Young Iowan, Chinese writers connect through literature

BY LU SHEN | JULY 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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A group of young writers traveled to China recently to discuss literature with their international counterparts.

"Our goal really is to help Americans know more about international literature and help international writers know more about America," said Nate Brown, the publicity coordinator at International Writing Program. "It's really as simple as that."

Brown led four young American writers to Beijing and Shanghai to meet with four young Chinese writers from June 27 through July 7 to talk about literature from different perspectives.

ŒƒªØÃΩ—∞ (Life of Discovery) is the name of the exchange program, which the IWP hosts, that aims to bring together writers and from the United States and from China, allowing them to talk about literature face to face.

This fall, the same four Chinese writers will be brought to the States to continue discussing literature.

'We are more similar than different'

Brown told The Daily Iowan person-to-person dialogue and person-to-person exchange is much more intimate, and there therefore usually more productive or engaging than other ways of engaging with writers.

"We don't know what will come out of this exchange," said Brown, a writer himself. "But we do know that it's inherent and important that we put artists in United States in touch with the artists in China."

Brown said he feels it is important is because both countries are incredibly large, and they play major roles on the global stage, while it sometime is easy to forget that at the most personal level, people are similar no matter they come from.

"That's really easy to lose sight of when you're over here, China is news of trade agreements or of sending people to space. Those are the big national stories," he said. "But the smaller and more intimate things might get lost the fact that people in China struggle with exactly the same artistic challenges that we face, which is how do you tell the story of contemporary China, how do you write a compelling or interesting story about a family living in Shanghai?"

He said American writers can have similar difficulties.

"Dan O'Brien faces the exact same challenges when he's trying to write about a family living in Los Angles," Brown said. "And it's really interesting that despite the difference in culture, the difference in languages, the difference in our countries' histories, that the individual challenges faced by the writers when they are sitting down to write on the page are exactly the same."

Dora Malech, Iowa City poet, artist, and teacher, said she feels the same way.

"So much of the media's coverage of relations between the US and China focuses on sweeping political and economic issues," she wrote in an email. "So taking the conversation between our countries to a more intimate, personal, specific level felt really refreshing."

Brown said the discussion held between American writers and Chinese writers draws them closer together.

"Well, we are more similar than different," he said. "That sounds like a cliché. But actually being there, realizing it, was hugely important for me. And it makes the world feel at once smaller, and more intimate, and more deeply complicated than we previously assumed."

'Iowa City has been long tied with Chinese literature'

Hualing Nieh Engle, who wrote I'm a tree, with roots in China, the trunk in Taiwan, and the leaves in Iowa in her memoir and cofounded the IWP with her late husband Paul Engel, came to the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1964. She has spent almost half a century living, writing, and working with the IWP.

Nieh told the DI the idea of IWP was brought up on a boat in 1966.

"One day when we were on a boat," she said, translated from Chinese. "I told Paul that the Writers' Workshop was such a success, and we foreign writers had learned so much there. But writers from different countries have different literary pursuits. Why don't you start a program for foreign writers?"

After Engle asked if she was crazy, she simply said, "Sometimes."

It was this "crazy" idea that set the tone for IWP. Once the program was founded, the two began raising grants for inviting foreign writers over. They could only afford 12 writers the first year.

There were writers coming from Taiwan and Hong Kong, but no one was from mainland China — until 1979. After America and China resumed diplomatic relations, the IWP invited Xiao Qian, the first writer from mainland China, to Iowa City.

"It was also the first time writers from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong could get together," Nieh said.

Iowa City has been long tied with Chinese literature, Nieh said.

"Yu Kuang-chung was the first Chinese writer to attend the Writers' Workshop," she said. "We didn't know about the Writers' Workshop until he came back to Taiwan after getting his M.F.A. here. The IWP had not been founded then. The major Taiwanese writers have been studying at the Writers' Workshop in the '60s, like Pai Hsien-yung and Wang Wen-hsing."

Nieh, who has written more than 20 books, said her main focus while serving as codirector at IWP was selecting talented and established Chinese writers from the Chinese-speaking world and raising money for their visits.

