• 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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Young Russian Writers Try out Slam Poetry in Washington DC

Russian BTL participants pose for a group photo in front of the White House.
Russian BTL participants pose for a group photo in front of the White House.
After touring the Poetry Foundation in Chicago en route to Iowa at the beginning of the Between the Lines (BTL) Russia creative writing and cultural exchange program, and two weeks of intensive workshops, seminars, and literary events in Iowa City, the ten young aspiring Russian authors selected to participate in BTL 2013 bid farewell to their American peers and headed east to Washington D.C., the last stop on their U.S. trip.

With the statue of the great Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), on the GWU campus.
With the statue of the great Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), on the GWU campus.
In DC, they visited Kramer Books, toured the Newseum, and got an introduction to and a lesson in slam poetry from Split This Rock/DC Youth Slam, and later attended a performance by the DC Youth Slam at the Kennedy Center.

“The decision to focus on slam culture while in D.C. reflects the fact that spoken word poetry resonates with literary traditions around the world,” says IWP associate director Hugh Ferrer.

They also took advantage of the trip to learn more about American culture, visiting the National Museum of the American Indian, taking an evening stroll along the National Mall, visiting the White House, and even paying homage to the statue of the great Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), located on the campus of The George Washington University.

Meeting with members of the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Programs, US Dept of State
Meeting with members of the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Programs, US Dept of State
In the spirit of experiencing new things, their last night in the United States students also tried out Ethiopian cuisine, sharing platters of stews and vegetable dishes scooped up with injera, a traditional spongy yeast-risen bread made from teff flour, their last collective meal before heading home to Russia.

Inna Dmitrieva of Petrozavodsk summed up the BTL experience this way: “America'13: 3 states; 6 flights; 29 people that changed my attitude to culture, literature and life.”

BTL Russia participants writing “BTL” on the floor of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
BTL Russia participants writing “BTL” on the floor of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Between the Lines Program Coordinator Kelly Morse couldn’t agree more. “Nothing sparks the mind quite like travel and cultural exchange. These talented young students now have experience with vibrant cities and small-town life in the USA. We’re excited to see how this experience shapes their writing.”

The International Writing Program will begin accepting applications for BTL 2014 next spring.

IWP to Offer Advanced Fiction Seminar

Don't start a story with the weather.

 

illustration

“We've all seen lists of dos and don'ts for writing fiction,” says fiction writer Nate Brown. “But is it really always best to write longhand? Must you really turn off the Internet while you write?” Brown and his students will be putting some of this writerly advice to the test this fall in a new Advanced Fiction Seminar offered through the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP).

With writers from 42 countries and every continent except Antarctica applying to participate in distance learning courses offered in poetry this summer, the IWP fielded many requests from fiction writers wondering if there were any similar courses available for them. In response to this demand, from September 16 through October 28, 2013, the IWP will be offering a free online 7-session fiction writing course for strong, emerging writers. The course will use virtual classroom software to link writers around the globe and conduct the live online sessions, a unique opportunity for writers located miles (and oceans) apart to read and discuss contemporary fiction and share their own work. The course is free and all sessions will be conducted in English.

Advanced Fiction Seminar (Click to enlarge)
Advanced Fiction Seminar (Click to enlarge)

“In a world filled with craft essays and creative writing pedagogies, it's sometimes easy to forget that some of the most electric and energetic fiction we encounter seems exciting precisely because it breaks ‘the rules,’” says instructor Nate Brown, a recipient of writing fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Vermont Studio Center, the Kimmel, Harding, Nelson Center for the Arts, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Deputy Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, DC.

Writers wishing to apply should submit a resume, statement of purpose (your motivations for joining the course), and a writing sample (5 pages maximum) to iwpapplications@gmail.com by September 6, 2013.

Saying “Do svidaniya” to BTL Russia 2013

Visiting the farm in Iowa
Visiting the farm in Iowa

July 27th-30th, 2013 ten aspiring Russian authors ages 16-19 will be soaking up the literary culture in Washington D.C. and getting a lesson in slam poetry from Split This Rock/DC Youth Slam. The talented teens have spent the last two weeks in Iowa City, taking part in the intensive Between the Lines (BTL) Russia creative writing and cultural exchange.

