By Andrea Chan, Fall Residency Outreach Assistant
Is art inherently political? Is it shaped by the systems of governance we are exposed to? The 2015 Fall Residency brought together 34 writers from 33 countries, all of whom come from vastly different political cultures. Some are moved to write, to make sense of political turmoil, and some distance themselves from it, wishing to write for the self and not for the state.
With the advent of social media and instant news headlines, it has become increasingly easy to access news from halfway across the world—something writers so far from home might find comfort in. In the video feature News From Home, five residents unpack the role that local politics and headlining events play in influencing their writing. The interviews feature:
- Raed Anis Al-Jishi (Saudi Arabia)
- Kirill Azernyi (Russia)
- Matthew Cheng (Hong Kong)
- El Jones (Canada)
- Nisah Haron (Malaysia)
The writers were careful not to paint a wholly bleak picture of political events from home –they focused instead on thinking critically about the problems they felt were vital to address. Jones, though acknowledging the importance of the Canadian federal elections, felt that greater change could be made at the community level, noting that it was “those sort of grassroots community building, community mobilization, that kind of stuff that I think is more important—to me—than elections.”
Take a look at how our writers have been keeping up with news during the residency.
Join us for the latest iteration of WhitmanWeb, Whitman Civil War, where we explore Walt Whitman’s literary response—in poetry and prose—to the American Civil War, which remains the deadliest war in American history.
The 36-week project will feature commentaries from Professor Ed Folsom, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, and Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program. Launching on Armistice Day and soon after the 150th anniversary of the publication of Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps, Whitman Civil War will be delivered in English, Arabic, and French.
Each Wednesday, a new text will be published alongside commentaries from Folsom and Merrill as well as a question, which the public is invited to answer either on the Comments section of WhitmanWeb or on WhitmanWeb’s Facebook page.
WhitmanWeb launched in 2012, featuring “Song of Myself.” The series was delivered in 52 weekly installments. Each installment presented one section of the 52-part poem in English alongside translations in eight other languages, including the first-ever translation into Persian, accompanied by photographs, commentary, discussion questions, and recordings.
The upcoming WhitmanWeb series will culminate in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called Summoning the Dead: Whitman Writing War. Those interested can still take Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” IWP’s first Whitman MOOC launched in 2014.
By Hanna Busse, IWP ICRU Fellow
In April of 2011, the exchange “Writers in Motion: Fall and Recovery” brought an international group of established writers together on a tour throughout the United States. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the stops were selected based upon a shared experience of conflict and upheaval—in both the past and present.
The exchange participants, either IWP alumni or visitors to Iowa City, examined issues of race, class, and regional conflict through lenses like the economic recession, Hurricane Katrina, and the Civil Rights Movement. Now, their findings are presented in Fall and Rise, American Style: Eight International Writers Between Gettysburg and the Gulf, a collection of essays. Writers include:
- Adisa Basi
- Vicente Garcia Groyon (IWP ‘09)
- Eduardo Halfon
- Billy Karanja Kahora (IWP ‘10)
- Khet Mar (IWP ‘07)
- Kei Miller (IWP ‘07)
- Alice Pung (IWP ‘09)
- Madeleine Thien (IWP ‘08)
Not only has the group spent significant time becoming familiar with United States’ culture, all eight participants address major upheavals in their own writing. Because of these experiences, the naked realities of modern America, where the façade of American exceptionalism is stripped away, were in capable hands. Miller, a poet and writer from Jamaica, writes with elegance about his experiences, struggling to analyze and make intelligent observations during his travels. He found the exchange wholly overwhelming. His piece, “The Grief Space,” is a result, it seems, of space, and time, and reflection. He brings humanity to his views of a so-called “third world America” by discussing grief: As Miller grieves for his mother, so do many Americans grieve for people and places they have lost. Each piece in the collection approaches difficult themes with this sort of tact and sensitivity, which is no surprise given the group of writers.
To read the artful insights of eight outsiders grappling with some of America’s largest social problems, visit Autumn Hill Books today where the book is available in print and as an e-book.
Lanterns of Hope: A Poetry Project for Iraqi Youth, a new initiative from the International Writing Program, closes its call for submissions May 1, 2015. Launched in March, the program is designed to encourage Iraqi youth, ages 16 to 23, to creatively communicate their visions for the future of Iraq.
Lanterns of Hope welcomes poems in Arabic, Kurdish, or English that reflect in some way on life in modern-day Iraq, potentially dealing with themes like reconciliation and forgiveness. Six distinguished poets—five Iraqis writing in Arabic and Kurdish, and one American writing in English and translating from Kurdish—will act as mentors throughout the process.
From the submitted work, the mentors will select a collection of poems to be included in an anthology, where each piece will be translated into all three languages to further highlight the diversity of language and culture within Iraq.
For more information, please visit our submission manager. Lanterns of Hope: A Youth Poetry Project is made possible by the Baghdad City of Literature Steering Committee in collaboration with the Iraqi House of Poetry, the Union of Iraqi Writers, the Iraq Literary Review, and the US Embassy in Baghdad.
One hundred fifty years ago, on April 9th, 1865, the Battle of Appomattox Court House brought the American Civil War to an end. In order to commemorate this historic moment, the International Writing Program is pleased to announce the next incarnation of WhitmanWeb, which in July will begin a nine-month exploration of Walt Whitman’s Civil War writings.
