A Letter after Iowa City

JIANG Yun graduated in 1981 from the Chinese Department of Taiyuan Normal College and later studied at Beijing University. Her first published story, “Wo de liangge nuer” (My Two Daughters), marked the beginning of the Wound Literature movement in Shanxi. Since then, Ms. Jiang has published widely. Xianchang taoyi (Escape from the Scene, 1998), the third of her four story collections, was translated into French as Delit De Fuite (2001); and her five novels include Shanshuo zai nide zhitou (Shining on the Top of Your Tree, 1998) and Wo de leilu (My Interior Land, 2001).

Iowa City is a beautiful small town, with trees everywhere. Many big trees, whose name I don’t know, have been there for many many years. Thanks to the abundance of the greenery, many wild animals thrive in the area, especially small ones, for instance, squirrels. Bushy-tailed gray squirrels are commonly seen running around grassy areas, without any fear of humans. Also rabbits; they seem to be a bit timid. Their small figures scurrying off the road in the dark is also a common nighttime sight. We have even run into some badgers and raccoons. Of course, the most commonly seen animals are deer, which gather to have dinner on the hilltop outside of Teacher Nieh's house at dusk.

The Iowa River runs into the Mississippi River. Through our window, we can see its quiet and brimming water. Although it is not a big river, its steadfast way of flowing toward the bigger river is very charming. By the trail that leads to the riverbanks, there are some beautiful trees covered with small berries. We watch the berries grow to maturity day by day, until they slowly turn red, ripe and fall to the ground. We don’t know their name and they are no bigger than the love pea. They are juicy and crisp, and taste a bit like hawthorn and flowering crabapple. Somebody suggested that they might be blueberries. Perhaps they are. We hear that they turn soft and sweet in the winter, providing food for birds, that have difficulty migrating to the south.

There are many coveys of wild ducks on the Iowa River. They often fly over the river. At first, I took them to be wild geese when they dove into the river from the sky. But they are not. I forgot that ducks were originally birds with wings and that they used to migrate like wild geese. But it is said that, as the local people enjoy feeding them in the past several years, they have been fed so well and taken so good care of that they have stopped migrating to the warm South in the winter. They would rather endure Iowa’s harsh winter, which often reaches twenty to thirty degrees below zero, and live on bread. It seems that the saying “food is most important” is a universal truth. It obviously has changed the natural habits of an animal species over the past thousands of years.

The water in the Iowa River has a strong smell, with somewhat fishy-like odor. A foot-long grayish-black carp would open his big mouth and grab food from ducks. Sometimes schools of them would scare away some lone duck. Nobody fishes by the river. The local people never eat the fish from the Iowa River. They say that the water in the Iowa River is polluted. Therefore, the fish get to enjoy a long life in the river. It would not be strange if someday, a carp spirit emerges from the river. The Iowa River is a rich river in which there is no slaughter.

Whatever direction you drive out of Iowa City, very soon you will run into flat farm fields. The flatland of the Midwest of the United States is vast and magnanimous, endless, beyond a single glance. It rolls freely and smoothly, like the breathing of the earth. It is like the plains in the northeast of our country. God or the Creator bestows special kindness on this land. You start to understand what “thanksgiving” means after you come to the depths of this rich and fertile land. This ordinary but vibrant secular paradise draws out something spiritual from human beings.

On the banks of the Iowa River, on the side of highways, there is rolling countryside. These are the hills. On top of one hill there is a “Deer Garden.” In Deer Garden lives Teacher Nieh. A long time ago, her husband Paul Engle, a renowned American poet, also lived there. Deer Garden is actually a red wooden house in the woods. Its shade of red is neither pretentious nor intimidating. It is like the shade of certain flower, full of vitality, and in wonderful harmony with the surrounding trees and hills. In the winter, when the trees turn bare and the hills are covered with silvery snow, the red wooden house becomes cozier and more charming. It is a pity I did not have the fortune to enjoy such a beautiful view. We did not wait long enough for Iowa’s first snowfall.

There are deer in Deer Garden. They are wild animals. During the past several decades, every day around dusk, they emerge from the woods behind the hilltops. Teacher Nieh will have already prepared food for them. In the past, the job of feeding them fell on Paul. He used to say that he likes animals and women. When Teacher Nieh told us this, her face lit up, warm with cherished memories. His saying and her smile have touched us to the heart.
Now Paul is resting alone in his grave. We visited his grave. The black marble gravestone is simple, solemn, elegant and beautiful, and inscribed with two names. One is that of Paul’s; the other, Teacher Nieh herself’s. As soon as I saw her name, “Hualing Nieh Engle,” I could not hold my tears. It is going to be Teacher Nieh’s resting place, a woman’s final resting-place. Wherever there is love, there is a woman’s home and homeland. She would follow this motto through life and death. A line of Paul’s poem is inscribed on the back of the gravestone, “I can’t move mountains. But I can make light.” Now, every year on October 12th, Iowans celebrate the official state holiday, “Paul Engle’s Day.”