In Iowa, the students, who hail from cities and towns all over Russia, teamed up with 10 U.S. students from 9 states for two weeks of writing workshops, seminars, and literary events, including a public reading at local literary landmark, The Haunted Bookshop. 

Day 3 Documentation Crew Isabella (Madison, Connecticut) and Inna (Petrozavodsk, Russia)
Day 3 Documentation Crew Isabella (Madison, Connecticut) and Inna (Petrozavodsk, Russia)

 Each day, one Russian and one American student partnered up to document the BTL experience. BTL-issued Ipads in hand, they set out to capture the day’s activities in words and pictures, presented on the program’s blog. Together, BTLers visited farms, museums, and attended rodeo and mutton bustin’ events and sampled the fried jello at the Washington County Fair, generating ideas for new creative works under the guidance of rising American poet Kiki Petrosino and well-known Russian novelist Alan Cherchesov, an alumnus of the IWP’s fall residency.

Watching a cowboy at work in the stock corrals at the Washington State Fair
Watching a cowboy at work in the stock corrals at the Washington State Fair

“It’s a chance to discover the real America, not like we see on TV and the internet,” says BTL participant Inna Dmitrieva of Petrozavodsk, Russia. “It is life-changing.”

BTLers also got writing advice from visiting authors including bestselling non-fiction writer Lucas Mann and Indian novelist and IWP alum Chandrahas Choudhury, who gave a lecture and spoke with students from Mumbai using a Blackboard Collaborate virtual classroom set up with the help of IWP distance learning.

The students, united by a common passion for writing, staged several informal readings—crowding into dorm rooms, stretching out in parks, and, Thursday night, packing the first floor of the Shambaugh House to listen, laugh, and cheer on their peers sharing new writings with the group.

Zoya (Moscow, Russia) perusing the shelves at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago
Zoya (Moscow, Russia) perusing the shelves at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago

“It’s been a really productive time,” says American Miranda Anthony of Mansfield, Ohio, who interviewed more than twenty people in and around downtown Iowa City for a hybrid prose and poetry project she conceived and began writing soon after arriving at BTL. “Everyone has been so supportive—I’ve learned so much,” she says.

As the American students head home tomorrow, the Russian students, who had a chance to tour the Poetry Foundation in Chicago on their way to Iowa, continue on to Washington, D.C.,  the last stop on their U.S. trip.

BTL Russia students in daily Literature Seminar
BTL Russia students in daily Literature Seminar

After two weeks of reading, writing, and trading cultural knowledge with their American peers (including taking over the dorm kitchens to prepare blinis (traditional Russian pancakes) for the Americans to taste, the departure is bittersweet.

“BTL opens a door to the world for students, both U.S. and Russian—it encourages them to discover and interact with other cultures around a shared interest—writing,” says BTL Coordinator Kelly Morse. “We hope that these friendships—literary and personal—endure."

BTL is organized by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

La Argentina como narración: 21 former IWP authors in 1 anthology

Another guest post from Lisa Gardinier, Latin American & Iberian Studies Librarian at the University of Iowa.

Librarian Lisa Gardinier, always on the look-out for IWP alumni in print.
Librarian Lisa Gardinier, always on the look-out for IWP alumni in print.

Earlier this spring, I stopped in to the acquisitions department in the University of Iowa Main Library to review some recently arrived books for the collection. Among other things, I keep an eye out for new publications from IWP participants, including scanning the table of contents of anthologies, to make sure they are set aside for a special extra step in cataloging in which they receive an extra subject heading that notes the writer's local connection. This particular shipment included a giant 919-page anthology, La Argentina como narración, edited by Jorge Monteleone (Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 2011, a section of the Argentine Secretariat of Culture). The table of contents alone is nine pages long and a quick glance at the first two pages – in which I spotted three familiar names – told me I had to take this back to my desk for a closer comparison with our historical list of IWP participants. The final list just kept growing:

A total of 21 former IWP participants in one anthology. Argentina has been the best-represented Latin American country over IWP's long history and this only represents half of the 42 Argentine writers who have come to Iowa as IWP residents. There are probably over 200 entries in the anthology – I'm not about to go through and count that many! – but by this count, that's give or take 10% of the anthology with an Iowa connection.

