By Wendy Lee, IWP ICRU Fellow
The Legend in My Heart, a film following the International Writing Program's 2014 Reading Tour to China, was the recipient of several awards from the 13th annual Wild Rose Film Festival, including Best International Documentary Feature.
The recently-premiered film stars four distinguished American artists — Stephen Kuusisto, Michelle Pearson, and University of Iowa Professors David Gompper and Christopher Merrill — as they travel through Guangzhou, China, engaging in workshops, lectures, and performances. Transcending the barriers of self-limitations, Kuusisto, a professor at Syracuse University and author of the critically-acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, led a poetry workshop at the Guangzhou English Training Centre for the Handicapped (GETCH) in which he shared his own story of living with a disability. Reflecting on the delegation's time at GETCH, director of the film and University of Iowa alumna Kaitlyn Busbee said, “this whole experience was incredibly humbling. It revealed so much to be about the human spirit. I realized through this experience that the arts give us a point of entry to get to the essence of what makes us human and what we are supposed to do here.”
The tour culminated in a two-day workshop where people from all walks of life congregated at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou to channel their free spirit in the form of dance moves, musical compositions, voices singing in unison, or penned thoughts revealed through poetry. As Kuusisto added in the film, this “cross-pollination of different art forms” was an avenue for participants to “bring different gifts to the table.”
From large-scale performances to the simple act of sharing a meal, the film witnesses individuals openly engaging in cultural exchange through a multitude of activities, exemplifying how shared appreciation of the arts can transcend geographical borders. Pearson, a seasoned dancer and master teacher at Black Box Dance Theater, said in the film that “when people allow themselves to move, that’s when incredible things happen."
Merrill, director of the International Writing Program, expressed that “creativity is at the heart of cultural exchange, which can and should be available to people from all walks of life, and this film brilliantly captures some of the ways in which the arts can cut through all the complications of politics.”
Watch the film in its entirety on the IWP Media Gallery.
Undertaken with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Lanterns of Hope was designed to showcase poetic talent across Iraq. The International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa and the Baghdad UNESCO City of Literature collaborated on this project, soliciting work from poets aged 16 to 23. Project mentors Ahmad Amani, Muna Fadhil, Sarhang Hars, Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Dunya Mikhail, Sadek Mohamed, and Soheil Najm convened in a digital space and read over 60 submissions during the selection process.
“The Lanterns of Hope mentors diligently went through all submissions and carefully selected the best of the best,” says Dr. Mohamed, who is also a professor at al-Mustansiriya University. “Lanterns of Hope is the kind of project that I expect to help create a new generation of young poets, strengthen their confidence in their talents at a very early age and immediately take them to the international level through translation and training. I am not hesitant to predict that many of the poets highlighted in this project will capably carry the promethean poetry fire into the future and add a new life to the Iraqi literary scene very soon.”
Each poem featured in the book appears in its original language—Arabic, Kurdish, or English—and in translation into the two other languages. The inclusion of the three languages highlights the diversity of language and culture within Iraq while transcending differences to provide a vision of unity and hope.
"Poets who come of age in a time of war may possess a special kind of knowledge, which informs their lives and writings,” says Christopher Merrill, director of the IWP. “Lanterns of Hope casts light on the experiences of a remarkable group of young Iraqi poets, whose work attempts to discern meaning of what from a distance may appear to be incomprehensible.”
Read Lanterns of Hope now on the IWP’s website. For those interested in purchasing a print edition or requesting a review copy, please submit a query here. Baghdad UNESCO City of Literature is supporting Lanterns of Hope for three additional seasons. Those interested in participating can receive project updates by following along on the Lanterns of Hope Facebook page.
In this piece about Iowa City for the Spanish-language edition of CondéNast Traveler, Alba Lara Granero (MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at UI) describes nicely the ins and out of a writer’s life in a UNESCO City of Literature, covering the iconic local institutions: the International Writing Program, the Writers’ Workshop and the legacy of Paul Engle, as well as several of Kurt Vonnegut’s do’s and don’ts (including the legendary Fox Head Tavern). Take a look!
Han venido de todo el mundo. Estarán en Iowa City unos meses, unos años, toda la vida. Están inscritos en elWriters’ Workshop, en el Máster de Escritura en Español, fueron seleccionados para formar parte del International Writing Program, están en sus casas escribiendo sin que nadie lo sepa, se sientan en las cafeterías con los ordenadores encendidos y un documento de Word abierto (algunos, más sofisticados, utilizan otros programas de escritura), van al baño a anotar algo para no olvidarlo, piensan versos frente al río, tienen cinco años y están en talleres escolares, publican rimas en la revista local, son camareros de los antros de la ciudad, son camareros de los restaurantes caros de la ciudad, se acuestan pronto, cierran bares (a las dos de la mañana), se relacionan, se aíslan, escriben o quieren escribir, tienen becas, padres adinerados o contratos de docencia con la universidad.