Although Iowa City is a small town, there are several super-sized super-markets and huge shopping centers. The locals call the latter “malls.” Most of the super-markets and malls are located outside of the city. Reaching them needs some driving. In Iowa, without a car, one feels like that you don’t have legs. There is also a factory outlet that sells merchandise directly from the manufacturers. The brands of merchandise are favorites of Chinese young people. For instance, Levi’s, Nike, Gap, etc. Also CK perfume, which is cheaper than that sold in other stores. The outlet is located in the town of Williamsburg. It is a forty-minute ride on the highway from Iowa City. At first we had difficulty memorizing its name. Li Rei called it “Wei-lian-bao.” Since then we call it “Wei-lian-bao.” It sounds very European. Later I learned that “Wei-lian-bao” did have something to do with the European colonizers. It commemorates a part of American history.

Teacher Nieh always shops at John’s Grocery, a small grocery store. We call it “Jiang ji zahuo dian”(John’s grocery). Its owner, John, originated from Czechoslovakia. He opened the store in the 1940s. The store has a history of over sixty years. The current owner is his son, a long time resident of the city. He takes great care of the only grocery in downtown Iowa City. The name of the shop assistant is Wally. He used to be a rebellious hippy in the sixties and the seventies. Even now, you can still see some remnants of hippyhood in him. His jeans are rough-edged, and he is careless of his appearance. He braids his grayish white hair into a pigtail on the back of his head, etc. His smile is very sincere, sometimes even contagious. He knows the preference of all the regular customers in town. If you decide to buy a bottle of wine as a gift to someone, go to John’s Grocery and ask him, “What kind of wine would so and so like?” He would pull out what you need from an endless array of dazzling wine bottles. One day, we decided to take a bottle to the Deer Garden. So we went to John’s Grocery. When we uttered Teacher Nieh’s name with some gestures, Wally, with a broad smile, led us to an inner room and took a bottle from a shelf. It was exactly what we wanted, a kind of brandy called “cognac” that we then drank almost every night at Deer Garden.

In the past, Paul was the one to shop here. He drove down the hill to this small store on the roadside to buy groceries. The one who received him used to be old John’s two sons. Later, it was the hippy Wally. Suddenly, one day, Paul stopped coming, forever. On the day of his funeral, the hippy and the owner’s two sons visited the graveyard. In her hurry, Teacher Nieh forgot to invite them. They invited themselves to the funeral to say goodbye to Paul. On that day, the hippy Wally dressed formally, with a coat and tie. He solemnly said farewell to his customer, his friend, and a poet.

There is also the owner of a gas station. Paul always had his gas tank filled at that station. Whenever one saw a Blazer jeep speeding towards the gas station, there would be no doubt that it was Paul. Nobody could drive a big jeep so beautifully. After he passed away, his jeep, the Blazer, was for a while driven by somebody else, first by his daughter. As soon as the jeep appeared at the gas station, the owner and the people in the jeep started to cry together. This is the charm of a small town. Small towns throughout the world share this kind of closeness that big cities don’t have. It is also a reflection of the charisma of certain individual and poet. Thanks to this individual, the small town has become very big. Since the 1970s, every year in the fall, Iowa’s most beautiful season, writers, poets, now also playwrights and directors, from all parts of the world come to participate in the program that this man and his wife founded. They come from such places as Cambodia, and Laos. And there is always a poet or novelist from a certain island country in the Pacific, who would commemorate the name of Iowa that has shared a piece of his life.


