International Writing Program Turns 50

Sep 20, 2017

The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa is one of the university's signature programs, attracting notable authors from across the world and establishing both the university and Iowa City as paramount to the future of American literature. 

Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 countries have come to Iowa. International Writing Program director Christopher Merrill explains how the program came about.

"It grew out of the Writers' Workshop. Paul and Hualing Engle decided that they wanted to create a workshop for international writers. Paul thought it was the craziest idea he ever heard, but here we are 50 years later, having hosted over 1,400 writers from nearly 150 countries, including two Nobel Laureates," Merrill says. "We took that Iowa model, a place where here in the middle of the Midwest, writers would come here to expand their aesthetic horizons, and we took it worldwide."

In these River to River segments, Ben Kieffer talks with several of the 35 writers from 34 countries in Iowa City for a 12-week writers’ residency.

Maung Day (poet, artist, translator; Myanmar) has published six poetry books in Burmese and one in English. His poetry has appeared in International Poetry Review, Guernica, The Wolf, The Awl and elsewhere. He translates widely between English and Burmese; his visual work and poetry are exhibited and curated internationally. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Santiago Giralt (playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, fiction writer; Argentina) writes plays, screenplays, and novels, and directs films. In 2017, he was awarded the National Arts Fund Bi-Centennial Grant in Literature. His first novel, [Nelly R, the General’s Lover], was shortlisted for the 2008 Planeta International Prize; La mala memoria came out in 2015; Disparo is forthcoming. He has written and directed over a dozen films, and participated in many international film festivals. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah (fiction writer, poet, playwright, translator; Italy) is a Somali-Italian novelist, performer, teacher and social activist. Her two novels, Madre piccola [Little Mother, Indiana UP 2011] and Il Comandante del fiume [The Commander of the River] tell stories of the Somali civil war and its refugees in Italy. In 2006, she was awarded the Lingua Madre National Literary Prize, and in 2008, the Vittorini Prize. She has a PhD in African Studies from the University of Naples; currently she lives in Brussels. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Panashe Chigumadzi novelist, essayist; South Africa/Zimbabwe) is the author of the novel Sweet Medicine, which won the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times,The Guardian, Die Zeit, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Vanguard Magazine, a platform for black women in post-apartheid South Africa, she curated, in 2016, Soweto’s Abantu Book Festival for black readers and writers. Beautiful Hair for a Landless People is her forthcoming book of essays. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Matjaž Pikalo (poet, screenwriter, musician, multimedia artist; Slovenia) has five books of poetry and many works for children. Luža [Puddle] won the 2002 Večernica Award for Best Book for Young Readers, and was honored by the IBBY Congress in Cape Town; in 2004 the children’s book Think Good and Wise won him Italy’s Arte Senza Confine award. The Second Ivan’s Death, a documentary about Slovenia’s key writer Ivan Cankar, based on his screenplay, is in production. He plays with the band Autodafé, and on an artist soccer team. His participation is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Ljubljana and the University of Iowa.

Dilman Dila (fiction writer, filmmaker; Uganda) is the author of three volumes, The Flying Man of Stone, A Killing in the Sun and Cranes Crest at Sunset, shortlisted for the 2016 Gerald Kraak Award and the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His The Felistas Fable was the Film of the Year at the 2014 Uganda Film Festival; What Happened in Room 13 has had six million views on YouTube; he regularly produces science fiction films for his YouTube channel. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Lava Omer Darwesh لاڤە عمر دەروێش (poet, translator; Iraq) graduated from the American University of Iraq with degrees in Business and English Literature. In her native city of Sulaimani she started a Freedom Writers Club and a Book Lovers Club; her poems have appeared in the anthology Lanterns of Hope, and she translates poetry and prose from English into Kurdish. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.