The anthology itself was edited by Jorge Monteleone, a literary critic and researcher at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and includes a 95-page introduction by the editor. Monteleone does not aim to reflect an Argentine literary canon (indeed, the estates of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sábato declined to be included), but rather to show Argentine identity and culture in a broad representation of its literary narrative. He divides the selections in ten themes, both concrete and conceptual, and interpreted literally and figuratively, as follows: foundations, the desert, dichotomies, violence, exile, anarchy and order, friendship and conspiracy, paranoia and delirium, the exceptional being, and the other, the self. Each section is concluded by a substantial critical essay contributed by a writer or literary critic.

Read Lisa's January 2013 guest post, "Best Field Trip Ever" on her visit to the Guadalajara International Book Fair.

BTL Arabic World 2013

Shahd (of Saudi Arabia) teaching Arabic 101.
Shahd (of Saudi Arabia) teaching Arabic 101.
 “We taught the American students a few words in Arabic; they learned colors, days of the week, and twisted their tongues trying to pronounce the letter Ḫāʾ (Kha’a),” said Ahmed, one of two students from Bahrain participating in the International Writing Program’s Between the Lines: Arabic World intensive 2-week creative writing and cultural exchange for teens ages 16-19. What started as an informal Arabic 101 lesson at the Shambaugh House that evening evolved into a thoughtful discussion of social and cultural practices including the choice of some women to wear the hijab. Students pulled their chairs into a circle so that everyone could see each other speak in the open.

               

BTL students workshopped in both Arabic and English.
BTL students workshopped in both Arabic and English.
This curiosity and the willingness to listen and learn from one another spilled over into the writing workshops and literature seminars that form the core of BTL. At the request of the students, BTL instructors John Murillo and Ghada Abdel Aal and writers on IWP staff even organized special additional sessions, so that American and Arabic-speaking students could workshop together (instead of splitting off into separate English and Arabic language workshops).

                 

BTL student Zora performs her poetry at the Seldom Seen Festival (with her BTL friends in the audience).
BTL student Zora performs her poetry at the Seldom Seen Festival (with her BTL friends in the audience).
   “My writing has grown so much in the short time I’ve been here,” Salma, a poet from Morocco said.  Lily, an American student from Delaware agreed. “You're the most talented, welcoming group of people I've ever met,” she told her fellow BTLers.
“Because of how at home I felt surrounded by these 23 best friends, I opened up with my writing in a way I never have before.”

               

BTLers relax for a moment on the steps of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City.
BTLers relax for a moment on the steps of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City.
  Students gave a well-attended public reading at The Haunted Bookshop on Friday, July 5th, then, after a graduation ceremony, headed over to the Pentacrest to take in the belated Iowa City Independence Day fireworks display. The American students headed home the next day, while the Arabic-speaking students traveled to Chicago to wrap up a few final days of programming.

               

Documentation Crew Gracie (Iowa) and Ahmed (Bahrain).
Documentation Crew Gracie (Iowa) and Ahmed (Bahrain).
  In two short weeks, BTLers wrote and read each other’s works, shared ideas and did their best to explain what life is like in Kuwait and California, Kansas and Saudi Arabia. “I met the most amazing people in the world in Iowa City, and saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do,” said American student Caitlin. Students expressed the intention to stay in touch with their new BTL friends and many plan to continue exchanging poems and stories and even visit each other in coming years. “You guys have changed me in so many ways,” said Tala, a student from Kuwait. “I learned so much from you all. I hope with all my heart our paths will cross someday soon.”

        More photos and day-by-day glimpses into BTL programing as documented by BTL students themselves can be found here.

        The second session of Between the Lines 2013, bringing together 19 students from the U.S. and Russia, begins July 13th.

BTL is organized in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Shambaugh House Quarterly Roundup—April-June 2013

It’s summertime in Iowa City and luckily there’s plenty of good news from associates, friends, and alumni of the International Writing Program to keep us in good spirits through the heat, humidity, and gnats galore. Here’s a selection of some of the good things friends of the IWP have been up to over the last quarter:

Pandora (IWP '12 Burma/Myanmar), Nu Nu YEE (IWP '00, Burma/Myanmar), and Thida MA (IWP '05, Burma/Myanmar) were among the Myanmar Times’ nominees for 50 outstanding women of Myanmar.