Incluso Kurt Vonnegut lo reconocía: pensaba en el estado de Iowa y le venían tres cosas a la mente: maíz, cerdos… y escritores. El autor de Matadero cinco escribió estas palabras en memoria de Paul Engle, un iowano intrépido que en 1937 había tomado las riendas del primer y más famoso programa de escritura creativa en Estados Unidos, el Writers’ Workshop, y fundó más tarde la residencia literaria del International Writers Program. La ironía de Vonnegut era un nadieesprofetaensutierra lanzado con mucha gracia y bastante mala leche a la cara de los iowanos. Paul Engle, continuaba Vonnegut, se merecía una medalla póstuma de la guardia marítima por todas las vidas que había salvado, incluyendo la suya propia al contratarlo como profesor en Workshop entre 1965 y 1967.
El Writers’ Workshop sigue hoy vivo y coleando. Cincuenta escritores, especialmente de Estados Unidos, pero no solo, entran cada año al Dey House, una casita muy acogedora donde comparten sus textos con otros escritores para tallerearlos mientras toman café. Por el Workshop han pasado alumnos tan célebres como Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams o Paul Harding. Los seleccionados tienen dos años (algunos incluso tres) para dedicarse a escribir con un sueldo ajustado a cambio de dar clases de literatura y retórica a estudiantes más jóvenes. Desde hace cinco años, también en la universidad de Iowa, el Máster de Escritura en Español, mucho más modesto y limitado de recursos, se abre camino. El programa, donde son hoy profesores Luis Muñoz, Horacio Castellanos o Ana Merino, da una oportunidad literaria a otro grupo de escritores. El edificio donde los que escriben en español tienen sus talleres es un bloque de cemento de estilo soviético, oscuro y sin café. Lo rudo contra lo sofisticado, la noche frente a la claridad, quizá sea una metáfora de los tipos de literatura que se escriben en uno y otro mundo.
Si Iowa City es una ciudad de escritores (más aún, una ciudad de la literatura declarada por la UNESCO en 2008), no es raro que una de las librerías más emblemáticas de Estados Unidos esté aquí: en Prairie Lights hay lecturas casi a diario (Marilynne Robinson, cuya obra está inspirada por Iowa, es invitada habitual). En su cafetería es común ver escritores trabajando: el té con pastas (traídas de Deluxe, la mejor repostería de la ciudad) ayuda a calmar la ansiedad del Word en blanco.
Es más raro, aunque no del todo infrecuente, encontrar escritores en la maravillosa biblioteca pública de Iowa City. Dos pisos infinitos, diáfanos, llenos de lugares cómodos en los que leer lo último de Miranda July y lo primero de Virgilio. Moderno y reformado recientemente, el edificio es casa diurna de muchos vagabundos que se culturizan leyendo a Schopenhauer mientras ven la nieve caer en invierno a menos quince grados.
Al Foxhead, pretenciosamente llamado “el bar de los escritores” , entre semana va poca gente y se oye hablar, sobre todo, español. Los fines de semana, sin embargo, los poetas y novelistas estadounidenses desencajan sus caderas a ritmo de música vieja. 'Girls just wanna have fun' es lo más desmelenado que se puede programar en la gramola. Hay una mesa de billar donde muchos querrían que hubiera una pista de baile, pero los parroquianos habituales, verdaderos profesionales de la carambola, muestran su desprecio hacia el glamour falso de la literatura y no ceden ni un centímetro ni un golpe de taco contra los que se acercan demasiado.
Hay otros escritores jóvenes, y no tan jóvenes, que se quedan en el bar de al lado, George’s, que tiene una gramola más moderna, con internet, y hamburguesas baratas buenas para asimilar el whisky. Algunos escritores, cansados de hablar de sus novelas optan por alejarse un poco del centro y buscar los bares donde sólo van locales. Están escondidos y son oscuros. Si los descubren, no comparten con nadie el hallazgo. Son una guarida. Eso sí, si viene visita, no cabe ninguna duda: no se pueden ir de Iowa City sin tomar un trago en el Foxhead, el lugar donde Kurt Vonnegut, dicen, le pegó un puñetazo a un alumno llamado John Updike, donde se emborracharon Raymond Carver, John Cheever y T.C. Boyle, donde se han celebrado premios Pulitzer. Donde algunos escritores que viven de serlo (al menos por unos años) se gastan el sueldo en cerveza barata y tallan sus nombres en las mesas de madera.
* Alba Lara Granero es una escritora manchega que con veintisiete años recibió una beca para un programa de escritura creativa en Iowa City, ("¿Cómo se dice que no a eso?"). Nos cuenta su experiencia desde la ciudad "de halo sagrado que han dejado escritores como Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor o Marilynne Robinson (que ejerce como profesora en al ciudad).
