In 2021, we successfully maintained our global and U.S. programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering two 2-week long sessions to young writers ages 15-18 in a virtual format (due to the ongoing COVID-19 Global Pandemic), aiming “to make virtual a virtue!”
The 13th session of BTL: Peace and the Writing Experience, supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State, brought 76 participants from 20 countries and the U.S. together virtually.
The 2021 session of BTL: Identity and Belonging, funded by the Building Bridges Program at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), was its third full session, and also took place virtually.
During BTL: Peace and the Writing Experience (July 10-24, 2021), the returning BTL expert faculty team of Rumena Bužarovska (IWP Fall Resident ’18, North Macedonia), Mary Hickman (BTL Faculty ’15, ’16, ’17, ’20, U.S.), Shandana Minhas (IWP Fall Resident ’13, Pakistan), and Vladimir Poleganov (IWP Fall Resident ’16, Bulgaria) skillfully guided participants through creative, cross-cultural, and experimental writing prompts, reading poetry and stories. They also engaged our participants in debates and instigated lively discussions in small groups and writing workshops. In literature seminars they conversed with authors and poets across time and space; examined American cultures through the stories of Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri; read and discussed texts by Pakistani authors of three different generations; pondered Cortazar’s “Axolotl;” unraveled the mysteries of Octavia Butler’s metaphors; and considered ideas about utopia, dystopia, and anti-utopia with Ursula LeGuin. Cherished teaching assistants included alea adigweme, Gyasi Hall, Delaney Nolan, and Sean Zhuraw. From orientation day and an open mic event to the final graduation day, the participants chatted with their virtual “roommates,” lulled each other to dreamland with bedtime stories they wrote, and found windows into each other’s daily lives from afar via @btl_uiiwp on Instagram.
In BTL: Identity and Belonging (June 19-July 3, 2021), through their artful pedagogic strategies, experience BTL faculty Poupeh Missaghi and José Olivarez showed our students ways to write in individual voices even while reflecting (on) their personal and collective histories. Challenged to think critically about social, political, and cultural structures, the students had their perspectives broadened by studying the creative work of authors, artists, and poets such as Marwa Helal, Noor Hindi, Liana Aghajanian, Khashayar Mohammadi, Sarah Rahbar, Ghinwa Jawhari, Tish Benson, Gertrude Stein, Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, and Ocean Vuong.
In addition to daily writing workshops and literature classes, BTL students were invited to special seminars: they could explore how their identity lives inside a poem with poet Marwa Helal, or discover erasure poems with Kiki Petrosino through her book, White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia. They created digital stories inspired by the multimedia work of Lauren Haldeman, and examined visual and poetic documentary forms with Joumana Altallal and Razi Jafri. Their zine creations strengthened their graphic skills with the help of alea adigweme, and they merged ideas to create fantastical story concepts with Henry Lien. With non-fiction writer Sarah Adler, they paid attention to joy and healing in their writing practices. They also envisioned ways to build creative communities “Beyond BTL” with past BTL intern Caroline Meek and BTL alumni. The 2021 National Youth Poet Laureate (NYPL) Alexandra Huynh, accompanied by the 2020 NYPL Meera Dasgupta and the 2021 competition finalists Faye Harrison and Serena Yang, also Zoomed in to share their work and their experiences in the spotlight. Each second of our two, 2-week sessions was spent somewhere between the real and the imaginary.
These young BTL writers had the opportunity to perform their new works for the public at online Open Mics (recordings from the two sessions here—BTL: Peace and the Writing Experience & BTL: Identity and Belonging) and enjoyed livestreamed readings by their faculty (recordings from the two sessions here—BTL: Identity and Belonging faculty reading & BTL: Peace and the Writing Experience faculty reading), both hosted by Iowa City’s iconic bookstore, Prairie Lights.
Through challenges ranging from physical and mental health during the pandemic, war zones, severe weather, responsibility for siblings and family, holding down jobs, attending school, starting college, cracked mobile devices, spotty internet, days turned into nights and nights to days, our participants persevered so they could be together, write ferociously, and inhabit new imaginative worlds. By the end, they’d grown together to the point of strongly regretting they weren’t together physically—proof that what we’d built together had transcended our virtual walls.
2021 Session dateS & Anthologies:
Between the Lines: Identity and Belonging: June 19 – July 3, 2021
Read the session Anthology here >
Between the Lines: Peace and the Writing Experience: July 10 – July 24, 2021
Read the session Anthology here >