IWP reading tour participant Natasha TRETHEWEY was appointed to a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Narlan MATOS Teixeira's (IWP Brazil ‘02) new book, Elegy to the New World, was nominated for the Portugal/Telecom International Award.

Maxim AMELIN (IWP Visitor '09, Russia) received the Alexander Solzhenitsyn Award for his poetic experiments and his role as an educator.

Carlos GAMERRO (IWP '08, Argentina) won the 2013 English PEN grant for translation.

Between the Lines alumna Rawan Yaghi (BTL Arabic '12, Gaza) received a scholarship to attend Oxford University in the UK.

Jen SILVERMAN (IWP Life of Discovery writer) was awarded the 2013 Yale Drama Series Prize.

Victoria STEWART's play PLANET X (originally commissioned by Book Wings Russia 2013) was staged at Live Girls! Theater in Seattle.

Nihad SIREES (IWP '05, Syria) won the 2013 Coburgian Rückert Prize.

IWP Distance Learning instructor Margaret ROSS was awarded a 2013-2014 Fulbright Research Grant.

IWP reading tour participant Chinelo OKPARANTA was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing.

The German poet, fiction writer and scholar Anja KAMPMANN (IWP '10) won the 2013 MDR literary prize, awarded annually by a jury comprised of literary critics and audiences. Her story "Jsem--Ich werde ihnen erzaehlen," about a nomadic oil rig driller drifting away from his identity and language, was praised for giving "a grand poetic language to a pressing subject matter."

Distance Learning instructor Nick TWEMLOW was profiled in Poets & Writers as part of National Poetry Month.

Rodrigo Garcia LOPES (IWP '12, Brazil) put out a new CD.

Ghassan ZAQTAN (IWP '01, Palestinian Territories) was shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Josephine ROWE (IWP '11, Australia) was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

4 new poems from Ranjit Hoskote (IWP '95, India) introduced by Chandrahas Choudhury (IWP '10, India) appeared in Caravan Magazine.

A compact but strong survey of the novels of KIM Young-ha (IWP '05, South Korea) appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books.

IWP director Christopher MERRILL talked to Iowa Public Radio about travel and poetry in the Middle East.

Did we forget something? Have good news to share? Send it to ashley-r-davidson[at]uiowa.edu and we’ll include it in the next Shambaugh House Roundup.

They’re Here!

Writing is about leaping into the unknown. Between the Lines: Arabic World students take that risk together.
Writing is about leaping into the unknown. Between the Lines: Arabic World students take that risk together.

Late last week, 24 talented teen writers packed their bags, said goodbye to family and friends and braved traffic, checkpoints, and airport security lines, arriving in Iowa City from near and far to participate in the Between the Lines: Arabic World creative writing and cultural exchange program.

BTL Arabic World 2013 includes students from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories & Saudi Arabia
BTL Arabic World 2013 includes students from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories & Saudi Arabia

Selected from among the largest and most competitive pool of applicants since the summer program began in 2008, these young writers hail from 10 Arabic-speaking countries and territories and 7 U.S. states and include the program’s first-ever Yemeni participant. They are aspiring poets, playwrights, and journalists, united by a common interest in and passion for writing.

Students taste the famous pie shakes at The Hamburg Inn (a traditional stop on the U.S. presidential campaign trail).
Students taste the famous pie shakes at The Hamburg Inn (a traditional stop on the U.S. presidential campaign trail).
After checking into the dorms and attending an orientation and welcome ceremony this weekend, they were off to sample the famous pie shakes at local Iowa City landmark The Hamburg Inn. Up bright and early Monday morning, they quickly got down to the business of writing.

In addition to participating in daily writing workshops and literature seminars and other program activities that keep them busy until evening, BTLers also found time to get to know each other, talking, playing music, and reading others’ writing. Wednesday night they attended a reading by their instructors, poet John Murillo and novelist, blogger, and screenwriter Ghada Abdel Aal at Prairie Lights Bookstore, good practice, since the students will be giving a reading of their own at Iowa City’s The Haunted Bookshop next week.

