• 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....

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  • 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...

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  • 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...

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  • By Laura Wang, a current student at the University of Iowa, originally published on laurayingwang.wordpress.comThe 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....

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  • 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...

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  • 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... more
  • 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...

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  • On Thursday January 14th, 2016, IWP joined dozens of literary organizations and hundreds of writers in a Worldwide Reading event, coordinated by the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin to draw attention to the dire situation of the Palestinian-born poet and curator Ashraf Fayadh.  A long-time resident of Saudi-Arabia, Fayadh was arrested in 2014 for “spreading blasphemous ideas among...

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  • 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 week's installment comes to us from Raed Anis Al-Jishi:

    I lived in Iowa for more than 12 weeks. It felt like home—a dream home for a writer.

    Libraries with enormous resources. An...

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  • By Karen Villeda, 2015 Fall Residency Outreach Fellow

    In the course of the fall 2015 semester, in my role as the International Writing Program’s Outreach Fellow, I developed a web-based project, titled INTERNATIONAL WRITING PROGRAM: WRITING LIVES!

    First off, the site is a documentary combining text with multimedia (images, videos) generated by some of the IWP 2015...

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"On Going Home" - Jeremy Tiang, IWP 2011, Singapore

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This latest installment comes from Jeremy Tiang, who has been travelling so extensively and over such a number of years that the term "home" doesn't hold quite the same meaning as it might for others. 


My father is a Jaffna Tamil from Sri Lanka – although he was born in Singapore, and prefers not to acknowledge the existence of Sri Lanka (he refers to himself as “Ceylonese”). On my mother’s side, we were wealthy landowners in China until my great-great-uncle gambled away the family money (nice going, Unc!). Then my great-great-grandmother got religion and came to Malaysia as a bible-woman to spread the word of God, bringing my grandfather with her. She died out here, and he ended up in an orphanage. My mother was born in Malaysia after the war, and moved to Singapore in the fifties.

Given all this, it’s not surprising I’ve turned out pretty nomadic too. I left Singapore at nineteen to go to university in England, and since then have been wandering. A little while back in Singapore as a high school teacher, and then a few years in London as a moderately unsuccessful actor (my IMDB page is a graveyard of straight-to-video films). When I started writing, I realized I could do my job anywhere in the world, like the littlest hobo. So I gave away my cello, my bicycle and ninety per cent of my books, and packed my bags.

Since then, I have written a lot about the spaces between cultures, and the sense of dislocation we experience when we move into an unfamiliar space with new rules to be discovered. The things we think of as “normal” are often conditional, an idea that is difficult to grasp until you travel to a place where the norms are different. At the moment, I am working on a short story collection to be titled – if my agent will allow it – “Schwellenangst,” the German word for the fear of crossing boundaries.

When I was invited to Iowa in 2011, it seemed par for the course – I’d just finished travelling round Malaysia and Thailand speaking to survivors of the Malayan Emergency, in preparation for writing a novel about the region’s communist past. I’d been to North America several times before, but only the big cities. Here was my chance to experience the mid-west! The real America! I’d read Richard Ford, I thought I knew the score.

It turned out that America was far more complex than I’d ever imagined, an impression subsequently reinforced by the Republican primaries. I’m still reeling from, on one hand, the tremendous energy, intelligence and generosity I experienced and, on the other, seeing grade schools with anti-abortion displays in their front yards. (Even as I type these words, they sound so incredible I can’t help wondering if I’ve made this up – but no, the image is pretty well seared into my memory). All in all, an unforgettable experience, and one that I will always be grateful for.

The problem came when I was contacted, asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece for the IWP blog. Of course I would! It’s the least I could do after all that camaraderie over Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yet the topic gave me pause – “On Going Home.” All well and good for people with homes. But where did I fit in? My family is still in Singapore, and I put my parents’ address on forms because it’s the only permanent one I have, even though I haven’t lived there for sixteen years. So where is home?

