“Photo-letter pairing” is a project from Andra Rotaru (IWP '14) in collaboration with Jared Krauss as part of the 2nd Annual Outreach and Engagement Fellowship, an additional IWP fellowship that is focused on cultivating public outreach and artistic collaborations. The project functions as a connection between the IWP Fall Residents, the local literary community, and the diverse citizenry of Iowa City.
The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Abdullah Al Wesali:
A strange feeling haunted me in the JFK Airport as I awaited my Delta231 flight to Amsterdam, the first leg in a series of flights that would return me to my home country, via Dubai. It was a feeling of bisecting nature, one that deeply divided my soul into two parts. All my luggage had been shipped, leaving me with nothing but my passport, boarding passes and my laptop bag with its bright yellow International Writing Program (IWP) tag dangling from it.
This is a feeling that can conquer any person forced to leave behind a new part of themselves in order to return to their original, historical and cultural selves. As I thought of this while sitting in Terminal 4 at JFK at 8:30pm, the fact that I was leaving the US finally became real, and all the events of my residency suddenly turned into history. No matter how much I had prepared myself for this feeling before coming to Iowa and seizing the opportunity to participate in the residency, I found myself missing it.
Pictures, voices, songs, phrases, snippets of dialogue and scenes from the three-month residency sounded in my ears and passed before my eyes, especially those from the last night, at the Broadway Millennium Hotel in New York, where we had all gathered in farewell for one last night. It had been an emotional goodbye, filled with an intense sense of separation. That night, we each discovered how beautiful our friends were. There was a common feeling of silent apology among the group, not for any wrongdoing, but for not having gotten to know each other better. I think a limited timeframe is always a short amount of time, no matter how long it actually lasts.
The weather was the first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane and into Saudi Arabia. It was that time of winter when the temperature typically seems low, but because I had come from a colder climate, I found the 17 – 22 degrees Celsius to be highly agreeable.
I found that in the three months I had been gone, my 15-year-old son had become much more responsible. He took care of his mother and his 13-year-old brother during my absence. Responsibility such as this promotes maturity, but this great benefit wasn’t much on my mind. Rather, his actions greatly helped his mother, given that Saudi Arabia applies strict control over women and their activities, including driving cars. So to reward him for this good deed, I brought him what he had asked for, which was a track suit from the original Nike store with matching sneakers. Though these items are available in Saudi Arabia, there is a special feeling that comes with the traveling gift.
My return to work went less smoothly. Two months into the residency, I had received an email from the administration at the hospital where I work (I am the only one of my 28 colleagues with a background in health management) asking me to interrupt my residency and return to work! I apologized about not being able to do that, but I still spent one week off work after returning home because I still had that time left on my approved vacation. I was not ready to return to work that fast, though now that I’m back, I see how working in the hospital supplies me with many writing themes.
During my residency I used to write in a journal, and it’s amazing how fresh the sense of place, weather and people appear to me every time I reread it. These days though, I find it hard to take the time to write, as I am very busy traveling to and from the capital Riyadh. The ministry of culture chose me and seven other writers to be part of the Riyadh Book Fair Cultural Panel, which is responsible for designing the literature program that will accompany the book fair. The Riyadh Book Fair is the biggest in the Arab world, and I think the IWP residency helped give me credibility to participate in that. I am sorry to say though, that the majority of my colleagues on the panel seem to be conservative and traditional in their suggestions, which stand in contrast to my liberal and new ideas.
The cultural club in Dammam, the city where I live, in the east of Saudi Arabia, is also keeping me busy, with its invitation to talk about my experience at the IWP residency. This is likely to take place in February. Not that I’m worried though, as I have plenty of material to prepare for it, including photos and journal entries, while the lecture will be conducted in Arabic, my mother tongue.
I have noticed other changes too. Close friends who are enthusiastic about learning all the details of my residency have remarked on my newly acquired tendency to talk less. More than one of them has told me that I look sad! Maybe this is because I look sad when I am deep in thought. Indeed, the 2nd book I read from the collection of books I brought from the US is called The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, and it has given me much cause for thought. The premise of the book is that all the cultures in the world are unified by common norms and values, the values of globalization, though this is something I don’t completely agree with, especially after returning from the residency. More work needs to be done to reach commonality, and it’s our job, the writers’ job, to unite the world.
The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Yeow Kai Chai:
It sprang, unexpected, a sprig of memories.
As I sat at my desk in my room, the other day, listening to the susurrus of the Monsoon rain pitter-pattering on the windowpane, a flourish of sounds from the Iowa House Hotel welled up from inside me.