* Puede que también te interese...
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 installment comes to us from Samuel Kolawole:
On the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Abuja, two Nigerian men argued over where to put what in the overhead luggage compartment. The argument soon turned into a shouting match. Passengers sprang out of their seats, and while some tried to restore calm, others took sides — debating on who was right or wrong. The cabin crew mediated conversations between the two men. Several minutes later, we were airborne.
It was disheartening to realize that I had not witnessed people argue or fight in months, but I was somewhat excited to go back to the chaos and the energy of my homeland, even if it was only going to be for a short time.
I was not going to stay longer than three weeks. During my follow-on residency at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, I received an email offering me another opportunity to advance my career beyond the shores of my country. I decided to take it. I had carefully mapped out how the next three years of my life was going to look like and things were working out pretty much as I planned. Staying in Nigeria was not part of the plan.
I have never hidden my ambivalence about Nigeria. While I consider myself to be a proud citizen of my country, I have come to the distressing realization that I will likely never be completely at home in Nigeria. As an artist, home is not only a place of life trajectories, experiences, and relationships, but also where you are allowed. Home is where you are encouraged to wander into the realm of possibilities, where your creativity finds the space required to flourish, and your work is celebrated and rewarded. My country hardly ever gives me that so I traverse different spaces. The importance of one space, however, cannot be downplayed at the expense of the other.
There was a time when living in Nigeria was what I needed as a writer. The water, the air, the noise, and the experiences I inhaled nurtured creativity within me. Living in Nigeria made me the writer that I am. Even now the umbilical tie to my motherland is still intact. However, these days I see the world as my constituency. I can call anywhere home.
The United States was my home for several weeks. There, my work flourished. I remember telling myself, this is the kind of space I need right now in my life. In America, I received and I gave. In America, I had one of the most rewarding experiences of my life
A lot was happening when I returned to Nigeria. The country was battling a major fuel crisis. There were rumours of an impending attack on Abuja by the Islamic Insurgent Boko Haram, and the fall of the naira against the US dollar had just begun. I had unpleasant experiences, but I also had good ones, like attending a friend’s amazing art exhibition. I heard the story of how she organised the exhibition against all odds. Her imagination and resilience blew me away, the same imagination and resilience that has shaped me as a writer.
I am writing this piece from my new home, this new place where I am studying towards a graduate degree in writing. Here I am discovering new books. Here, I have been blessed with the opportunity to interact with a vibrant community of writers and work under the supervision of a supportive faculty. Here, I am happy to stay till I find a new home.
The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa will offer the #Flashwrite Teen Poetry MOOC, its first open online course designed exclusively for teenage students, from March 30-May 3, 2016. Students 13-19 years old are invited to write, share, and discuss poetry with Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduates and fellow teenage writers around the world. No writing experience is necessary: this MOOC will welcome new writers and challenge experienced poets. Registration is free!
Opportunities for Students
- Learn craft elements of poetry from MOOC Instructor Daniel Khalastchi, Associate Director of the Frank N. Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing at the University of Iowa and author of the poetry collections Manoleria and Tradition
- Work with a supportive teaching community
- Write new poems and discuss work with fellow writers around the world
- Earn a free Statement of Accomplishment for completing the MOOC
- After the MOOC, take an optional four-week workshop to earn one university credit (details below)
Opportunities for Teachers
- Lead students through this MOOC to bring a global poetry community into the classroom
- Utilize the course structure and materials to satisfy Common Core standards
- Build local and international connections with fellow creative writing and English teachers
University Credit Opportunity
Students who complete the MOOC may enroll in an optional University of Iowa #Flashwrite Teen Poetry Workshop for one university credit. Each online workshop, which will take place from May 16-June13, will be taught by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a substantial teaching and publication record and will be limited to 15 students. Enrollment requirements: completion of the #Flashwrite Teen Poetry MOOC and payment of a $398 USD tuition fee.
Since 1967, the International Writing Program has brought writers together for creative cultural exchange. We are proud to offer this inaugural creative writing MOOC to the international teenage writing community. We hope to see you on March 30!
Narrative Witness: Indigenous Peoples, Australia-United States, a publication from the International Writing Program, is now available.
The collection features work created during an online exchange that brought together 32 indigenous writers and photographers living in Australia and the United States in fall 2015. During the two-month exchange, the artists created fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography centered on the theme of "narrative witness," which included exploring the historical, geographical, and cultural identities of their communities.
“Narrative Witness was a powerful experience and opportunity to see the parallels and enduring legacy of colonization in both America and Australia,” says Timmah Ball, a participant from Australia. “Workshopping my ideas with other first nation writers was enriching; allowing me to push some of the issues I have been wanting to explore even further.”