After Iowa, I spent a month in a flophouse in the Bronx. Literally, a flophouse. It was like being in an O. Henry story. I spent Christmas in Singapore, then headed to Beijing, where I worked with the novelist Zhang Yueran to translate her novel The Promise Bird into English. (We met in Iowa – thanks again, IWP!) Next, a couple of months on the Baltic Coast of Germany, attending another residency in the seaside town of Kühlungsborn. After a flying visit to the London Book Fair, I'm preparing to head back home to Singapore - though it's anyone's guess how long I'll stay there. To quote Roxie Hart in Chicago: "I'm on my toes/ 'cause heaven knows/ a movin' target's hard to hit."

So, yes, home? My home at the moment is a series of hotel rooms, which quickly become personalized because I use hundreds of post-it notes to remind myself where I am in the story I’m currently writing. The cleaners probably think I’m a serial killer. It’s very liberating to be this mobile. Literally everything I own in the world fits into my suitcase. I’ve become very good at not acquiring stuff, and giving books away as soon as I’ve finished them. Drunken eBay shopping is a thing of the past – the question I ask myself now is not “Do I need X?” or “Can I afford X?” but “Do I really want to carry X across three continents?” It’s also shaped my reading habits. Most of Jonathan Franzen is out, for instance, because his books weigh so damn much.

Before you start: yes, thank you, I am aware that kindles exist. But (i) most Chinese books aren’t available in e-book format, and (ii) thanks to the murky world of copyright restrictions, amazon can’t really deal with you unless you’re permanently based in one country. And I prefer physical books, although that love is challenged when I find myself in a hotel with no elevator. Just me, three flights of stairs, and a suitcase full of paperbacks.

Don’t get me wrong. I would, one day, like to live in a proper house again. Somewhere with furniture and cats and neighbors who’ll stay long enough for me to learn their names. I’d like to be normal and have backyard barbecues and go to IKEA on weekends. Not to mention the lure of owning actual bookshelves! Maybe one day soon. At the moment, though, there’s such a lot of world to see, and I’m lucky enough to be in an eminently portable profession, one that allows me to see it.

National Poetry Month Celebrated at Sampsonia Way

Our friends at Sampsonia Way recently published this wonderful interactive feature on their blog in celebration of National Poetry Month.

Included are recordings of some of our alumni and friends: Khet Mar (IWP '07), Meena Kandasamy (IWP '09), Soheil Najm (IWP '09), Hind Shoufani (IWP '11), Terrance Hayes (one of four poets commissioned for the IWP's Book Wings performance), and Cornelius Eady, who will be travelling with the IWP to Brazil next month.

 

 

 

"On Going Home" - Zoë Strachan, IWP 2011, Scotland

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. This installment of the series comes from Zoë Strachan, a fiction writer who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and the photograph is the view from the front window of the author's flat.

Outside the train window, England sweeps by. I am returning from a speaking engagement at a university in the West Midlands. One landscape looks as flat as Iowa, but when I narrow my eyes I can just make out hills in the distance. The fields are green and there is a haze of buds on the trees. A whippet figure-eights through a field of ponies and chickens. The train rounds a corner and lurking in a valley is a derelict textile mill, enormous and uncanny. Calves give way to lambs as the hills grow more emphatic. Soon the fields are smaller and bound by dry stane dykes, as we call them in Scotland. This does not feel like another country. Will it still be home if we gain independence?

Washing flaps outside houses that would match a child’s drawing; solid, stone built like the dykes, windows twinkling, door smiling. Houses built for resilience, now bought for roses round the door, Sunday lunches and chaotic siblings. I imagine a writing room with plain plaster walls, a jug of wild flowers on the wooden desk. Bees making lazy circuits through the open window. When a sentence doesn’t come I’ll go outside and squeeze the cotton of the sheets on the line.