Who could forget being awakened every morning by the drill, knock and saw of construction armoury; the “beep, beep, beep” of a truck/crane reversing; the banter in the hallway audible through paper-thin walls? And then there was that cavalry of alarm bells going off in the wee hours, shrill like Verdi.
One never knows what these triggers are, and when they will strike. One sniff of these Proustian madeleines, and suddenly, I am transported back to the cornfields of Iowa. Physically, I am home in busy, sunny Singapore, having returned from a 10-week sojourn attending the Iowa Writing Program’s Fall Residency – to a new job, a new office, new colleagues.
Looking outside my window, I see home afresh. I marvel at the tall public housing blocks nestled to each other. I smell the zest in the after-rain. I look out for the stray cat I had not seen for months. What the Residency has given me – a resensitization to surroundings, and I’m not taking anything for granted.
Am I home? One glance at my acquisitions – books bought from Prairie Lights, The Haunted Bookshop, Faulkner House Books, The Strand, a book sale at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, mementos from Akar and Iowa Artisans Gallery, the David Bowie Is exhibit postcards from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art – and I wonder whether all this… stuff, now chucked aside, constitutes home.
Home is where you were born in, or where you are based for a longer period of time, right? But is that it? Home, I’ve come to realize, is more an emotional vessel, a sense of belonging to a community – and memories are the contents in that vessel.
For example, if you had followed the chatter on our IWP 2014 Facebook group, it would appear the trivialities of everyday inconveniences were a constant chorus.
The mattress was too hard/soft. Could we please have anything else aside from the boring breakfast carousel of yoghurt, cereal, toast? Might we have a kitchen so we could whip up our own delicious dishes? Looking back, I could see the litany of complaints as part of our efforts to make the place less like a hotel, and more like, well, a home.
I am reminded, too, of the essay ‘World Lite’, as raised by Associate Professor Harry Stecoupoulos at a panel during the Iowa City Book Festival. The premise of the essay in n+1 magazine is that world literature has come to represent a canon of eminently readable and immensely marketable writings packaged for mass consumption. These are exemplified by authors like “Orhan Pamuk, Ma Jian, and Haruki Murakami, who successfully transcend their homelands and emerge into a planetary system where their work can acquire a universal relevance.”
Was I complicit to this system by taking part in IWP? Was I merely a statistic that fulfils the global-lit agendum, what critic Marjorie Perloff once dismissed as “identity politics and the foregrounding of poets based on identity alone”? I don’t know. The answers are not so clear-cut.
Every contact – every point of difference, every miscommunication – was amplified. We were extra nice. We were extra grouchy. We were extra obsequious. Corralling about 30 international writers into one residency was a sociological experiment. We are all bundles of contradictions and we brought our insights and our baggage.
The 10 weeks breezed past like a season of a reality TV show, part scripted, and largely not. It was a hybrid of the singing contest The Voice, the sitcom Arrested Development, and the British comedy series Mind Your Language.
We worked with dancers and failed abysmally at dancing. We entertained ourselves dressing up in the Burmese longyi. There was singing and music (the Mandatories’ zinger on the social security number as well as one writer’s tremulously sung version of ‘Killing Me Softly’ stood out.). There was romance. There was much alchohol consumed at Dave’s Fox Head Tavern. In a bar along Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a few of us relived our youth dancing unabashedly to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Glee-style. There were close encounters with marshmallow-chomping alligators at the swamps; statuesque drag queens at Studio 13; benign dentists and hot paramedics. There were writerly get-togethers such as The Hillary Readings at the Common Room on Wednesdays, where we shared anecdotes, works-in-progress, favourite words, not to mention some unmentionable secrets.
There was stereotyping, and much debunking to be done. Names were mangled. Nicknames given. There was merriment, and a few awkward moments. At times, it felt like you were watching a version of yourself, and you laughed and cried at his shenanigans. I was acutely aware I was representing my country, and at the same time, I knew my writing was not representative of the literature back home.
So, what impact would IWP have on me as a writer? Right this moment, a couple of scenes haunt. One was a photo taken by Icelandic author Gerður Kristný: It captured the side-profile of a small Amish girl we saw at a fair in Kalona. She looked like a character right out of a Rembrandt painting. The second was the sight of writers and IWP staff lounging on the banks of Lake MacBride, munching on crackers or fruits, or reading the latest Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell. It reminds me of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – but of course, we were more relaxed, more casual than the 19th-century Parisians.