In addition to working alongside fellow participants, the artists were mentored by exchange facilitators Jennifer Elise Foerster, Will Wilson, and Fall Residency alumna Ali Cobby Eckermann (IWP ‘14). In honoring native voices, the digital workshop not only provided participants a space to create work, but also constructed new communities through which participants were able to further understand each other’s lived experiences.
“The Narrative Witness project has provided a much needed space to connect with other indigenous writers and artists,” says Lehua Taitano, a participant from Guam living in California. “A shared space is sometimes the hardest thing to acquire as an indigenous artist—as historical colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and violent displacement have served to disconnect communities, sever languages, and repress cultural art practice. Even though the experience of Narrative Witness was a virtual/digital one, it served to remind me that our voices are many, are loud, are contributing to important critical conversations concerning our cultures.”
The first Narrative Witness publication and exchange featured artists from Caracas, Venezuela and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The publication is archived at iwpcollections.org. Interested in joining an online exchange? Register for the Distance Learning newsletter.
By Laura Wang, a current student at the University of Iowa, originally published on laurayingwang.wordpress.com
The Shambaugh House in Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. It was originally the home of Professor Benjamin F. Shambaugh. After passing away in 1940, he gave his home to the University of Iowa, and the Honors Program moved in. Eventually, Honors outgrew the Shambaugh House. In 2001, the house moved down the street and underwent renovations. The International Writing Program took over the relocated Shambaugh House and has lived there since.
Each time I’ve visited the Shambaugh House, it’s felt warm. The floors, the stairs, the poles are all made of a rich wood. On the ground floor, comfortable chairs are everywhere for the weekly readings they hold. The walls of the house seem to be constructed out of bricks of book, and the bookshelves along each wall are the cement that glues them together. It’s the perfect environment for a house of writers, but it certainly has its problems. Despite the fact that it was renovated in 2002 and made more eco-friendly in 2009, it squeaks like a dying mouse. I can’t take a step in Shambaugh without hearing the floorboards creak underneath me. If I want to move a chair, it growls back, loud and long.
Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his wife Hualing Nie Engle, a Chinese writer and graduate of the Writers’ Workshop, founded the International Writing Program in 1967. Every fall, the Engles invited writers from around the world to come to Iowa City, share their work, and write together. It’s a tradition that lives on today in the Fall Residency, the premier activity of the IWP.
With Hualing’s help, the Engles, and subsequently the IWP, developed a reputation for their support of Chinese literature. In 1976, the two were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work with IWP. The Engles were praised particularly for the Chinese Weekends they coordinated in the 1970s, where the two facilitated conversation among visiting writers from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, an anomaly at the time. After the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the Chinese were forced to split, with the Nationalist Party retreating to Taiwan and the Communist Party cutting ties with British-controlled Hong Kong. During this period of diaspora, no travel or communication was allowed between the three parties. The Engles’ Chinese Weekends changed that. For a few years, the Shambaugh House was the only place in the world where Chinese people were able to talk about literature that wasn’t Communist-controlled and form friendships with other Chinese speakers, as well as Americans.
It’s funny that the University of Iowa has such a noble history with the Chinese because I can find few traces of it today among my classmates. I rarely, if ever, see international and domestic students interact with each other. Most of the time, I only witness hostility. The discussions of literature in the Shambaugh have deformed into offensive posts on social media. A UI Memes Facebook page and a UI Asian Probz Twitter were both shut down recently because of the inappropriate comments contributors made about international students —more specifically, Asian international students, and usually, Chinese students.
Offensive tweets are still abundant on Iowa social media. If ever I want to lose my faith in Americans and the university and even the International Writing Program, all I need to do is visit the UIHawkeyeProblemz Twitter account and search “Asian.” Tweet after tweet pops up complaining about the luxury cars all Asians drive and the weird get-ups they see Asians in and how their business lecture has a few dozen too many Asians for their liking. I wonder how we moved from being one of the few sites in the world for positive American-Chinese relations to this. I wonder if these people know that what they are saying is racist, that someone who grew up halfway around the globe from them is probably going to dress differently, that, just like every other person in this world, there are more ways to identify a human being than the place they come from.
The only times that I’ve thought the Shambaugh House was quiet were during IWP readings. I’ve heard Mainland Chinese writer Chi Li; Tang Siu-Wa from Hong Kong; Taiwanese poets, Chen Li and Ye Mimi; and the Chinese-to-English translator Steve Bradbury all read by the glow of the Shambaugh’s lamps, across from the bust of Paul Engle. At each of these readings, I’ve arrived too late to get a good seat and am crammed in the very back. But each time, the packed room buzzed from the genial chatter of the audience members. When the writers took the stage, not a single floorboard creaked as they read their work. We were all still. The ideals the Engles instilled decades ago are still present, but I wonder when and how and if those ideals will ever permeate past the books and walls of the Shambaugh House.