In Iowa City I wrote by an open window with a view of a church spire. Flannery O’Connor went there, someone told me, but I am not a churchgoer, nor do I idolise Flannery O’Connor. Still, it was pretty in the autumn sun, the clock a pleasing intimation of mortality. I don’t really get homesick when I’m away, if I’m writing, though one afternoon I sat on a bench in the Ped Mall and listened to a man shouting and swearing into his cellphone. It broke the gentility of the Midwest, reminded me of Glasgow. When I’m writing, I forget things. Not people but possessions, places. It is easy to feel landlocked so far from the sea, or so I’ve found, but the rippling corn fields of Iowa seemed ocean enough.

In Glasgow I live in the attic flat of a house conversion on a rundown square near the motorway that rips through the centre of the city. There are bees in the Victorian central garden but no cicadas. A gap site where a home for wayward girls burned down – fifty years ago, more - has been turned into a community garden. Nearby someone once carved a huge penis in the still-wet concrete of the pavement. My local bar does not have the Zombies on its jukebox and I have never seen a Filipino poet writing in one of the booths, or a Pakistani author dancing round the pool table. There is no pool table; dominoes is the game. At home I write in a narrow room at the back of the house that I think might once have been the toilet. (My partner disagrees.)

When I left Iowa City I knew I was going back to a period of not writing. I was teaching, travelling to Toronto and Berlin, catching up. While I wasn’t writing, memories of Iowa tided me over. I thought of friends and fellow writers, of sitting in a rocking chair on Barbara’s porch and reading, of walking under the shade of the trees that line those wide, sleepy streets. The editorial meetings I had with Louise over rough wine and hot nuts in George’s. But then I took another job, got ill, and the not-writing kept on. The memories retreated, although I could still picture myself sitting by the open window in that attic conversion on Jefferson, looking out at the church spire and then down at the pages in front of me.

My stay in Iowa City was too short. I would have liked to see the seasons change, and my novel gain a couple more chapters. With a few extra weeks maybe I’d have grown sick enough of people to ease the farewells. Residencies like this are an idyll, and then you go back to the everyday. Perhaps in time you stop pretending that you will see your friends from Korea or India again.

It is five and a half months since I packed up my notebooks and manuscripts and had one last late night drink in the Foxhead. The journey has taken longer than I imagined but now, on this train hurtling towards Glasgow and my little room at the back of the house, I am picking up my pen and coming home.

Shambaugh House Roundup: Spring 2012

It is high time for a Shambaugh House Roundup, in which we share news our associates, friends, and alumni, as well as a few choice bits from within the wall of Shambaugh House, home of the International Writing Program. As always, if you have news to share, send it our way and we'll include it in an upcoming post.

First up: huge congratulations are in order for Leopoldo Brizuela (IWP '03, Argentina) who has been awarded the Alfaguara Novel Prize for his work Una misma noche. Here's a link to a great article from El Dia that includes an interview with the author.  

Kevin Bloom (IWP '11, South Africa) remembers David Foster Wallace, who would've turned 50 this year, in a piece published in the Daily Maverick. 

Bina Shah (IWP '11, Pakistan) has been busy: She's featured in a short documentary about writers in Karachi; has written about her experience at the IWP for Dawn; and, most recently, has penned an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune decrying domestic violence.

Jordan Stempleman is a poet and a former RA and employee of the IWP. His newest collection is No, Not Today, and filmmaker Ryan MacDonald has created a series of great book trailers for the publication. This one features a volcano and a silulacrum of a volcano. 

Two Alumni have recently published pieces in The Hindu.  Vijay Nair (IWP '07, India) chimes in on the state and fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores while Sukrita Paul Kumar (IWP '02, India) reports on the Asia Pacific Poetry Festival in Vietnam. 

A great piece in Haaretz examining Dory Manor's (IWP '11, Israel) translations of Mallarme.