In 2002, fellow writers from over thirty countries joined us in the program at Iowa. At first, we had difficulty remembering their names. So we found our own way to call them. For instance, “the chubby Japanese girl” (actually, she is not overweight at all, but full-grown, with a firm body. She is pretty, with a magnanimous laughs. She always calls me elder sister). “Madonna” is a Bulgarian girl, young, avant- garde, who likes absurd colors of nail polish and lipsticks, and worships “body language.” Another instance, “the small Medieval man” (a young man from Brazil; the expression in his eyes has some sadness; he wears long hair that resembles diciples in medieval religious paintings. He likes to play the guitar and sing hippy songs with a soft voice). Another is “the little English hunchback.” (actually his back does not hunch at all. It is just that his shoulders are always hunched forward a bit. He is blonde with blue eyes, and is a real British aristocrat). Then there is “the old Germany.” (Of course he is German, and a novelist. He is the oldest among us. He joggs along the river every morning. He does not like Günter Grass). In addition, we have “Israel” and “Palestine.” “Israel” has striking appearance and big eyes. She is said to be very well-known in the world. All her books have been published by Random House. When people criticise the impending war, she stands by the majority. “I don’t represent Israel,” she claims. Whereas “Palestine” is the most refined and literary poet among us, emotional and romantic. We sometimes see him walking with the Polish poetess along the Iowa River banks. The Polish poetess likes to wear a red shawl, and looks serious and melancholic. I especially like her shy reserved smiles. Then there is a writer from Costa Rica with dark complexion and natural curly hair. He likes photography. When we travel together on a bus, he would always take the seat by the driver. He would miss no opportunity to take pictures, streching his arm out of the window, holding the camera high and constantly pushing the buttom against the wind. He has a very handsome way of doing this. He told us that he had some Chinese blood in him, and he can indeed speak a couple of Chinese words. His Chinese is as limited as my English. We once ran into him in a Chinese restaurant that we frequented. There were no translators around, nor people we knew. By him using some Chinese words, and us some English words, the three of us managed to have a lively conversation for a full half hour. It is typically what is called “nan-yuan-bei-zhe”(try to go south by driving the chariot north). But we have developed the right environment for congenial and animated conversations. Later, after we returned to China, we learned that he was a high-ranking government official, a minister.
Even more legendary is that we not only have aristocrats and dignitaries, but also a former guerrilla, who is a poetess from Zimbabwe, Africa. She fought in real guerrila warfare in the jungles. I was very curious about her experiences, but was not able to communicate with her, due to language barriers. She is serious and quiet, a sharp constrast to the other African woman writer. She is from Ghana and is glowing and bubbly . She has dazzling white teeth, and she is tall and well-proportioned. She always wears clothes with loud colors and her smiles are charming and magnificant. She is warm, outgoing, verbal and affectionate, emitting an innate sublimity, like a godess. She is the most intriguing and saintly-like person that I have ever met. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that where she lives is closest to god. I am very fond of her. She is a novelist and the only woman writer that has won big national awards in Ghana. One day, we listened to her reading of an episode from one of her novels, in which she talks about her childhood. A group of country children imagine life in the Soviet Union. The children say that every thing is divided. For instance, eating meals: someone is assigned to eat bread, others, jelly, and still others, potatos. The novel must be very interesting, though that was all what I got through translation.


In the past, when Paul was still alive, he used to invite all the writers of IWP to get together at Deer Garden. They would set up a grill on the hillside in the back of their house and use cypress branches to grill beef. People would sit on the porch. Drink and sing. Writers from East European countries would tap dance or folkdance. They would cry when dancing, untill the floor almost collapsed. On the other side of the hill, the sun is slowly sinking into the river. In the distance, you cannot feel the water’s movement, but it is flowing. At the river's end, there would be an even more generous view. The grand spirited Mississippi is expecting its arrival. The trees on the hills were not as tall at that time. They did not block the view from the porch. It is different now, the trees are tall and thick. Except in the winter, you cannot see the river in front of the house. Trees in Iowa are magnifciant in the fall. There are crimson leaves, golden leaves under the blue sky, on river banks and by the white buidlings. The flaming patches of red sometimes hurt the eyes if you turn to them suddenly. So that is how it is!. It is possible to have so many trees turn red in the fall. Before this, I only knew that maples, smoke trees and the persimon turned red in the fall. My teacher once told me, “Shuang-lin”(red-leaved woods) in the line”Xiao lai shui ran shuang-lin zui (Who paints the woods drunkenly red at dawn)” in the play “Xi Xiang Ji”(Romance of the West Chamber) refers to persimons. That is our tree. There are no persimon trees in Iowa, but other kinds of red foliage and the beautiful “red-leaved woods.” I would never know their names. To me, they are a foreign land.

We used to call this fertile and beautiful land in America’s Midwest “Yi-a-hua”. Now on our map, it is translated as “Iowa.” The first person who called it “Ai-he-hua,” sounding like “Love of the Lotus Light,” is Teacher Nieh, a black-haired-black-eyed Chinese woman. She has made “Ai-he-hua” famous in the world.

Taiyuan, Spring 2003.
Translated by Su, Hongjun