While walking to class, I once overhead a group of boys behind me discussing the classes they were going to take next semester.
“You could learn Chinese.”
“No way, man. I don’t want to talk to anyone who’s Chinese. They’re crazy.”
A quick glance to my left and right revealed to me that there were at least five Asian students within earshot.
“Do you see all the people around you who are Chinese?”
“I don’t care. They can’t understand me anyway.”
I could’ve turned around immediately and told him that they could in fact understand him, that they included someone who has just as firm of a grasp of the English language as he does and even if that wasn’t the case, they are human beings and don’t deserve to be marginalized while trying to make it to their next class. But I didn’t say a word. I kept my head down, continued walking, and became exactly what the boys thought I was and what they wanted me to be—a stupid, crazy Asian who doesn’t know English.
It really starts to wear on me after awhile. I know I’m different than them because I grew up in America, as if that’s my redeeming quality from the inferior Chinese culture, but I still have to wonder if people know me as anything other than the Chinese girl. I feel so trapped by my yellow skin, my flat face, skinny eyes, and immigrant parents that I find myself fighting against it all. I become a hypocrite. I participate in the same micro-aggression of Americans to international students. Sometimes in the morning, I look at myself in the mirror and think my outfit looks too Chinese. The bow on my shirt is far too big; the skirt I’m wearing is too garish; I look too goddamn cute and Asian, and God forbid I dress like the Chinese students my classmates are always tweeting about. I hate myself for thinking it. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course I look Chinese; the only blood running through my veins is Chinese.
When I walk into class on the first day of school or eat lunch in the River Room, I worry that everyone looks at me and writes me off as an international student. I’m one of the antisocial, bad driving, iPhone obsessed, perpetually napping Chinese. I feel the need to wear yoga pants and Victoria’s Secret sweatshirts and plaster a sign across my chest saying, “I’m an American.” And then, I ask myself when I became ashamed of my people and my culture, and if I can’t respect them, how could I expect anyone else to? It’s hard for me to remember that I want to be complicated and influenced by both countries that I call home. I want to drink loose-leaf green tea and chase it with apple pie. I want to decorate my room with Hello Kitty and then read Shakespeare. I want people to think that all of that is okay. But more than anything, I want to be intelligent, funny, kind, and interesting, which might just be what everyone wants to be.
By Alyssa Cokinis, Between the Lines ICRU Fellow
Between the Lines: Peace and the Writing Experience (BTL) is the International Writing Program’s creative writing and cultural exchange program for teenage writers between the ages of 16 and 19. This summer, two sessions will convene in Iowa City, IA for BTL’s ninth year: Russian/Arabic, which will bring together 32 students from across Russia, the Middle East and North Africa, and the U.S.; and the Silk Routes session—a first ever—will unite 20 students from the U.S., India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Maldives.
By attending BTL, you are joining a growing international family of writers that stretches beyond borders. Students who participated in the 2015 session took time for a video project called "Between the Lines: Spotlight Series." In one interview, Orwa (BTL ’15) discusses not only his own views on writing, but also what attending BTL meant to him: “…here, everyone is talking the same language I am.”
Session 1: Russian/Arabic
Nominations are now being accepted for the first session, Russian/Arabic (June 25-July 9). Instructors are Egyptian playwright and novelist Karim Alrawi, Russian fiction writer Alisa Ganieva, and American poet and visual artist Dora Malech.
At the beginning of each day, we split the BTLers in half to send them off to Global Literature Seminars, where each instructor specializes in teaching about literature from their home region. Through this seminar, BTLers are able to immerse themselves in literature from all over the word, discovering both differences and similarities between our literary heritages.
In the afternoon, writers split off with Alrawi, Ganieva, or Malech to attend writing workshops in Arabic, Russian, or English respectively. The work and feedback generated in this class is designed to encourage BTLers to focus on their own writing while discussing the writing of their peers.
The day ends with post-dinner activities, such as translation workshops, student-led cultural and language lectures, and nightly writing salons during Ramadan dinners. Weekend trips include visits to the Maquoketa Caves and the Mississippi River.
Session 2: Silk Routes
Nominations for a special Silk Routes session (July 16-July 30) are currently in the works. Students from the following countries are eligible to apply: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Bangladesh, and the United States. Instructors for this session are Ameena Hussein, a fiction and nonfiction writer from Sri Lanka, and Mary Hickman, a poet from the U.S.
The day begins with Hussein and Hickman co-teaching the Global Literature Seminar, which will explore writings and translations from Silk Routes countries and the United States. Students are invited to highlight literature from their own country. After lunch, BTLers will reconvene with Hussein and Hickman for a writing workshop in English, empowering students to work on their own writing while understanding how their life experiences contribute to the creative process.
