Iowa City Book Festival floods area


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Each day, hundreds of people stroll the streets of downtown with their heads up. Some may be taking in the scenery, some may be searching for a place to have lunch. Their eyes dart up and around as they walk down Iowa Avenue, but very few ever think to look down. Beneath their feet lie quotes and passages engraved in bronze, symbolizing Iowa City’s roots, love, and appreciation for literature.

Beginning this afternoon, the UNESCO City of Literature will host the sixth-annual Iowa City Book Festival in downtown. The University of Iowa Main Library passed off the task in 2013.

Iowa City was designated as the third (there are now seven) UNESCO City of Literature in 2008 (with Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia), and it remains the only City of Literature in the United States. Iowa City is also a part of UNESCO’s Creative City Network, which features cities of music, design, film, and gastronomy.

John Kenyon, the executive director of the local City of Literature program, said there is a long list of criteria to fulfill in order to become a city of literature, and Iowa City was more than qualified.

“It includes having excellent writing-education programs, festival programming, and other public events, great bookstores and libraries, and more,” he said. “Being a city in which literature is an important thread pulling together the tapestry of the community, as we do here in Iowa City, also is crucial.”

Though Kenyon remains in the vanguard of organization for the festival, many community members and volunteers contributed in order to help coordinate more than 50 events to celebrate books, reading, and writing in the City of Literature.

“… It takes a lot of planning to figure out spaces, to work with publishers to bring writers who are going to attract audiences, and, of course, to work with all the institutions in the community and the university that care about literature,” said City of Literature board member Hugh Ferrer, also an associate director of the International Writing Program.

Though various other book festivals have begun to take shape in cities around the country, including Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Boston, the Iowa City Book Festival, Ferrer said, is unique.

“In Iowa City, there are probably more writers and readers per capita than anywhere in the country, and that’s the fundamental reason UNESCO designated us as a City of Literature — because Iowa City is special in how literary its community is,” he said.

During the four-day event, there will be readings and appearances by 35 authors, tributes to meaningful literary figures, poetry-embroidery workshops, and a comedic “roast” of Iowa City. Ferrer said the International Writing Program writers will also play a large role in the festival.

“One big advantage of having the Book Festival in the fall is that these international writers can be a part of it,” he said. “There are large series of panels in which American and international writers, together, are going to talk about topics such as sense of place in one’s writing, or loyalty and betrayal, or writing in a country of war.”

Though it can be difficult to distinguish among the events at the festival, Kenyon said, the panels and discussions are highlights of the celebration.

“The juxtaposition of backgrounds and perspectives leads to some illuminating conversations,” he said.

However, the Paul Engle Award Event is arguably the most anticipated among the staff, Ferrer said. The award was named for Engle, a longtime director of the Writers’ Workshop and a cofounder, with Hualing Nieh Engle, of the International Writing Program. He passed away in 1991.

Ferrer said Engle helped to build the institutions that have made this town a City of Literature. This is the third year that the City of Literature will present an author with a $10,000 prize.

“The Mexican-American poet, novelist, and essayist Luís Urrea is this year’s recipient, and he’s tremendously deserving of this honor,” Ferrer said. “The award recognizes an established writer who uses her or his position as a writer to actively participate in the larger of the issues, to better the world through community action, or through activism, or through institution building.”

The festival will also feature other prominent authors, including Pulitzer-Prize-winner and Writers’ Workshop alumna Jane Smiley, who said she remembers her years at the UI fondly.

“I had a wonderful time … [being in] the Writers’ Workshop allows you to focus on becoming a writer,” she said.

Agreeing with the purpose of the Book Festival, she believes learning about literature is an essential part of life for all, regardless of one’s particular discipline.       

“Literature develops your inner life and your sense of agency,” Smiley said.

Iowa Book Festival
When: Oct. 2 - 5
Where: Downtown Iowa City
Admission: Free

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