And so, it dawns: How different are we, really? Take a look at yourself and you realise you are a constitution of everything you have experienced, everyone you have met. Each writer, staff, student, stranger encountered so far have all become a part of me. They will surface, transmogrified, in some mysterious way, in my writing.
Iowa City is 14 hours behind Singapore, and a part of me is still back in Iowa House Hotel; waking up to another day, knocking on Mamle’s room, celebrating Sabata’s birthday, cycling with Lwin and Heekyung, goofy-dancing with Kathleen to Future Islands, sprinkling crushed peppermint on yoghurt at Yotopia, brisk-walking to Shambaugh House… wondering who else I may meet, what I may write today.
The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Tang Siu Wa. Read this entry in its original language by visiting Tang Siu Wa's blog.
I've heard that travel is a good time to get rid of stuff. Take old clothes, wear them and throw them away so as to free up suitcase space for some additional surprises, and general rebirth. For the three-month residency in Iowa, I took two old dresses and planned to throw them away. One was a TOUGH Jeansmith black turtleneck sweater hoodie, good for my self-defense during demonstrations: I had worn it for the WTO protest in 2005. Hit by water cannons, soaked in salty water, it shrank and turned lumpy and ill-fitting. The other was a REPLAY yellow and green plaid crumpled softshirt, which I bought my first year of high school. It's been near twenty years since then. I wore it to the Star Ferry Pier protests to stop its demolition. Recently it had become something to add a scent of unkemptness.
Hanging on to clothes is remembering. In my hesitation to throw things away, I can't help feeling nostalgic. During the IWP residency, I spread out my clothes around my hotel room. Over and over, I tried to give myself reasons to throw them away. In his Tune: Partridge Sky (鷓鴣天), Yan Jidao (晏幾道) writes, "Tipsily I caress the spring clothes, reminiscing about the past from their fragrance / Willfully the gods oppose me, evoking remorse to sting my ignorance." Nalan Xingde's (納蘭性德) Tune: Spring in Princess Qin’s Garden (沁園春) says “Tangled in love / Yet my struggle perishes with your sudden death / Packing up your old clothes, their fragrance lingers in the past.” These are two cases of stubborn love, ending up with sad stories.
Reminiscing about what? Revolutions in Hong Kong are never written about, if at all, in the city’s official history. The official history (if there is one) always says that everything is a top-down gift from the authority [powers-that-be]. The processes and results of revolutionary action are only remembered in one’s words, or in one’s body. The Taiwanese writer Fang Hueizhen (房慧真) described herself on Facebook as stinky and smelly, after occupying the building of the Taiwanese Congress all day: “But in those exhausted bodies, pairs of eyes shone bright like fire… it’s the real moment ‘to live’… people gave up their bodily boundaries to build a human wall against the state apparatus. Once you’re etched by that feeling, you’ll never forget it. Ever.” This is well said. She fully captured the feeling of being addicted to protesting.
My attachment to the revolution was both spiritual and physical. The exhausted glamour of people seemed to never have been found anywhere else. After the protest, memories would find a host, either a monument or in clothes, and in small things. Back in my home in Mong Kok, I looked at people at the protest site (and one in Admiralty/Central), thinking, what had kept them there on such a bitterly cold night must be the same fundamental affection.
I told my plan to my best friend, the German poet Anja (IWP '14). German people tend to be emotionally restrained; Anja leads an austere life. She said she’s a person who often throws stuff away: "But these two--don't." I knew that I couldn’t give them up.
Who was it who said that love is like climbing a mountain -- if you get to the top, it will be hard to come down? Is it because people will cling to the astonishing view at the top of the mountain? I know: it's because of the commitment, the will and the state you are in when you climb. You are afraid that you aren’t going to be that absolutely perfect person. Climbers all know that it’s easier to get up a hill than down, because it’s easy to get hurt while descending. Those who climb for the first time don’t have the skill to help them get down safely.
It is said that if a person gives his heart away, a part of his soul also leaves. When the time of farewell came, the Argentine writer told me this would be for good. In order not to have an overweight luggage, I got rid of twenty-three pieces of clothing but brought back those two. On the flight back I tried, over and over, to get online, looking for the other writers on Facebook. I am back now, and ugly news is waiting for me. Protest sites are like painful love: too much attachment makes me want to go back to the beginning every now and then, to cancel out all the mistakes, to start over again. Maybe it is to prove that I have the ability to leap into this world. Maybe I’m attached to the endorphins in my brain, and to the fearless parachuting into this world.