Kaled Khalifa (IWP '07, Syria) is featured in this CNN piece examining freedom of expression amid the crisis in Syria.

Desmond Hogan (IWP '81, Ireland) is featured in the new editino of Best European Short Stories, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, who recently championed European literature and works in translation at a reading in Brooklyn

Here's a fascinating discussion of the viability and merit of flash fiction that centers on the work of alumnus Etgar Keret (IWP '01, Israel). 

Ghada Abdel Aal (IWP '10, Egypt) writing for NZZ (German-language) about Egypt's Arab Spring, one year later. 

We've got some great news from inside the Shambaugh House: IWP Director Christopher Merrill has been appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities

The latest issue of Words Without Borders features a story by Xu Zechen (IWP '10, China) and another by Eduardo Halfon, who participated in the IWP's 2011 initiative Writers in Motion.


As ever, if you have news or information you'd like to share, please send it along to: nathanael-brown[at]uiowa.edu.

 


"On Going Home" - Josephine Rowe, IWP 2011, Australia

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. The third installment of the series comes from Josephine Rowe, a fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia, seen here in her study drinking her “millionth cup of tea” alongside her cat, Molly.

 

On Going Home

(or Sacroiliitis, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, and Other Things I Came Home To)

 

Whatever made my fingernails hard

(the water, we suspected) is wearing

off. Now they’re always ragged, always

snagging on something.

 

I’m travelling light, I joked once

(though I was) and there were

things I didn’t carry home, things

I can’t find names for, even now.

 

When people ask me how Iowa was, I become the girl from Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?”—She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

I’ve tried several times to adequately summarise those three months in the Midwest: my Israeli friends’ wedding, dinner with a Nobel Laureate, the incredible authors that were breezing through town almost nightly, three dollar Tanqueray martinis at happy hour, the jukebox at the Foxhead, recurring commiserations about the death of narrative in American poetry, late night Youtube marathons, the Gatorade and other provisions left at my hotel door when I was too sick to stand up, the colour of the sky the night Bruegger’s Bagels burnt down. There, that should do. But it doesn’t do, and no matter how much of it I tell, some of it gets lost. Most of it gets lost, and beneath all the talk, there is the sedimentary layer of guilt that forms every time I leave a foreign country—I should have done more, seen more, experienced more. Gotten to know people better. Simultaneously written more and spent less time at my desk. Been some better, more eloquent, more capable version of myself.

I came home to spring, pollen on the air, an overgrown garden, plastic bank notes that seemed too colourful, too bright, like play money. I came home to a wedding (my own), a manuscript deadline and a diagnosis of Sacroiliitis, which until then had the less specific and thus more friendly name of lumbago. After the wedding, where my determination to dance had left my back in a worse state than before, I doubled my Celebrex intake and wrote around the edges of things: travel, Christmas, settling back in. Or more likely the other way around—Christmas and travel and settling back in happened around the edges of writing, and I finished my manuscript in cafes and airports, on country trains, from the dining room table and at the makeshift desk of a borrowed studio in Perth. The studio was on the second floor of a cavernous federation building with eighteen foot ceilings—a huge room cluttered with photography paraphernalia and packages of new pyjamas. I was alone there most of the time, and it was difficult to procrastinate, though I spent part of Christmas eve lifting up the conspicuously loose floorboards, trying to see what was underneath, and avoiding the temptation to tear open a set of pyjamas and make myself at home.

In Melbourne the dining-room table was still crowded with wedding gifts; Wedgwood limestone, bottles of single malt whisky and fine glassware, the pristine Royal DeLuxe typewriter a friend’s grandfather had learnt to type on, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker. But I favoured the dining table over my own desk, as my own desk (not so much a desk as an antique sewing table) measured seventeen by twenty-nine inches and there was not enough room to spread out all the notebooks, loose sheets of paper, scrawled-over envelopes and other book-related chaos that had accumulated over the past year.