As with the first session, each day ends with post-dinner activities such as a world cooking night, instructor readings at Prairie Lights Bookstore, and a Storytelling Across Cultures night which takes near the infamous Black Angel statue. Weekend trips include visits to the Maquoketa Caves and the Mississippi River.
How to Apply
BTL is hosted by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and receives grant funds by the U.S. State Department’s Bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs and South and Central Asian Affairs. Those interested in applying can visit BTL’s How to Apply page for additional information. We can’t wait to see what you write!
Written by Karen Villeda, 2015 Fall Residency Outreach Fellow, in November, 2015
“He always thought of the sea, as ”la mar,” which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as “el mar” which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Sometimes I wonder about the gender of the sea. In Spanish, my beloved mother tongue, we think of the sea as an enchanting her--“la mar”--and we also fear the sea as an inclement he: “el mar.” The plural is masculine, too: “los mares.” It is an ambiguous substantive. I love neutral words, but when the subject matter is pain, the terms need to be accurate. When you are part of a complex demographic phenomenon like immigration to the United States, you are constantly questioning yourself about gender, sex, race, class—and, last but not least, the sea.
I have been in Iowa City for three months. I am looking at the United States through my language. Spanish equals mama, Spanish equals cuisine, Spanish equals love, Spanish equals joy—and joy, to me, is reading and writing. Spanish equals my literary career. I am one of the lucky ones. In Mexico, literature is a privilege. And poverty is a fact. Half of my country's population lives in poverty. That is their main motivation for coming to the United States. Another fact: this is endless. We have more poor people every day, and the growth of poverty fuels migration. Children are thus fleeing not only their countries but their language. Spanish equals war, Spanish equals violence. Spanish equals sadness and misery. And Spanish equals death. In Spanish, death is a feminine noun: “la muerte.” And deportation is another one: “la deportación.”
As the 2015 Outreach Fellow of the International Writing Program I was, among my other activities in Iowa City, involved with the Spanish immersion program at Lemme Elementary School—a key element of the Spanish Creative Literacy Project (SCLP). Ana Merino, the Director of the Spanish MFA, created SCLP in the summer of 2010 to help members of the Hispanic community appreciate the multiple dimensions of literacy in their linguistic heritage. Lemme Elementary hosts one of several children’s and teen workshops in Spanish creative writing, taught with the help of current University of Iowa students. This afterschool program is for children from five to 12 years old. This intergenerational group learns not only how to successfully communicate in Spanish, but also to appreciate their mother tongue. The majority of these children relate Spanish with the natural but fierce watercourse that is the Rio Grande or “Big River.” We named it Río Bravo (which means “brave river” in Spanish) because for us is traditionally a stream of blood ties, surging in south-central Colorado in the United States and flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico. We could also talk about another flow, that of the Mexican migration. But the children remain silent, for theirs is an experience of an acute life crisis. Positive experiences related in, and to, Spanish are rare back in their former home.
At Lemme Elementary I had the opportunity to work with a little girl. Her name is Rubí--a very common name in Mexico because of the protagonist, a femme fatale, of a famous “telenovela.” Both Rubí’s parents are dead. I spoke to her in Spanish, asking questions about her Mexican life. She always answered in English. In speaking, she confused the sound of the Spanish “i” with the English vowel “e”; in writing, her Spanish “u” became the English “oo.” And she believed that “the sea” is neutral. She wasn’t facing the problem, my problem, of Spanish gendering when talking about “la mar”/”el mar.”
Now I say to myself that it’s time to raise another question. Which is about the sea and its salt. Let’s talk about the children’s tears. Let’s recount their suffering. Let’s also show them how to change their narrative from one of traumatic experiences and phases of life to a new adventure overseas. I believe that storytelling is a therapeutic tool: its gift is to reinforce self-esteem. For the children need to talk about their fears. They are bilingual Spanish-English individuals who in their childhood have sustained traumatic experiences related to their mother tongue. They have the specific symptoms and characteristics oftraumatic memories attached to Spanish. Consequently, they want to keep a distance from their mother tongue. Their relation to English is different: is a second language. No lo han mamado --they haven’t drunk it with their mothers’ milk. Their English memory “es padre” (meaning “cool” in colloquial Mexican Spanish, and related to the paternal figure) and also “está con madre” (“bitchin’” in colloquial Spanish and associated with the mother). But we are here to tell them that Spanish memory can be cool too. The bilingual UI faculty, alumni and volunteers are central in this process: they are role models for the children, who with these adults’ help can witness the rich emotional and inner life of being bilingual. The grown-ups are sending some powerful messages--for instance “your heritage can be your salvation too.” Storytelling will not bring back the beloved ones from death (whether that death is real or seems so, in expatriation) but it might help them recover that half of their selves which is embodied in their Spanish frame of mind. I believe that Spanish language will persevere in these children: we just need to create a new semantics, in which traumatic memory is rewritten inside a lesson of empowerment. And that lesson will then be one they can retell in their second language.