BTL students talk writing with instructor John Murillo.
BTL students talk writing with instructor John Murillo.
Tonight, after workshops and seminars, the Arabic-speaking students offer an Arabic 101 lesson to their American peers. On Friday, the group travels to the Seldom Seen Literary Festival in Monmouth, Iowa where BTL participant Zora Hurst is among those slated to perform. Stay up to date on BTL activities, including daily dispatches from BTL documentarians on a new BTL Tumblr blog and on Facebook.

BTL is put on in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

The Other Side of Reality: A Visit to Turkmenistan

A guest post by writer Chinelo Okparanta who traveled with the IWP on a recent reading tour to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The author in the library in Mary, Turkmenistan.
The author in the library in Mary, Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is a country of a little over 5 million people, bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Ashgabat is its capital city.

We have just arrived from Uzbekistan. We drive into Ashgabat, a city unlike Uzbekistan's homey Tashkent, unlike Uzbekistan's Samarkand, and I think how very unlike any other cities I've ever visited it is: the streets--and the buildings that line them--are a glorious pearly white. It is early morning, just before dawn. The sun is not yet anywhere to be seen, but the place glows all the same, by the light of the street lamps, which are ornate and line the roadsides like delicate lace trimmings at the fringes of a wedding dress.

The streets of Ashgabat.
The streets of Ashgabat.
As we continue our drive, an analogy comes to mind, that of a model apartment unit. Except, here is not just one model unit. Here, the entire city is the model, everything glistening in shades of silver and gold. 

We arrive at our hotel, and I note how even the hotel is the epitome of luxury: a grand reception area, multiple sets of elevators scattered throughout the lobby. A series of beautiful water sculptures. Tilt your head upwards, and a cascade of gleaming railings greets you. Internal balconies adorned with deluxe furnishings: Mahogany. Marble. Granite. Again, silver and gold. It is a very polished affair, in all senses of the word, and, because I am perhaps the biggest fan of cleanliness and order, all of this is at first very suiting to me.

A portrait of Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov overlooks the Palace of Happiness marriage registry office in A
A portrait of Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov overlooks the Palace of Happiness marriage registry office in A
When we have settled at the hotel and rested a bit, our cultural diplomacy visits to the Turkmen institutions begin. To get to these destinations, we drive by large, stately buildings with names such as 'Palace of Creativity', 'Palace of Happiness', ‘Palace of Justice’. The domes are striking in their splendor. Those that are mural-like seem as if they could have been hand-painted. 

-What does one do at the Palace of Happiness? I ask the driver, pointing in the direction of the building.

The driver looks at me, holds up his hand, wiggles his ring finger. I understand then: One gets married at the 'Palace of Happiness.' 

After a moment, the next question comes to me: -And for a divorce? I ask.

The driver does not understand, and I am left to wonder if the driver’s lack of understanding is indicative of the absence of divorce in Turkmenistan. It is so perfect a place that divorce is an unheard-of thing?

It all seems very whimsical to me. A whole new world. Something taken out of a storybook, a fairytale. 

Teams excavate the ancient Silk Road city of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Teams excavate the ancient Silk Road city of Merv, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
And there is more: The next day, we take a trip to the ancient city of Merv. After spending some time watching a perfectly orderly excavation-in-progress, we head into the neighboring city of Mary, to the library there, which is to be one of our stops on this cultural diplomacy mission.

There at the library, we are first greeted by an expansive array of red Turkmen carpets, which lead up to the library’s gilded entranceway. We are ushered into a conference room where we discuss methods of collaborating for the purpose of bringing Turkmen literature into the United States, also for the purpose of bringing more contemporary American literature into Turkmenistan. It is agreed that translation will be the key.

The empty reading room for the elderly at the library in Mary, Turkmenistan.
The empty reading room for the elderly at the library in Mary, Turkmenistan.
The next phase of the meeting is a tour of the library. At this moment, things become more whimsical than ever. Something just does not feel real about the place, and soon I arrive at what it is: Where are the books?