Amidst this chaos were the notebooks I’d filled in Iowa—first drafts, editing notes and descriptive fragments about road trips to rural New South Wales, the smell of bluegum, the HMAS Otway surfacing in Sydney Harbour, a dilapidated apartment block in a post-bohemian inner-Melbourne suburb, a shirtless man leaning back against a Malley’s esky.

Away from Melbourne, in my IH hotel room, I’d stared out at the Iowa River and wrote almost exclusively about home. Where previously I’d taken great care to construct settings that were familiar yet placeless, the foundations of these stories were unequivocally Australian.

 Do you think the Australian landscape influences your writing? A student asked following a talk I gave to the U of I International Literature Today class.

Do you feel isolated in Australia? Do you feel far away?

These were simple questions, but they were also something of a revelation. When I visit the U.S. I’m often met with an idea of Australia that does not in any way resemble my idea of Australia, at least as far as left-leaning literary Melbourne is concerned. We’re all reading The Atlantic over here, dissecting Caitlin Flanagan’s alternately vicious and possessive article about Joan Didion. We’re listening to podcasts of This American Life and lining up at the Athenaeum to see Ira Glass in person. We’re cringing when Mitt Romney’s face appears in the papers. Three years ago we were throwing Obama inauguration parties. We’re all watching Boardwalk Empire, and The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker is sitting in the middle of my table. I don’t even get New Yorker cartoons—does anybody?—but there they are.

Geographically speaking, yes, America is far away. But the distance seems to differ depending on which continent you’re standing on. Culturally, commercially, politically, the U.S. is embedded in Australian lifestyle. By comparison, I did feel removed from Australia while living in Iowa City, and perhaps this is why most of what I wrote during the fall was so determinedly Australian. I missed home. I felt far away.

It is January, post-wedding, post-deadline, post-travel, etc., and without those various sources of momentum I’ve hit something of a lull. Fortunately, Melbourne itself is in something of a lull, something a friend of mine used to call empty January, where nothing much gets done. Maybe there’s a Midwestern equivalent around July. January in Melbourne is all cider and bare limbs and tennis and music festivals. Weekends are a drowsy haze of barbeques and lawn games. This year, both bocce and lawn bowls have been forsaken for Kubb, a Swedish game that no-one really understands the rules of, and which mainly involves throwing bits of wood at other bits of wood, thus culminating in the bruising of many a shin.

After one such incident I sit out of the final few rounds of a game, my left leg wrapped in a sarong full of ice. A friend digs around in the esky and passes me a consolatory beer, then sits beside me on the grass.

So, I haven’t asked yet, he says. Iowa. Was Iowa amazing?

It was, yes, thank you. 

Obama Appoints IWP Director Christopher Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities

We’re proud to announce that the International Writing Program’s own director Christopher Merrill has been appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Council for the Humanities, the 26-member advisory body of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Created in 1965, the NEH supports learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities. Merrill replaces archaeologist Iris Love, whose term has expired, and he will serve until January 26, 2016.

 Merrill has published four collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water and Watch Fire (which received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets). He’s also authored translations of Aleš Debeljak’s Anxious Moments and The City of the Child, edited several volumes, and published five books of nonfiction, most recently The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.

More than all of this, though, Chris has been a mentor and friend to authors from around the globe, and we here at the IWP couldn’t be prouder. Congratulations, Chris!