La niñita y la mar
'Decía siempre “la mar”. Así es como le dicen en español cuando la quieren. A veces los que la quieren hablan mal de “ella”, pero lo hacen siempre como si fuera una mujer. Algunos de los pescadores más jóvenes, los que usaban boyas y flotadores para sus sedales y tenían botes de motor comprados cuando los hígados de tiburón se cotizaban alto, empleaban el artículo masculino, lo llamaban “el mar”. Hablaban del mar como de un contendiente o un lugar, o incluso un enemigo. Pero el viejo lo concebía siempre como perteneciente al género femenino y como algo que concedía o negaba grandes favores, y si hacía cosas perversas y terribles era porque no podía evitarlo. La luna, pensaba, le afectaba lo mismo que a una mujer.'
"El viejo y el mar" - Ernest Hemingway.
A veces me pregunto sobre el género del mar. En español, mi amada lengua materna, pensamos en el mar como una ella encantadora: "la mar" y también le tememos como a un inclemente Él: "el mar". También es masculino en plural: "los mares". Es un sustantivo ambiguo. Me encantan las palabras neutrales, pero cuando hablamos del dolor se necesitan palabras precisas. Cuando eres parte de un fenómeno demográfico tan complejo como la migración a los Estados Unidos, constantemente te preguntas sobre el género, el sexo, la raza, la clase - y, por último pero no menos importante, la o el mar.
He estado en Iowa City por tres meses. Estoy mirando a los Estados Unidos a través de mi lengua. Español significa mamá, español significa cocina, español significa amor, español significa gozo y gozo, para mí, es leer y escribir. Español significa mi carrera literaria. Soy afortunada. La literatura en México es un privilegio. La pobreza es un hecho. La mitad de la población de mi país vive en la pobreza. Esa es la principal motivación para venir a Estados Unidos. Otro dato: esta es interminable. Tenemos más gente pobre cada día y el crecimiento de la pobreza alimenta la migración. Por lo tanto, los niños huyen no sólo del país sino de la lengua. Español significa guerra, español significa violencia. Español significa tristeza y miseria. Y español significa la muerte. La muerte es una palabra femenina. La deportación es otro término femenino en español.
Gracias a la beca de Alcance Comunitario del Programa Internacional de Escritura (IWP por sus siglas en inglés), también estuve involucrada con el programa de inmersión en español en la Escuela Primaria Lemme. que es una pieza clave del Proyecto de Alfabetización Creativa en Español (SCLP). Ana Merino, la directora de la Maestría en Escritura Creativa en Español, creó el SCLP en el verano de 2010 para ayudar a los miembros de la comunidad hispana a apreciar la dimensión múltiple de su patrimonio lingüístico. El de Lemme es uno de los talleres de Escritura Creativa en Español con niños y adolescentes apoyados con estudiantes voluntarios de la Universidad de Iowa. Este programa después de la escuela es para niños a partir de 5 años a 12 años de edad. Este grupo intergeneracional aprende no sólo para comunicarse con éxito en español, sino a apreciar su lengua materna. La mayoría de estos niños relacionan el español con el curso de agua natural, pero feroz, que es el Río Grande en Estados Unidos. En México lo nombramos Río Bravo, ya que para nosotros es por lo general un agua de sangre que se eleva desde el centro-sur de Colorado y que fluye hacia el Golfo de México. Estamos hablando de otro flujo, la inmigración mexicana. Pero estos niños permanecen en silencio porque están experimentando una aguda crisis de vida. Las experiencias positivas relacionadas con el español son raras en su antigua casa. Tuve la oportunidad de trabajar con una niña. Su nombre es Rubí (un nombre muy común en México debido a la protagonista, una mujer fatal, de una famosa telenovela). Sus padres están muertos. Hablaba en español con ella. Le hice algunas preguntas acerca de su vida en México. Ella siempre me contestó en inglés. Ella confunde el sonido del español "i" con la vocal "e" del inglés. Ella escribía la “u” del español como una "oo" del inglés. Y ella cree que el mar es neutral. Ella no estaba teniendo este problema, mi problema, sobre el género cuando se habla de "la mar" / "el mar" en español.