Approximately 100 writers from the Chinese-speaking world have attended the program as fall residents over the last 45 years, most of whom are major figures in modern and contemporary Chinese Literature.

"I've been reading new books published in the Chinese-speaking world and have been paying close attention to Chinese writers," Nieh said. "So I know for sure who is qualified to come here."

After retiring in 1988, Nieh has stayed connected to the program by serving as a member of the IWP Advisory Board.

"She is very much aware of Life of Discovery," Brown said. "She's someone who we constantly look to for advice and for suggestions."

"Life of Discovery is a great exchange program," Nieh said. "Through the 10-day trip, the American writers might be have to have a glimpse of what China is like. "

Nieh was recently told by UI Foundation that an anonymous person donated $500,000 to establish Hualing Engle Endowment for any program or programs as she decides.

"Of course, I'll spend the money on IWP," she said. "I'm planning to invite a Chinese writer over every year with the annual interest. Starting next year, we could have the best Chinese writers over without raising funds."

Literature is a study of human life, Nieh said.

"IWP brings a diversity of cultures from every corner of the world to Iowa City," she said. "Moreover, people from all over get chances to meet and communicate one another. Because I write fiction, I'm always interested in people. "

Nieh said writers must have something in common, so that they could be able to communicate no matter how huge the language barrier is.

"So IWP is a net that connecting people and cultures," she said. "It's not linear."

'It takes major economic change to induce that kind of interest'

Brown — who thinks Americans don't really know about China's whole body of literature — said he believes he has a more personal connection to Chinese literature now even though there's still not a huge or intimate translation relationship between two countries.

Our countries do feel politically certain anxieties about one another, because their relationship is deeply complicated politically, Brown said.

"It made me think of the United States' relationship to Japan in the mid-70s," he said. "There was a lot of tension between Japan and the United States, where the American people were deeply skeptical of the Japanese and their growing economy. But after even just 15 or 20 years, that relationship through diplomatic efforts and through economic efforts grew closer. "

Brown said in the next 15 to 20 years, American writers will know a lot more about Chinese writers, and people's interest in Chinese literature will grow as China's role on the global stage grows.

"As China has become more important on the global economic stage, I think it's also true that we'll take a deeper interest in what it means to be a Chinese writer, what it means to live in China," he said. "And I think American readers will be more interested in what life is like in China because of that, which it may be silly, but it takes major economic change to induce that kind of interest. But I'm glad the interest is there."

'I'm more curious about China now than I was before'

For the first three days of the trip in Beijing, American writers got a sense of some of the important historic sites — the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

Brown said he was impressed by China's long, rich, and deeply complicated dynastic history.

"I think it's difficult for an American to really wrap their mind around that sense of history. It's just so long," he said. "And when you are standing next to a building that's 600 years old, that's mind-boggling. That's more than double the entire history in terms of the length of your own country's history. "

And when the group traveled down to Shanghai, the modernness and the diversity of the city shocked them.

"Shanghai, it's just skyscraper after skyscraper, and intermeshed with those beautiful historic buildings. It's mind blowing; it's beautiful," Brown said. "And you get a sense of that when you were there of how busy [the city] is."

Brown, most of whose questions were about writing, literature and publishing before going to China, said after going there, his questions were "all over the place".

"I'm more curious about China now than I was before," he said. "Because going there brings up more questions than you can possibly answer in one trip."

Malech said the exposure to Chinese history through visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Shanghai Museum, and so forth, was valuable to her as both an artist and an individual.

I felt like I gained the most from the informal conversations she had with individual Chinese writers as they toured sights, ate traditional Chinese foods, and had some "down time" together, she said.

"Learning Chinese expressions, both contemporary slang and tradition proverbs, was fascinating, as was learning about the differences and similarities in symbols between our cultures," Malech said.

Malech said it was great joking around with the Chinese writers once they got to know each other.

"It felt like we had overcome the initial formality and gravity of the situation and were building lasting friendships and connections on a human scale," she said.

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