“We will examine Whitman’s poetry and prose, which not only testify to the terrible costs of the War Between the States but also opened up new ways to think about the American experiment in liberty,” says IWP Director Christopher Merrill, who will contribute to the project along with Whitman scholar Ed Folsom.
WhitmanWeb, an innovative web gallery launched in 2012, currently features “Song of Myself” which was originally delivered in 52 weekly installments. Each installment presented one section of the 52-part poem in English alongside translations in eight other languages, including the first-ever translation into Persian, accompanied by photographs, commentary, discussion questions, and recordings.
The upcoming WhitmanWeb series will culminate in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Those interested can still take Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” IWP’s first Whitman MOOC launched in 2014.
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 Sadek Mohammed:
It has been almost three months since my return from Iowa City. The ten-week journey to that beautiful, Midwestern American city was very much like a flying-carpet journey to a utopia for writing and writers. The Baghdadi Sinbad, if I may call myself that, saw a lot, learnt a lot, experienced a lot and wrote a lot. But that is a different story, as our story tellers might say, and I will tell it on some other occasion perhaps. And as I say in a poem I wrote during my time there, "for the grand mornings near the river Iowa/ the clouds bow for the clouds."
Before my departure, I must say, Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS (at least so said the news on CBS), my wife had given birth to my youngest son, Hassan, and a new 'dinosaur' had been appointed as my new boss at the university. "Good God! This is a triple treason", I had said to myself as I boarded the plane on my way to the US. As for ISIS, I naively assumed that poetic justice would ultimately prevail. Thank God I am not a military strategist in this great era of Obama-Biden! As for my wife, I pacified my conscience by remembering that it was actually her idea that I should leave in the first place. As for the dinosaur, well, what else is new? In the Middle East, I am certain, history is always written by the buffoons. Going home was very much like going back to a poem that has been left unfinished for a long time. How to recapture its rhythm, tone, temper and passion? This is how I felt when I started packing my bags for my journey back home. How would I re-inhabit that wild wolf that had been living in the wilderness of Baghdad after having become softer, milder and tamer in my Iowan paradise? That was my biggest fear.
Thankfully, the fifteen-hour journey back took me to Dubai first, as there were no direct flights to Baghdad. This was a necessary sobering station before heading home. "Move", said the grim security man in the airport who wanted to check my hand luggage before I went to the airport hotel. "What's in this heavy bag?” he said. "Poems", I clumsily replied. "Stand aside and open it," he said, and started to suspiciously search the bag. Did You Hear About the Fighting Cats?; Tales, Poems and Songs from the Underwater World; Remains; Archeology of Scorched Cities and The General is Up, among other anthologies and novels, were all that he could find. "Close your bag!" he said with a surprised and indeed, surprising smile. Halleluiah! I am in the God-forsaken Middle East at last, with all its tight security, spies and obscene police. All I need now are checkpoints, sirens and car bombs to recapture the spirit of my old, unfinished poem.
The family reunion was very emotional. My son, Hassan, was three months old. He was completely different from that new-born baby they had put in my hands to perform the Muslim Azan in his right ear and a prayer in his left, as my father had done to me when I was born. My four-year old daughter, Leila, had shed some of her baby fat. She had suffered a lot during my absence. Intuitively, she must have felt that the birth of her brother meant the end of her reign as the undisputed Queen of the house. Furthermore, nobody had been telling her 'interesting' bedtime stories. "Grandma's stories were not sweet," she complained to me in her childish critical manner. "Well, papa's come with 'a heap' of stories from the land of Tom and Jerry," I said. "Wow!" was her immediate, innocent answer. My nieces and nephews wanted to know if I had eaten alligator meat, because I told my wife that in New Orleans some restaurants serve that type of cuisine. My wife and sisters had apparently adopted the habit of scaring these naughty creatures, especially the nephews, by telling them that "Uncle will rip off your ears if you make too much noise." My answer was in the negative, of course, because I am a devout vegetarian now. Yet, they were all looking at me with suspicious eyes. I guess the family women had been successful in solidifying their myth of me as the 'naughty boys' terminator'.
My return also saw an air of ease and comfort marking a new, prevailing spirit in the city. Gone were the days of anxiety, which had agonized the population, and where observers had feared that the city might be overrun by ISIS. The terrorists lost momentum, and their organization is in decline there. A new government was formed after the general elections. But most important of all, in my view, was that there was a new spirit of optimism and creativity in the eyes of some of the young people. The future of the city and the country lies with them. Once the genie of their creativity comes out of the bottle, the whole country will be absolutely changed.
The news of my residency in Iowa had reached the city before my arrival, and I could see the sense of pride in the eyes of my students and perhaps, the sense of envy in the eyes of some of my colleagues. I understand. After all, this is the IWP, the most prestigious creative writing program in the whole world, one of which I am OFFICIALY an alumnus now.
The creative recharge that I received at the IWP filled my mind with many new ideas and many new projects. I wrote many poems, I started translating the magical Jesus Castillo, I wrote the screenplay for a short movie on Baghdad as a Creative City of Literature, I edited a new issue of the Iraq Literary Review and I inaugurated the Flying Carpet Project in the city. I have not yet met the 'dinosaur' though. Frankly, I intend to give him a nice piece of my mind, the Iowa way of course, or maybe not.
“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.