Ahora, me estoy diciendo a mí misma que es el momento de plantear otra pregunta. Y también se trata de la mar y la sal. Vamos a hablar de sus lágrimas. Vamos a contar sus sufrimientos. Vamos a mostrarles a cambiar su narrativa de fases de vida y experiencias traumáticas a una nueva aventura en el extranjero. Creo que la narración es una herramienta curativa. Puede reforzar la autoestima. Tienen que hablar de sus miedos. Son individuos bilingües que sufrieron experiencias traumáticas en relación con su lengua materna infantil. Están teniendo los síntomas y las características de la memoria traumática específicos en español. En consecuencia quieren estar lejos de ese lenguaje. La relación con el inglés es diferente: es un segundo idioma. No lo han mamado. Su memoria del inglés es padre y con madre. Pero estamos aquí para decirles que la memoria en español puede ser genial también. Los profesores, los alumnos y los voluntarios son fundamentales en este proceso: son modelos a seguir para los niños al ser testigos de la enriquecedora vida emocional e interior de ser bilingüe. Les están enviando algunos mensajes poderosos como el siguiente: "Su patrimonio puede ser su salvación también". Contar sus historias no traerá de vuelta a los seres queridos de la muerte (real o expatriada) pero les ayudará a recuperar la mitad de su ser, su marco mental en español. Yo creo que el español perseverará en estos niños. Sólo tenemos que mostrarles nueva semántica para ellos: un recuerdo traumático puede ser codificado como una lección de empoderamiento. Y también van a volver a contarse esta lección en su segundo idioma.
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 installment comes to us from Rochelle Potkar:
Iowa is affixed in my mind as this cool place of beauty, sprawling gold fields, the rippling river blue, the talcum sky above, the bridges connecting the art library, crossroads of book launches, libraries, cinema screens. If this is pristine, then every moment sliding along the infinite line of a finite life shows the grade of a difference.
And there is distance that makes the lens less foggier, me—less cross-eyed.
My biggest habit in Iowa was: people. For three months, other participants who started off as difficult names, some from countries I hadn’t heard of in a decade, like Estonia, became faces and friends, voices and narratives, humans and songs, and then phantoms of memory that orbited around me at all time. I cannot forget El Jones and her sprees, Jo Aitchison and her haka. Bands of us in sixes and 10’s making our way to the Cinematheque, or jumping into the car en route to grocery runs.
I am alone now and never alone with 34 dialects of English, and its accents, with the epidermis of struggles and triumphs, philosophies and ideologies, pain, laughter, gain, and childhood stories. That undying spirit that is truly Iowan or heavenly-universal in a clear pure pitch, and an echo that says: we come from everywhere, we can do anything!
I felt un-belonged when I came to India.
I even thought of joining an organization that wanted storytellers for brands. Then I thought of time. How it could not be regenerated… spent like a 100-dollar bill.
Month two, and I was fine with un-belonging. I drafted two proposals for two-week-long artists’ residencies in India. I wanted to bring Iowa closer.
I also signed a contract for my first book of poetry, Four Degrees of Separation, which will be out soon.
I seeped back into my writing life, enjoying literature festivals outside Mumbai. Reading poetry at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, and fiction under ‘New Indian Writing in English’ at the Hyderabad Literary Festival gave me a high.
My phantoms began evaporating.
Then the line got darker. The light, dimmer. The silence, deeper.
Month three, and we came face-to-face with a young PhD scholar - so intelligent, promising, and wise - who committed suicide. He was a Dalit. His death was because of the centuries-long caste-based discrimination of students by educational institutions. In his final note, Rohith Vemula speaks of the growing gap between his soul and his body, that he wanted to be a writer like Carl Sagan, that the value of a man was always reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility, that never was a man treated as a mind, as a glorious thing made up of stardust.
Rohith’s journey had been one of humble beginnings and hard work. His life trajectory was very precious. I feel helpless when such things happen. It hacks at the soul of everything progressive, putting us back into darkness.
When did labels become important? Which country do we come from - first-world, second-world, third-world? Which family…? High caste, low caste, rich, poor. The color of skin: crème, milk, caramel, bitter chocolate, rum, resin. Are we wine? Ice-cream?
Can’t we be acknowledged for the journeys we traverse, the hardships we face, the wisdom we earn? And that alone?
What are these grades that keep some humans feeling perpetually inferior so others can feel perpetually superior? This isn’t IWP and its inclusiveness, I know.
What of the quest for spiritual superiority?
I have started watching my own writing – lines of prose peeling like dirt away from skin. What is the point of eloquence and linguistic beauty? How can it change reality?
When one Rohith kills himself, it shows me that racism, casteism, religionism, gender-and-LGBT discrimination, patriarchy are all here and very present, and our fight is not unified enough to stop it.
Then I realize we only have a voice. And then, at least that.
Flowers and stars, they say, grow in the dark. Children of the womb.
As something untoward happens individually or collectively every day in my country, and in Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the rest of the world, I wonder when would I, when would we truly come home, and what is home.
Then it is only the self to behold,
to hold on to,
Migrants, we all.
I am sorry. I had intended for this to be a happy piece.