The midnight drive from the tiny Cedar Rapids airport in Iowa city didn’t seem to promise anything of visual joy the US mid-west is so well known for. That was not to be. As Mark, our driver (a published poet as well), drove us through the thin shrouds of fog flanked by the most amazing flourish of dark- green fields, the nocturnal silence seemed quite a bit unreal as glinting little dots of eyes – of deer – watched us pass by.
The international writing program (IWP) hosted by the University of Iowa, like it does every year, brought in thirty plus writers this time to join the Fall Residency from all over the continents. I was delighted to be nominated initially by the Dhaka American Center around three months back and later selected by the IWP authorities. The selection is known to be strict as they need to bring the numbers down to thirty or a little more from well over seventy to eighty nominations received each year.
It was the legendary Paul Engle, a poet himself, who envisioned the idea of having writers from all over the world in a residency program in Iowa city -- the one and only UNSECO city of literature, well over fifty years ago. Among the luminaries from our region who took part in the programme and wrote about the wonders that the city of Iowa holds for writers include Sunil Gongapaddhaya, Shankha Ghose, Humayun Ahmed, Mohammad Rafiq, among others. In fact, it was Sunil who drew the most attention sharing his Iowa experience as not exceptional but as something that helped him become what he wanted to be. Over the years, the programme has grown to become the most prestigious writer’s residency in the world with writers of various literary genres and cultural backgrounds coming here to interact among themselves and also participate in some of their chosen literary events for twelve long weeks. IWP’s selection covers both established writers as well as those who have started to shine as emerging ones. This job is deftly done by the IWP team headed by Christopher Merrill, the illustrious poet and Director of IWP who over his long tenure is kind of a cult figure to writers around the world. Many made their way to global renown under his mentorship. This year’s Man Booker winner South Korean Han Kang was an IWP alumni few years back.
The beauty of this year’s programme is the diversity of the practitioners in their respective literary fields. We have with us, besides the most likely troop of poets and fiction writers, playwrights, visual artists, cinematographers, script writers, even musicians. However, the key credential of each participant is essentially rooted in his or her literary accomplishments. So, a visual artist amongst us is also a novelist. A musician a poet. A script writer a short story writer and so on.
Besides the diverse arena from where the writers got together here, the interesting part this year is the number of young writers and poets, more than any time in the past. The youngest among us is Cristine, a 26 year Ethiopian; a budding poet herself, she is the loving baby of all. Very articulate and fiercely independent, she is likely to make her mark in the days to come. The oldest is Odeh Bisharat, noted novelist from Israel. There are quite a few celebrities whose books sell more than hundred thousand copies a year. Egyptian Khaled Alkhamissi is one whose acclaimed novel Taxi got translated into more than twenty languages soon after publication and sold well over two hundred thousand copies in Egypt. Indian Vivek Shanbhag from Karnataka, who writes in Kannada, is, to my mind, advancing steadily to make into the international circuit soon. Argentine playwright Mariano Tenconi Blanco, though young, has been experimenting hugely with stage crafts of all sorts to tell his stories in quite unconventional style. Shenaz Patel, fiction writer and playwright from Mauritius who writes in French, is also quite a noted one.
It’s such great fun that one can only expect from a residency such as the IWP. There are reception parties almost every day with people thronging in large numbers to know about the writers – an experience perhaps unthinkable in any other part of the world. The reading sessions are full with eager listeners, so much so that you could hear a pin drop.
The best part that goes without saying is the all too precious interface irrespective of the writers’ respective fields of writing. The breakfast session is the opener of the day to follow. Everyone loves to linger on with coffee or tea to get to talk to one or more of the writers. But what often features as the most common scene is how well or worse did one got along with new writing or revising or editing or just thinking all night without touching the keyboard for once. Israeli Galith Dahan would at times appear totally distraught having caused a mess with her upcoming novel, while the Nigerian beauty Ukamaka would wear a shy smile having been able to jot down a long chapter of her novel.
There are so many things each one has to say and hear. Botswana’s Legidile Seganaberg wears a head gear that neither matches a hat nor a cap or a pagri; a round pipe of a hat like a small body pillow that covers his head and goes down a foot behind hanging threateningly to slip off any time. He is a vegetarian in a massively meat eating country and is planning to become a vegan some day. To become a vegan, he explains, needs a vegetarian to graduate to a far higher level of abstinence from products of animal origin. A vegan doesn’t even use leather products, let alone eat egg, milk, ice cream and yogurt.
It’s going to get better as everyone expects to make the best of the assemblage. And with Iowa offering so many wonderful avenues to explore, things are sure to be memorable. For art is long, life short though.