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Off the beaten path: IWP reading tour sparks new literary connections with Uzbekistan

From left to right: Chris Merrill, Chinelo Okparanta, Stephen Kuusisto, and Ann Hood in Samarkand
From left to right: Chris Merrill, Chinelo Okparanta, Stephen Kuusisto, and Ann Hood in Samarkand

May 17-26, 2013, four American authors—bestselling novelist Ann Hood, acclaimed memoirist and poet Stephen Kuusisto, Nigerian-American fiction writer Chinelo Okparanta (recently short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing), and poet and non-fiction writer Christopher Merrill—are traveling in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as part of an International Writing Program (IWP) reading tour. The tour, organized by the IWP in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, is designed to foster greater understanding and stronger creative ties—including opportunities for artistic collaboration—between the U.S. and the Central Asian nations.

The group with writing workshop students on the steps of the school in Angren
The group with writing workshop students on the steps of the school in Angren

Despite air travel to some locations in the region being limited to one flight per week, the writers are venturing outside the capitals of Tashkent (Uzbekistan) and Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), giving public readings, leading writing workshops, meeting with literary organizations, and visiting cultural sites. Two of the writers—Ann Hood and Stephen Kuusisto—are also chronicling the tour in real time on their personal blogs.

 

A tile ceiling at the Registan
A tile ceiling at the Registan

“It was quite hot, but worth every minute in the blazing sun to gaze at the domes sparkling in the sunlight and to learn about the culture here,” Hood writes, after visiting Sharh-i-Zindar, Gur Emir, the Registan (at the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand), and Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum in Uzbekistan, where the tour began.

“The aim of these reading tours is two-fold,” says writer Christopher Merrill, who also directs the IWP. “We want American writers to discover the culture and literature of these countries, and to encourage interaction and collaboration.”

Students in Angren get writing advice from novelist Ann Hood
Students in Angren get writing advice from novelist Ann Hood

 The group’s third day in Uzbekistan included an hour and half journey down bumpy roads to teach writing workshops to students in the town of Angren. Okparanta led students in an exercise on character development while Kuusisto collaborated with students to write poems. Many of those participating in the workshops were students at Angren State Pedagogical University.

Students in Angren perform a traditional Uzbek dance
Students in Angren perform a traditional Uzbek dance

“The students were enthusiastic, and eager to try their new English skills," Hood writes. "At the end of our afternoon with them, they performed traditional Uzbek dances and songs. All marvelous and touching."

IWP reading tours, which take place every year in the spring, are designed to introduce American writers to a country or region with a relatively sparse history of literary liaisons with the United States.

Meeting with members of the Uzbekistan Writers Union
Meeting with members of the Uzbekistan Writers Union

Since arriving in Uzbekistan, the group has also met with the Uzbekistan Writers Union and with faculty and students at Samarkand Foreign Language Institute. Today, Kuusisto (who is blind) spoke to a group of people with disabilities at an event sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. “I've been thinking about of the global dynamics of disability” Kuusisto writes on his blog. “In many parts of the world blindness is still imagined to be caused by spiritual forces or worse, is thought to be a product of sorcery. As time goes by and my travels accrue I see the solution—the response—has to do with lingo. You can't be put in a closet if you are singing.”

IWP alum Aazam Abidov, IWP program officer Kelly Bedeian, IWP alum Alina Dadaeva & Chris Merrill
IWP alum Aazam Abidov, IWP program officer Kelly Bedeian, IWP alum Alina Dadaeva & Chris Merrill

 Although geographically remote, Uzbekistan, one of two “doubly landlocked” countries in the world (a landlocked country surrounded entirely by other landlocked countries—the other is Liechtenstein) has sent four writers to the IWP’s fall residency program since 2004. The most recent is poet, translator, and journalist Alina Dadaeva who spent ten weeks in the United States as an IWP resident in 2012, who, along with and ’04 resident Aazam Abidov, recently caught up with the group.

Plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan (the round meat at right is horse)
Plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan (the round meat at right is horse)

Amid a busy schedule of readings, workshops, meetings, and visits to cultural sites, the writers still found time to sample the national dish of Uzbekistan—plov. “The plov is rice, carrots, peppers, raisins, chickpeas, lamb, and...yes, folks, horse,” Hood writes. Later this week, the group travels to Turkmenistan—one of the least-visited countries in the world—for the second leg of the tour.

Check back here for updates on the group’s travels and visit IWP on Facebook for more photos of the tour.

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