The library's eerily pristine children's room.
The library's eerily pristine children's room.
Not much later, another question comes to my mind: Just where are the library’s patrons? Because, of course, as we are taken through the library’s various sections—a children’s room, a cafeteria, a room for the elderly, an observatory, etc, I cannot help but notice the emptiness, the furnishings all perfectly in place, not appearing to have ever been moved, model units indeed. The children’s room is so tidy that it doesn’t appear to have ever lodged a child. The same with the café: no sign of ever having served even a morsel of food.  

On the road near ancient Merv.
On the road near ancient Merv.
But then there is a shift. The truth of the place begins to seep in, and I take it in slowly, in small drops.

The first drop of truth comes later in the trip. We finally make our way into a potholed road lined with a series of downtrodden bungalows, their walls clearly cracking, their roofs just a bit sunken-looking. For the first time, I see a group of school children gathered, tossing around a ball. It is the first time that I am seeing children participating in normal children activities in Turkmenistan. It causes me to exhale. After that, we see more behind-the-scene scenes: women vendors along the roadsides selling bread and other goods. We even eat at a restaurant where enlarged flies whistle around my ears and threaten to land on my food. And somehow it is a relief, this realization that there are flies in Turkmenistan.

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of Happiness, Like Water. Short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing, her work has appeared in Granta, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, AGNI, and other journals.

Meet the Instructors: BTL Arabic 2013

On June 22nd, twenty-two talented young writers from all over the United States and the Arab World will convene in Iowa City—a UNESCO City of Literature—for Between the Lines (BTL) Arabic, one of two sessions of the IWP’s creative writing and cultural exchange program for youth ages 16-19 to be held on the University of Iowa campus this summer.

“There was tremendous interest in the program this year,” says BTL coordinator Kelly Morse, who assumed the reins in January. “We fielded questions from students in sixteen countries. The quality of the applications—and of the creative writing samples in particular—was impressive. We had to make some very tough decisions.” American students submitted their applications to the program directly, while international students had to first be nominated by their respective embassies, with dozens of students competing for the coveted slots.

Students selected for the program will travel from seven U.S. states and ten Near Eastern countries, from Morocco to Yemen (the first time BTL has hosted a Yemeni participant since the program began in 2008). During the intensive two-week program, the young writers will work closely with instructors John Murillo and Ghada Abdel Aal, receiving feedback on their writing and honing their craft.

Students will even get a chance to meet their instructors and peers and participate in a practice workshop from their homes next week, using Blackboard technology, with help from IWP Distance Learning coordinator Rebecca Boyle. “That way, when they arrive in Iowa City, they really hit the ground running,” Morse says.

Murillo, an award-winning poet who serves on the creative writing faculty at New York University and whose honors include a Pushcart Prize, two Larry Neal Writers Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Times, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and who Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz has called “headbreakingly brilliant,” will lead the English-language writing workshops.

The Arabic language workshops will be led by bestselling Egyptian novelist, screenwriter, blogger, and newspaper and magazine columnist Ghada Abdel Aal, an alumna of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency, and a recipient of the 2012 Bauer Prize for promising new writers at Incroci di Civiltà, Venice’s International Literary Festival.

Murillo and Abdel Aal will also collaborate, co-teaching a daily literature seminar, with guest lectures offered by IWP Fall Residency alumni who will connect with the students using digital video conferencing technology.

“Having instructors like Ghada and John on board is part of what makes BTL such a unique creative and cultural experience for students,” Morse says. “They’re both accomplished young writers with diverse cultural experiences and they’ll encourage students to consider writing and literature from new angles and help students to bring their own writing to the next level.”

BTL Arabic will take place from June 22nd through July 6th.

The program is organized in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State.

Where Are They Now? Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12

Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12 at Shambaugh House, BTL headquarters and home of the International Writing Program.
Jacob Oet, BTL Russia '12 at Shambaugh House, BTL headquarters and home of the International Writing Program.

As part of our ongoing series Where Are They Now? in which we profile alumni of Between the Lines (BTL), the IWP’s creative writing and cultural exchange program for writers ages 16-19, we check in with Jacob Oet, of Cleveland, Ohio, who participated in BTL Russia 2012. Jacob, who recently completed his freshman year at Swarthmore College, stopped by the Shambaugh House to say hello. He is back in Iowa City taking part in a three-week intensive poetry workshop led by poet James Galvin of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

IWP: You have an impressive track record of publications for a writer so young. Have you always been interested in writing poetry? What attracted you to BTL?