Wanted: Rebel Genius with large Facebook Following

One may quibble with the shading and proportions (and there is certainly a gross generalization or two); nevertheless, Tim Parks’ recent posting at the New York Review of Books, “the Writer’s Job,” offers a decent portrait of the pressures shaping modern American literary careers. The piece’s mix of acuity and personal bias is best displayed in the way he re-centers the commonly-accepted roots of what in the U.S. is often derisively called “the workshop story”:

Creative writing schools are frequently blamed for a growing standardization and flattening in contemporary narrative. This is unfair. It is the anxiety of the writers about being excluded from their chosen career, together with a shared belief that we know what literature is and can learn how to produce it that encourages people to write similar books. Nobody is actually expecting anything very new. Just new versions of the old. Again and again when reading for review, or doing jury service perhaps for a prize, I come across carefully written novels that “do literature” as it is known. Literary fiction has become a genre like any other, with a certain trajectory, a predictable pay off, and a fairly limited and well-charted body of liberal Western wisdom to purvey. Much rarer is the sort of book (one thinks of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, or Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This, or going back a way, the maverick English writer Henry Green) where the writer appears, amazingly, to be working directly from experience and imagination, drawing on his knowledge of past literature only in so far as it offers tools for having life happen on the page.

One final note: in citing Bakker, Stamm, and Green, Parks means quietly to laud a kind of anti-establishment primitivism, an eccentricity, rarely recognized by the market, whose spiritual pedigree goes back (at least for purposes of his article) to Lord Byron; and yet, one can’t help but notice the choice of international writers—and two works in recent translation—as emblems of literary fiction free of the taint of literature-as-genre.  Parks has elsewhere tried to sound a clarion against the potential damage done by the globalizing of literary markets, but here, whether he means to or not, he seems to be suggesting that the crossing of literary borders remains one of the truest ways to measure the calcification of our conventions.

— Hugh Ferrer

"On Going Home" - Usha K.R., IWP 2011, India

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. The second installment of the series comes from Usha K.R., a fiction writer from Bangalore, India, who is seen here taking an autorickshaw. 

--

In the three months I lived in Iowa City I woke up every morning to see the first rays of the sun falling on the tower and the turrets of a castle on the horizon. The blue-green turrets were burnished in the sun light and stood out against the clear blue of the sky. From the wide north-facing windows of my sixth-floor room I had a perfect view. The blue was duller when the sky was overcast, but the tower was a constant on the horizon. What, I wondered, was a medieval fortress, pennants aloft, doing in a modern sea of buildings, its anachronistic curves standing out oddly amidst the squares, rectangles and right angles?

I often stood at the window during the day, looking out, my room stretching behind me, snug in my solitary cosiness. I watched the cars in the parking mall opposite come to life and purr away – at night they sat quietly in their places, their fenders gleaming in the lamp light.  On the pavement below, students in hoodies stumbled to class, office goers with bags hitched on their shoulders and smoke curling from their coffee cups disappeared under the awning of my building. Garbage trucks stopped by the curb and businesslike men in overalls hauled black sacks into the back. On week-end nights I could hear the ambulances hooting and the students whooping on the ped mall, in celebration of another football win. (On the morning after a match I saw an entire student band  packing their instruments – a large brass trumpet was tucked without fuss into a black case – and riding off.) I watched the tree next door change colour from green to red and yellow and then turn bare. On fine days I walked by the river, sat on the greens beside it or wandered where I wished. Here I was, suddenly, happily, becalmed; my days were mine to do exactly as I pleased. The turrets I glimpsed every morning brought me back to earth, reminding me that I was not the only one displaced.

News from family and friends back home came regularly – like the constant thrum of a musical instrument designed to keep the vocalist’s pitch from slipping. Meanwhile I marveled at the group of which I was a part – ‘thirty seven writers from thirty two countries’ as we had heard ourselves pronounced  – and looked at us, myself included, from the outside – at the different colours of our skin and hair, our accents and clothes. I was entranced; we were all living characters in a romance. 

Week after week we read from our work in bookshops, discussed it in class and drank it in our glasses in restaurants and pubs. At night, after a session of the Cinematheque, we of the ‘sticky rice’ predilection, gathered in my room and discussed the films the writers had made or endorsed. In alien tongues we spoke about the experience of being human – in different parts of the world, under siege and in self-indulgent freedom, in pain and in pleasure, in tears and in laughter, in prose and in poetry.  In the background was the city and the people who had made the unobtrusive theatricality of our lives possible.