The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This week's installment comes to us from Sabata-mpho Mokae:
The three months that I spent in Iowa City were like an interval, sort of a break between two years if not two eras. When I got home I spoke of ‘last year’ while referring to the time before departing for the United States, which was just a few months ago. It had been a break from familiarity and routine. But at the same time it was like an island of new life in a sea of old life. That’s newness when one knows that whatever is old is guaranteed, albeit seen with different eyes.
I was so looking forward to a reunion with my family that I hardly slept during the fifteen-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. But just before I left the United States, a foretaste of home came in the form of a young white man who came to sit near me at the airport in Atlanta. He greeted me in English that was heavily accented in Afrikaans, a South African language that is literally derived from Dutch and is widely spoken by white South Africans. It is, historically speaking, the language of the master and the servant, or in the old South African parlance, ‘baas’ and his ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’
While I was in Iowa City I received fairly enough media coverage back home in South Africa. I also wrote weekly for the Diamond Fields Advertiser, the newspaper I work for. So, many people knew what I was up to in America. The uncertainty was with my employers, who were not sure whether I was still coming back to my old job or whether I was going to take the offers that were coming. I chose to stay - for now.
Coming home also meant falling into the old routine and one of the tasks was to take my seven-year-old son to school daily. On two occasions, and almost just out of the blue, he told me that he was sad when I was gone. I had near-sleepless nights as a result. The International Writing Programme was great. I researched a lot for the novel I’m working on. I learnt from other writers. I had the time to write, with little to no distractions. The programme has opened new doors for me and earned me more respect here in South Africa. But if I were asked to do it again, at this age I’m slightly doubtful. I have the certitude that at fifty-five or sixty, I’d jump at the opportunity. But not when I have a young child who innocently torments me by being honest with how he felt when I was gone.
I made up with my boy. We spent time together. My boy told me stories until he fell asleep and carried on where he left off when he woke up. I spent time with my wife, who used the time I was away to prepare for the examinations for her second degree in psychology. We were delighted when The University of South Africa released results and said she had passed, and the degree is in the bag.
But people in the street expected me to have come back from the United States with new material, and a new accent.
Did I bring back new material?
I have been working tirelessly on my first novel since I got to Iowa City and I’m still on it. I decided to pause, go a bit slower and not as if I’m racing against time. I believe so much in this story that even if I need to work on it for years, I will. There have been too many distractions since I got back and I cannot write well when there are such. It is December now and everybody here is on a holiday mode. This time of the year is also a wedding season in South Africa. Neighbours play loud music whenever they are awake.
But coming back home to South Africa from the US made me realise that while my country is the most industrialised in the African continent, it still has a long way to go in offering its citizens the opportunities that I have been exposed to in the US. I think the idea that we’re living in the most industrialised African country has fooled us and now we live in an almost closed community that is hardly exposed to the outer world. It’s like missing out on what we have no idea of. I came back home with a yearning to be a world traveler. Having friends across the world, thanks to the International Writing Programme, means I’m on my first steps towards being a global citizen.
I have a crazy idea that my city of Kimberley will one day be like Iowa City in terms of appreciating writers. I live in a city that was once inhabited by great writers such as Sol Plaatje and Olive Schreiner. However, literary appreciation in the city does not reflect its rich literary past. Readings and book launches are hardly well attended. This is while the government of the day is investing funds into literary development in the form of funding literary festivals and giving grants to writers.
A good number of the writers I lived with in Iowa City write in languages other than English. South Africa has eleven official languages and a few ‘protected’ languages. However, the country is largely English-speaking. I write in English and Setswana, which is tantamount to swimming against the tide here. But having been with writers whose books are written in Arabic, Spanish, Icelandic and so forth has reinforced my resolve to write for the six or so million Africans who speak Setswana across the five southern African countries. I hope to have my work translated into English and other languages though. I have already started translating the work of Omar Pérez (IWP '14, Cuba) that mentions about Africa into Setswana, which I hope will introduce him to readers in southern Africa. I’ll pick up the works of other writers that I lived with in Iowa City and do the same.
A special guest post by Timothy Shipe.
