mean it and they actually know what they’re doing, that was very enlightening.”
That type of connection and understanding is among the goals of the 10-week fall residency, which this year is spanning Aug. 22 to Oct. 31. With major support from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department, UI, other national arts organizations, and private grants, the long-running program over its tenure has hosted nearly 1,600 writers from more than 150 countries.
The residents — as well-established writers — spend their time creating new connections, finding novel inspiration, and enriching the Iowa City community through, for example, readings, panel discussions, and film screenings.
'Successful from the beginning’
Over its 55 years — an anniversary the university is celebrating with a special exhibit curated by UI Libraries and running through Dec. 16 — the International Writing Program has expanded its offerings, according to Merrill.
“The residency is the central part of what we do,” he said. “But we've added a bunch of other programs.”
It now hosts a two-week Summer Institute for 18- to 22-year-olds from Pakistan, India, and the U.S.; a Digital Learning Program offering year-round online courses, exchanges, and events; a Between the Lines cultural exchange for 15- to 18-year-olds; and a Russian Non-Fiction Writing course, among many others.
The International Writing Program right now is running a series of courses in Ukraine, for Ukrainian students, called “Crafting the Future,” Merrill said.
“And we just worked out today, we'll add an Afghan version of that for students in Afghanistan.”
For the foundational residency program, according to Merrill, UI works with U.S. embassies and consulates around the globe to annually select residents — with some compiling their own list of nominees and others calling for applications.
“This year, we had 118 nominations for basically 25 places, and that’s from about 110, 115 countries,” Merrill said, calling the program “successful from the beginning.”
“And the fact that we continue to be have this alliance with the State Department suggests that, at least from their perspective, it works.”
Selection occurs after UI writing program staff “read like crazy” and convene with the State Department to discuss the candidates. The goal is to get a group of the world’s most talented writers, who also represent geographic, age, and stylistic diversity.
“We want a place where the writers have a chance to meet with writers from literally the whole world,” Merrill said. “An Israeli poet said to me long ago, he talked about his time here, he said, ‘Imagine meeting writers from 28 or 29 other countries. I could never do that in Israel.’
“But here, he could.”
'Letting the space talk to me’
Two years ago, in 2020, the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republican approached Horakova’s publisher about the residency. Although they went through the interview steps, eventually it was nixed — a decision Horakova said actually came as a relief.
“I must say, because the situation was so confusing, and dangerous, and just imagining all the measures in place with the travel, etc.,” she said. “I was glad that it worked out this time.”
For the first time in its history, the International Writing Program in 2020 canceled its residency program and last year split the traditional fall cohort into two — with half coming for “our first, and I hope only, spring residency,” Merrill said.
“And now we’re back with a full complement of writers.”
For David Anuar, a poet and essayist from Mexico, the chance at a spot in the Iowa City-based program seemed unlikely. Although he received a mailing asking him to apply, he said, “I am not one of the most famous writers.”
“I’m from a very marginal region in Mexico — in literary terms — I come from Cancun,” Anuar said, noting his region’s reputation for “tourism and the party.”
“In Mexico, we have this problem with culture about centralism,” he said. “All the well-known talents live in Mexico City or in the northern part of Mexico.”
So he was surprised to learn of his acceptance.
“It was very exciting,” he said “This is my first international award.”
It was a meaningful one given Iowa’s reputation in Mexico, Anuar said. A past International Writing Program resident from Mexico — who is “very very famous” — returned after his experience to write a novel about Iowa.
Jose Ramirez Gomez Agustin’s “Ciudades Desiertas” — translated “deserted cities” — in 2016 was made into a movie, which Anuar said will be shown during this fall’s residency as part of a weekly screening of movies chosen by residency writers.
“So I was very happy,” Anuar said. “I was saying to myself, ‘Now I'm going to a place where Jose Agustin was.”
And so far, writers told The Gazette, the experience has not disappointed.
In addition to the depth of talent and rich experience of convening with fellow writers in a UNESCO City of Literature, several commented on their Iowa City-specific observations.
“I've been amazed by the nature, how much you care about the landscape,” Anuar said. “Everything is very organized and very clean. Where I come from, we do not have clean streets.”
Horakova also highlighted the city’s upkeep in sharing her impressions of Iowa, as her introduction to the United States.
“I'm amazed by the amount of public art, both on the campus and in the city itself,” she said. “Also, the futuristic architecture and how landscaped it all is. There is no wild anything. Everything is very, very landscaped.”
Given their busy schedules, the writers said they didn’t immediately jump into writing projects — or spend much time working on those in process. But Anuar said he’s letting the American Midwest inspire him.
“I'm thinking that October is going to be a good month,” he said, noting he had been working on a collection of poems about new masculinities.
“But I'm not feeling that project right now, so it would be like forcing it,” he said. “So I’m just open to the experiences here. I'm writing from the place … The context of where I am is very important. I'm just letting the space talk to me and write from it.
“So the poems I've been writing are about Iowa,” he said. “I’m open to what comes to me.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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