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A Literary Oasis

Ugandan writer Oscar Ranzo (at right) with fellow IWP residents at the University of Iowa President's block party.
Ugandan writer Oscar Ranzo (at right) with fellow IWP residents at the University of Iowa President's block party.
Ugandan fiction writer Oscar Ranzo’s journey to Iowa lasted more than 36 hours, but he could still be found Sunday taking part in a walking tour of downtown Iowa City with other International Writing Program fall residents, visiting the farmer's market, calculating the dent IWP residents could put in the University library by each taking out the the maximum number of books allowed at one time (with a 100-book-per-writer borrowing limit, together the 34 residents could withdraw 3,400 books, or about .00006% of the more than 5.3 million total volumes held by the library, for all you math nerds), and attending the University of Iowa President Sally Mason’s block party.

Up bright and early Monday morning for a communal breakfast, IWP residents headed over to the Shambaugh House, headquarters of the International Writing Program on the University of Iowa campus, for orientation. After a greeting and welcome address by IWP director Christopher Merrill, the residents had a chance to formally introduce themselves to their peers.

Wang Jiaxin (China) at the podium in Shambaugh House with a portrait of IWP co-founder Paul Engle in the background.
Wang Jiaxin (China) at the podium in Shambaugh House with a portrait of IWP co-founder Paul Engle in the background.
“I was a dancer. I chase after words—I think in terms of movement and sound,” explained Panamanian poet, fiction writer, and translator Lili Mendoza. “Because of my choices in life, I live in the ghetto—I’m in the trenches—that experience is why I write.”

“When I met Paul Engle in China 30 years ago, I never would have dreamed one day I would be here,” said Chinese poet Wang Jiaxin, standing beneath a portrait of the IWP co-founder.

Some of the residents took a few moments to outline the landscapes of their creative preoccupations, offering  brief sketches of the literary scene in their countries and glimpses of the projects they hope to complete during the residency.

Playwright and fiction writer Karim Alrawi (Canada/UK/Egypt) introduces himself to Iowa City community members.
Playwright and fiction writer Karim Alrawi (Canada/UK/Egypt) introduces himself to Iowa City community members.
“I’m interested in that zone that exists in between two languages when translating,” said Japanese fiction writer and translator Yui Tanizaki.

“If you want to talk shipwrecks, I’m your mate” joked fiction writer and poet Craig Cliff of New Zealand, who plans to work on a collection of short stories during the residency.

“I feel like I got here by mistake,” confessed Erez Volk, who translates from English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish into Hebrew and English in addition to being a software engineer, linguist and chef. It’s easy to understand how one might feel a little awestruck in the company of so many talented writers, which is perhaps why the line got such a big laugh from the group.

Many of the residents also took a moment to reflect on what being in Iowa for the residency means for them and their writing.

 “Uganda is often called a ‘literary desert” Oscar Ranzo explained. “I’ve been writing for fifteen years, and I’ve never actually met another writer, until now.”

“In Hong Kong, a writer is a strange creature,” explained fiction writer and essayist Lee Chi-leung. It will be great to bring something back from here to Hong Kong  to make me feel stronger and exist as a writer.”

Irish poet and playwright Martin Dyar seemed to sum up the general feeling of the group: “I have this blank canvas sense of being in Iowa, of luxuriating in the space of Iowa, and the time, and the company.”

Later that evening, at the IWP fall residency opening party (see video), University of Iowa President Sally Mason welcomed the 2013 residents to the University community. After stepping up to the microphone to introduce themselves to the crowd of more than 250, the residents had a chance to mingle with members of the local community which will be their home for the next ten weeks.

IWP events for the next week include a reading by Dmitry Golynko (Russia) and Lili Mendoza (Panama) at Prairie Lights Bookstore, this Sunday, September 1st a 4pm. Then on Friday, September 6th at 5pm Whiti Hereaka (New Zealand) and Tom Crosshill (Latvia) kick off the 2013 Shambaugh House Reading Series (430 N. Clinton Street). Visit IWP’s website calendar for listings of more upcoming events.

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