Jacob: I’ve been interested in poetry for a long time, and in playwriting as well.  I was most excited by the cross-language aspect of BTL. I’m a heritage Russian speaker, so BTL offered the perfect blend of what I was looking for in a summer program. [BTL Instructor] Camille Dungy and I still keep in touch; she was a really wonderful teacher for me. And being around Russian students rekindled my interest in the Russian language. My parents spoke mainly Russian to me until I got to be school age. I vividly remember learning to speak English—confusing “kitchen” and “chicken”—but they switched to English as I got older.  I'd forgotten a lot. But then I’d hear one of the Russian BTL students ask a question in Russian and I’d answer in English—I didn’t tell them I could understand initially. The first week, I kept it a secret.

IWP: Did you learn anything about Russian culture that surprised you?

Jacob: At one point, two Russian students from different regions were giving the American students a lesson in the Russian alphabet and they ended up disagreeing not only about how the letters were pronounced, but also about the order of the letters. I didn’t realize how large and diverse Russia was until then. There was an etiquette difference at first as well—the Russian students tended to assume everything that was said was earnest and sincere, while the American students liked to joke around. I think how informal Americans can be surprised them—though we ended up close friends. The first week, people were a little bit shy, but the second week the groups really started to intermingle. I spent a lot of time with the Russian students.

IWP: Have you stayed in touch?

Jacob: Yes. They don’t use our Facebook in Russia, so it’s been a challenge. We talk on Skype sometimes, share books, ideas, and our work, send each other poems. Sometimes I ask them to help me with a poem I’m writing in Russian. One of my Russian BTL friends is a songwriter and he writes lyrics in English. He asked me to look over them. It was fun. I look forward to hearing the songs.

IWP: What’s it like to be back in Iowa City without your BTL friends? Are you revisiting any old haunts?

Jacob Oet in front of Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is attending a 3-week intensive poetry workshop.
Jacob Oet in front of Dey House, home of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he is attending a 3-week intensive poetry workshop.

I didn’t realize how much my experience of Iowa City was tied to those people. It’s really cool to be back. BTL made me feel very comfortable and welcome here. My first stop was The Haunted Bookshop. Where else could I buy seven books for twelve dollars? Books I’ve been trying to find for a while. I also stopped by the antique shop—I was very drawn to collections of old letters I found there when I was in Iowa City for BTL.  I read an amazing essay in Poetry Magazine recently about photography, which is closer to poetry than any other visual art form because it is time-based, so this time I found myself drawn more to old photographs. I looked at hundreds, but one that I felt inspired by is of an old grey-haired couple, husband and wife, standing with a river disappearing into the distance behind them; they’re holding a line strung with pretty big fish—I saw it and I thought, “I can write a poem about this.”

IWP: Did you?

Jacob: Yes. It’s not very good. I’m not happy with it. But I think just the experience of being there, looking through all those photographs and thinking about them was worth it, good for my writing.

IWP: What were your favorite things to do in Iowa City with your BTL cohort?

Jacob: We used to go downtown to the public pianos and perform. Or walk across the bridge to the other side of the Iowa River and explore, or visit the rock garden. The Java House was frequented. The fieldtrips were great. I really enjoyed the mall and the visit to Davenport. Another thing that was really valuable about BTL was the seminars. Most of the summer programs I’ve been to in the past didn’t have a lecture component. I realize now that I learned as much if not more from the lectures as from the workshops. It was really a great experience.

Jacob writes poetry (in Russian and English) and was recently named a runner-up for the 2013 Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, judged by Edward Hirsch. Here he is at Shambaugh House, performing an impromptu, informal ode, “What I would have missed if I hadn’t come last summer":

Sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, the IWP, and the University of Iowa, BTL offers students the opportunity to interact with young writers from other cultures, receive writing instruction from distinguished professionals, and experience the literary life of Iowa City (the only UNESCO-designated City of Literature in the United States).

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