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From the Magical Arena: 50 Years of the International Writing Program

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The following is a guest post by Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program. This Friday, November 3, at 12:00 pm, the Library will host the International Writing Program Spotlight in the Whittall Pavilion. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International Writing Program, residents Enza García Arreaza (Venezuela) and Santiago Giralt (Argentina) will participate in a discussion with Cynthia P. Schneider, former ambassador to the Netherlands and Amy Storrow, foreign service officer and Cox fellow. Christopher Merrill will moderate the discussion. 

Christopher Merrill introduces the authors at the International Writing Program spotlight, November 3, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

“Many years later, when he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” So begins One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, which was published 50 years ago in Buenos Aires and is widely regarded as the key text in the Latin-American Boom, the literary renaissance of the 1960s and ‘70s that reshaped world literature. The Columbian novelist, journalist, and Nobel laureate García Márquez and fellow writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa were not only bold explorers of form, history, and politics, but also influential thinkers whose works continue to inspire intrepid spirits to strike out on their own. Take that opening sentence, which brings together a wealth of disparate elements—a firing squad, a visit to an ice house, a father and a son, past and present—in the service of what critics term “magical realism,” a vision of the human condition that resonated around the world.

In that same year, 1967, the American poet Paul Engle and his soon-to-be second wife, the Chinese novelist Nieh Hua-ling, hosted the first residency of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP). Engle had directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for decades, and upon his retirement Hua-ling convinced him to start a similar program for writers from abroad—what he called the craziest idea he had ever heard. Then he and Hua-ling proceeded to build the IWP, believing that distinguished foreign poets and writers would welcome the chance to spend three months in Iowa City, working and exchanging ideas with their counterparts from other lands. (In this the Engles anticipated Kevin Costner’s famous line from Field of Dreams, a film set in Iowa and based on a novel by a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop: “If you build it, [they] will come.”) With funding from the U.S. Department of State, the university, and a range of philanthropic sources, and through bilateral agreements, the IWP has hosted over the last half century more than 1,400 writers from nearly 150 countries. Its prize-winning alumni include two Nobel laureates (Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, Mo Yan from China), best-selling writers from every continent, and major Boom figures like José Donoso, the Chilean author of The Obscene Bird of Night, as well as Post-Boom writers like Luisa Valenzuela, the Argentinian author of The Lizard’s Tail, and Gustavo Sainz, the Mexican author of The Princess of the Iron Palace.

In short, the IWP brings together writers from distant lands in the service of literature—that magical arena in which all manner of memories, impressions, and stories combine to address the complicated days and nights of characters real and imagined—and cultural diplomacy, which has been defined as the exchange of ideas and information. The result? On the one hand, poems and novels, plays and films, essays and nonfiction works, all seeking to bear witness to our walk in the sun; and on the other hand, the gift of cultural exchange, which is the capacity to entertain a larger, more nuanced understanding of the infinitely diverse peoples with whom we share this earth. These will be the themes of the International Writing Program Spotlight, which takes place at noon on Friday, November 3rd, in the Whittall Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building.

The Poetry and Literature Center hosts the International Writers Program spotlight, November 3, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.