A fortunate coincidence led me to arrive in Helsinki in time to attend the biennial European Avant-garde and Modernism Conference, where I presented a paper on Iowa’s International Dada Archive and met many scholars of Dada and surrealism with whom I have collaborated over the years. Before and after the three-day event I scoured every antiquarian book store in the city. Since Finland is a bilingual country with two rather distinct literary scenes, I had to look in different places for the works of authors writing in Finnish and in Swedish. Our 2013 IWP poet Teemu Manninen was incredibly helpful, steering me to bookshops I would otherwise have missed. Finland has sent more writers to Iowa than the other three countries combined, so my week was quite fruitful, as was clear when I hauled my luggage with over 100 books onto the overnight ferry to Stockholm.Gunnar Harding and Rolf Åggestam among its editors. A peculiarity of the Scandinavian publishing scene is that Finland-Swedish authors tend to issue their books in simultaneous editions with publishers in Finland and Sweden, so I was able to locate some works I had been unable to find in Helsinki. To my great relief, Stockholm was home to a branch of Mailboxes Etc., so I was able to ship my Finnish and Swedish purchases back to Iowa and avoid filling a compartment with books on my remaining train rides.Mathilde Walther Clark, who kindly provided almost all of her published work, including the most treasured find of my trip, the Iowan Dictionary which she compiled with Mexican writer Jose Eugenio Sanchez. Published by the “Super Royal Academy of Iowan Language,” the work chronicles the experiences of the IWP Class of 2006 in a series of tongue-in-cheek definitions. (For example: “natasa: Indeterminate noun. A funny but noisy concept that could be a long short story in itself.”)
An extra checked suitcase was adequate to bring back the works of two Danish writers. Some excellent antiquarian contacts established in all four countries should enable me to further develop the Scandinavian component of the Libraries’ IWP collection, which stands as an impressive testimony to the formidable literary output of nearly fifty years’ worth of participants in the International Writing Program.
A special guest post by Mamle KABU, a 2014 Fall Resident from Ghana.Writers Project of Ghana (WPG), of which I am a co-director, had just received a commitment from the Miles Morland Foundation in the UK for a generous grant.
The WPG is a charitable organization dedicated to promoting Ghanaian writers and nurturing new literary talent. It reaches out to writers through various programs and activities including public readings, writing workshops and a weekly live radio program. It was established in 2008 with funding from the US Embassy. However it is not easy to find funding for the arts in Ghana and the organization has kept going mainly through the dedication of its principal director, Martin Egblewogbe and of a handful of staunch members.
In any society, it is daunting for new writers to find their voices and go public with their work. Ghana is no exception to this. There is no clear-cut path laying out the nebulous business of ‘becoming a writer,’ no creative writing degrees, a brutally limited reading public and a publishing industry that can be far from writer-friendly. The best-known literary names are from the older generations, many Ghanaian writers based abroad are virtually unknown at home and it is only in recent years that an appreciable swell of contemporary writing has begun to make itself felt in-country.
In this environment, the opportunity to attend a writers’ workshop or to feature as a guest reader on a radio program even without any published work to one’s name, is literally a lifeline for an aspiring writer. With its new grant, the WPG hopes to strengthen its fundraising capacity among other things and, together with other writers’ groups like the Ghana Association of Writers and the Mbaasem Foundation (for women writers), illuminate further the difficult pathway to becoming a writer.
There’s still time to enroll in How Writers Write Poetry, which opens June 28, 2014. The course is part of a new University of Iowa MOOC series: How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment; a fiction writing course will launch in September 2014.
Special thanks to Between the Lines counselor Nana for letting us post this photo of her writing space. More photos of Nana's spaces here.
Here’s a quick introduction to the course from instructors Mary Hickman and Christopher Merrill. A complete course syllabus can be found here.
How Writers Write Poetry is part of a new University of Iowa MOOC series: How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment; a fiction writing course will launch in September 2014.
The lyrical 49-minute documentary can be viewed at: http://iwp.uiowa.edu/programs/international-conferences/the-same-gate alongside a 13-minute companion feature in which participants tackle the question “Who is your Rumi?” exploring how, eight centuries after his death, Rumi remains a central poet in Afghan, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish literature and a bestselling poet in the U.S..
--Bina Shah (Writer/Journalist, Pakistan)
Bezjian recorded dozens of hours of interviews with participants, who included Pakistani writer and New York Times columnist Bina Shah and National Book Award winner Marilyn Hacker, capturing excursions retracing Rumi’s steps in Turkey, visiting the poet’s shrine in Konya, and even meeting with Esin Celebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter twenty-one generations removed.91st Meridian Editor Nataša Durovicová who is compiling the 120-page volume of ghazals (a poetic form employed by Rumi), prose reflections, and essays by The Same Gate participants, to be published by Autumn Hill Books.
--Golan Haji (Poet/Translator, Syria/France)
The Same Gate conference brought writers from six countries together to converse, collaborate, and challenge each other’s ideas, using Rumi’s poetry as common ground. The film and accompanying volume of collaborative work capture the rich intellectual and cultural exchange made possible by the project, embodying the Rumi ghazal that gave The Same Gate its name.