Saturday, October 16, 2010
5:11 AM |
Carving Out Time and Space in the Midwest
People have asked me a lot, “Why are you in Iowa? What are you doing there? Isn’t Iowa just one huge field of corn?” And sometimes people back home don’t even bother to listen, and attempt hello with “So how’s Ohio?”Iowa, not Ohio. They’re two different states
, I want to correct them. Most of the time, I don’t even bother. I suspect sometimes that most Filipinos find it easier to pronounce or remember Ow-hay-yow than the airy two-syllable conundrum of Ay-wah.
So yes, there’s a lot of corn here. Red barns and silos, too. The whole shebang. When I arrived here in late August, someone native made a jokey reference to the whole area—from Des Moines to Denver—as “fly-over country.” Which meant that this was Nowhere Land for most people in Continental United States, so much so that commercial airliners just “fly over” it.
But what’s in Iowa City? The Filipino writer Edilberto Tiempo asked the same bewildered question when he was sent as a Fulbright scholar in the 1930s to America, and was promptly instructed to get to this heart of the Midwest, four hours west of Chicago. In explanation, he was told something that remains true until today. In Iowa City, you have the best and most influential creative writing workshop in the world. In Iowa City, the world of literature converges to make it the hometown of writers from all over—and that if you are a writer of some note, you must make at least one pilgrimage to Iowa City. In 2008, UNESCO solidified Iowa City’s reputation as a literary capital by designating it a City of Literature, alongside Edinburgh in Scotland, Melbourne in Australia, and now Dublin in Ireland.
The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, remains the finest program for creative writing there is, made world-renowned by the poet Paul Engle. (Today, its director is the writer Samantha Chang.) The Workshop has also set the template for how creative writing workshops the world over are structured and ran. In 1961, returning to the Philippines after their graduate stint in Iowa, Dr. Tiempo and his wife the National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo set up what is now known as the Silliman University National Writers Workshop, patterned of course on the one in cornfield country. In its early years, Mr. Engle visited the workshop in Dumaguete—and then invited the Filipino fictionist Wilfrido Nolledo and the Korean poet Ko Won, both fellows at the Silliman workshop, to come back with him to Iowa City. Both writers formed the core that would soon become the International Writing Program, a residency founded in 1967 aimed at bringing international writers to the Iowa campus where they could participate in the community’s literary life and devote three months to their own writing projects. (Today, the IWP director is the poet Christopher Merrill.) I am part of that program this year, together with Ateneo poet Edgar Calabia Samar. It is a privilege that has included such Filipino writers as Susan Lara, Charlson Ong, Marjorie Evasco, Rofel Brion, Sarge Lacuesta, Teng Mangansakan, and Vicente Garcia Groyon III. The IWP’s grandest alumnus so far, among so many luminaries, is the Nobel Prize winner for literature from Turkey Orhan Pamuk.
And so, when people ask me what I am doing in Iowa, I just tell them that as a writer, I am merely going back to the mothership.
Iowa City is easy to get used to, at least for me. Not once did it make me feel homesick, and every single day since my arrival has since become an exercise in trepidation of not wanting to go “home,” because this city already feels so much like home. You see, Iowa City has the same feel as my hometown of Dumaguete City—both are university towns, both are small but sophisticated, both are culturally active in ways that compete with cities bigger than them. In Dumaguete City, we wear porontongs
and white shirts like a uniform. In Iowa City, the girls wear daisy dukes and the guys wear flannel and jersey shorts.
“It is my blonde Dumaguete,” the writer Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas—who is both Dumagueteña and Iowan, and so she knows what she is talking about—once said. I agree with her.
The only thing different here is the weather. One day many weeks ago, for example, they said it was the last day of summer in Iowa City. I had supposed they were right about that—but to me they have completely different conception of sun and summer here. The slightest instance of blue and the tenderest warmth here is considered summertime. Once, on a walk across campus on a slightly cloudy, slightly chilly afternoon, I chanced upon a pasty-white college boy who had taken the liberty of taking off his shirt to lie on the grass in front of the Old Senate with its shining golden dome. He was sunbathing. I looked up and there were indeed slivers of sunshine peering from behind the clouds. I found it amusing—the way they may find it amusing that I get so cold at 15ºC. It’s a coat for me at that drop of temperature. “You only need a sweater, or a cardigan!” I can hear them thinking. But my body knows only the vocabulary of humidity—not this dry, crisp chill in the air. Not the shivers that come with the wind.
In my three weeks in the Midwest—a span of time that had been spent in an endless cycle of all sorts of acquaintance and adaptation—my body was particularly slow in its attempt to settle down with this change of climate and circadian rhythm, to the point that I had actually taken to bed, sick with both jet lag and coughing. But I took it as an ironic announcement by my biology that I was—am
—alive, that I am responding to strange, but ultimately sweet, stimuli. I knew I was flying into an adventure, and I was determined to wring out the best that I could from it before I would fly back into the familiar humidity of back home.
Still, I must admit that settling down in a new place also requires a certain kind of diligence to get out of an instant habit of cocooning. It is entirely understandable and entirely human, of course, this instinct to carve out a space of warmth and the relatively familiar amidst strangeness. A new place, after all, assaults you with volleys of newness—and the details are sharp: people talk differently here; they do things differently here; they move differently here. The smells and the sounds are new; the texture of things are different; the vistas may be familiar from the movies you have seen, but they suddenly come barging at you with the intimidating shock of proximity. This new place is suddenly your context, your present—and you have not prepared well for that change. Your only resort is to slip out, sink in to that cocoon of your making.
In my case, the cocoon was my hotel room. It is a rectangle of generic space, the type that lends itself well as a canvass for your projections of what makes for home far away from home. There is the one grand window that overlooks the Iowa River, there is the bed with its blankets and pillows and comforter, there is the writing desk, there is the tiny refrigerator that soon gets stocked up with food the texture of which brings back a sense of home, there is the bathroom, there is the closet, there is the television. I stayed in this room for days, barely venturing out.
But when I was finally ready to do battle with all these unfamiliarity, I began to sniff out for that one inviting day that was agreeable. I ventured slowly out into the unknown world that was Iowa City, and then I began to conquer it bit by bit, each step a discovery, each decision an adventure into turning the strange into the familiar.
And so it has. Prairie Lights Bookstore. Linn, Dubuque, Clinton, and all the other streets. The Mill. Bread Garden Market. The Englert. The Java House. A Taste of China. T-spoon. Studio 13. George's. They have become home, have become part of what is familiar to me. I thought this when I ventured out of my hotel room this morning, after freshening up from a good session at the Fitness East gym: you’ve finally really settled down when you don’t even notice anymore you are surrounded by blonde and blue-eyed people everywhere you go.
Labels: iowa international writers program, life, travel
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