One morning we pierced the walls of the turreted castle. There was nothing to it – no moat, no armoured soldiers on horseback – we, the public, were free to walk in. It was, I learnt, the Courthouse, the local seat of justice. We climbed up wooden stairs and in a wood paneled room, under a canopy of coloured, figured glass, we enquired at a counter where a blue uniformed official sat next to Tinker Bell (it was Halloween and officials were allowed to come in mufti). For three days we listened to arguments and counter arguments as a young father was charged with being instrumental in the death of his adopted infant son. Lives were laid bare – candid photos of transient happiness, the shining faces of children,  the warp and weft of a marriage, the web of a sustaining but all-seeing community. There was scientific evidence too, complete with scans of the fatal injury.

As September led to October and then November, the sun rose later and later, daylight saving ended, the blue sky and turrets remained.  I returned home to the coldest winter in years (65 degrees Farenheit to Iowa City’s autumn of 50 degrees).  I was seized immediately by a respiratory allergy – a finger wagging to remind me that coming home was no easy matter. The day after I landed I was back at work, standing on the pavement in the morning, overcome by such a sense of déjà vu that I was disappointed when the autorickshaw agreed to go in the direction I wanted. It had snowed in Iowa City I heard and saw photographs of the ground blanketed with snow, the sky mirroring the ground, the trees bare. Outside my window, my flowering creeper flourished and the dulcet tones of the bulbul and the song of the sunbird rang out at dawn. The newspapers here are full of the story of a battered and abandoned child, fighting for her life in a hospital – the police are on the case. (The father in the other battered baby case, I learnt, was acquitted – found not guilty. I imagined him receiving the verdict in the wood paneled room, under a high ceiling with the sun light streaming in in rainbow bands.) And to round off my story, during a recent visit to the nearby city of Mysore, a small city of many gentle attractions, as we completed our ritual tour of the royal palace, I was stopped short by the pillars in the gorgeous Royal Marriage Pavilion. It wasn’t just that the pillars were graceful and magnificent and stretched to hold up the highest of ceilings, but they were painted an exact colour that sent a nervous buzz of recognition through me. It took me a moment to recall the metallic blue of the turrets of the Courthouse. But even as I tried, incoherently to explain my excitement, my family urged me to hurry. So I stood for a while by myself, a crowd of tourists swirling around me, and savoured the happy moment alone.

 

Mission Creek: Another Reason the IWP is Proud to Call Iowa City Home

 

Currently in its sixth year, the Mission Creek Festival annually brings writers, musicians, and comedians to town for a busy week of programming, including concerts, readings, question & answer sessions, and—new this year—events featuring food from local restaurants.

The festival's literary director is the IWP's own fall residency coordinator, Joe Tiefenthaler, who has lined up some 70+ authors for this year's readings. Featured authors include Luis Alberto Urrea, Johannes Göransson, Amber Tamblyn, Beau Sia, Robert Haas, D.A. Powell, Amelia Gray and many, many more. See the full literary lineup here:  http://missionfreak.com/literature/



 

"On Going Home" - Lynley Hood, IWP 2011, New Zealand

On Going Home

Forty-three years ago, four years married, expecting our first child, looking for somewhere to put down our roots. This house on the hill looked good then. With the patina of age and memories it looks even better now. 

Here, as the world turns and the generations roll over, our children bring their own giggling children to tumble down the same grassy slopes. Here in memory I hold Jim's hand as he slips into unconsciousness. "I know you want to hang on," I say. "But if it's too hard—it's okay to let go." And he does. This is home.

