The British writer Zoё Strachan blogs about her three weeks as a writer in residence on Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Suddenly it’s quiet in Iowa City. Fall is almost upon us, and the leaves are just beginning to turn russet.
Most of the International Writing Program participants have left for mid-residency travel and I’m staying here to teach some classes at the University of Iowa. It’s a good chance to soak up the autumn sunshine and creative energy of this UNESCO City of Literature, and to think about the experiences I’ve had so far.
My favourite thing about residencies is that the world becomes both a bigger and smaller place. Bigger because here I am, in the Midwest, somewhere new to me, meeting writers from another thirty countries. And smaller, because each one of these countries seems somehow more accessible, more familiar, than it did before.
Of course there’s talk of politics, both global and local. But there’s also talk of ideas, and ideals.
I attend a seminar on Monday afternoons on world literature, at which writers discuss their work and what has influenced them. Every week I leave this seminar feeling lucky that I haven’t had the experiences – of war, poverty, corruption, natural disaster – that so many others have. After sharing a few drinks with a poet from Baghdad, I’m more committed to exploring and defending the freedom of expression I enjoy in my life and writing.
Our artistic ideas are challenged and bolstered too.
The western modern and postmodern novel can be somewhat impenetrable to those schooled in different literary traditions. Close reading my work with a young Chinese student helped me establish a new set of cultural references we could share. Once we’d set up the new Duchess of Cambridge as a recognisable symbol of tradition and duty, we were able to talk about what rebellion might entail for young women in China and Scotland.
It’s important to pin down the specifics, as I realised after presenting the film ‘The Wicker Man’. Another new student, also recently arrived in the US from China, left the screening with the impression that human sacrifice was outlawed in Scotland in the 1970’s. Thankfully I noticed her expression of horror at the mention of the modern day Wicker Man festival, and was able to reassure her.
There are more connections that differences of opinion though, as perhaps you’d expect on a programme where writers from Palestine and Israel sit down to dinner together next to those from Pakistan and the US.
For me it’s been fascinating to learn that a creative writing teacher in Manila shares my frustration about new writers aping the style of particular American language poets. I’ve debated the death of ‘the author’ with a writer from Seoul, and talked about the confidence we gain from a robust literary community with a novelist from Bangalore.
These informal cultural exchanges provide just as much food for thought as the formal seminars. Just the other night I went to a ‘potluck and poetry’ evening. Several of us got together to share food and poems from our home countries. Actually I cheated; vegetarian haggis proved too hard to source, but the poems of Vicki Feaver went down a storm. As did the work of the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo), proving that poetry really can speak across continents, languages and thousands of years.
At the end of the evening, my partner Louise sang ‘A Man’s a Man for A’That’ by Robert Burns. Here in Iowa City I’m seeing the sentiments of that song in practice:
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall Brothers be for a’that.
Exposure to so many different voices and cultures is a wonder and a privilege.