From Iowa I bring memories, photographs, gifts, poems, stories, an Acme Precision Planner (an artwork which, when I spin the arrow, directs me to "go back to bed", "eat donuts", "go shopping", "kill somebody", "just say yes to everything", "get drunk", "put it off for another week", or "run away"), and an abscessed tooth. There's an upside to the abscessed tooth. In the weeks following my homecoming I meet a succession of dentists. Each exclaims in turn: "Lynley Hood—you're Jim's wife! I was taught by Jim. He was so perceptive, so clear thinking." Yes, I miss him too. We all miss him.

The family comes. Children, grandchildren, in-laws, siblings. These are the people who love me and make me feel safe. All is well with the world. 

At the end of my first week home I return to my spiritual base among the writers, activists and armchair philosophers who gather on Friday evenings at our city's oldest pub. Here in the gloriously shabby Empire I'm nobody's widow or mother or grandmother. I'm myself. 

According to Dave, one of the funniest and most abrasive of our Friday night gang: "Pubs are essential places; as essential as the courts, or Parliament. They are open to rich and poor alike. They provide escape—social, chemical, actual—and only in the dizzy mellow fog of a friendly pub is each man his master's equal."

From time to time, when our pub of choice goes up or down market, we scour the city for another watering hole that meets our unpretentious but exacting requirements: a friendly bartender; a modest range of good-quality, reasonably-priced drinks; no live bands; no karaoke; no juke box; no poker machines; no blaring television screens. All we ask is for a few tables to pull together in a quiet corner. A place to debate with heat and good humour the issues of the day.

I show John (a jazzman when he's not behind the bar) photos of Guy and Howard playing Irish music for Nell's reading at Prairie Lights. He makes a note for the Iowa City stop on his long-planned pilgrimage along the blues trail from Chicago to New Orleans. Next I'm deep in conversation with Vincent and Brian about Peter Nazareth's comments on the work of Michael Henderson. I don't need to explain. They know who Peter is. They've read his work.  

The following week I'm telling Glenn about the international writers I had the privilege of sharing eleven weeks with in Iowa City.

"A woman writer?! From Pakistan!" he says astonished. International tours take top cricketers to foreign lands for extended periods. Glenn has seen first hand how women are treated in Pakistan. 

"What does Bina think of Imran Khan?" he asks intrigued. "What does she think of his chances in the election?" 

I'm embarrassed that I did not think to ask, even as I marvel at how well-informed my compatriots are about the world beyond our shores. It's an aspect of life in this small, far-flung corner of the globe I used to take for granted.

Next comes the reunion with my Poetry and Pot Luck group. I show them photographic proof that our event has gone global: writers and friends crowded into my Iowa apartment cooking, eating, drinking, singing, reading, talking. Sadly, Wally's rousing rendition of "Casey at the Bat" is recorded only in memory. 

Old connections weave me back into the fabric of my world; new connections bring new ideas, new projects, new ways of giving and receiving the gift of belonging. I even discover a potential co-author, an expert on a topic I want to write about but can no longer do so unaided. This is my greatest frustration. I have a hard-earned reputation for meticulous research, but I can no longer read the reams of documents I used to absorb by what now seems like osmosis. I am losing my sight.

A year ago in my darkest hour I unpinned from my noticeboard the poem that has been my touchstone from  the day I became a serious writer—Fleur Adcock's "Future Work" with it's triumphal closing line "it is all magnificently about to begin." 

But I am a writer. I can no more stop writing than I can stop breathing. So I begin to adapt in Iowa City, and I continue to adapt back home in Dunedin.

This day brings a challenge, a novel inspired by my biography of the only woman hanged for murder in New Zealand. "Would you be interested in reviewing it?" Would I ever! But reading books is too hard. I have not read a print book in two years.

I spin the arrow on my Acme Precision Planner. "Run away" it suggests. I spin again. "Just say yes to everything." I consider my options: phone the friends who've offered to read to me; ask for a copy of the book in e-format; buy a powerful headlamp to better illuminate the printed page. I do all three, and square my shoulders.

"It is all magnificently about to begin." declaims the poem on my noticeboard.

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