The following commentary by Christopher Merrill appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Co-founder of the International Writing Program, Hualing Nieh Engle, will receive the 2012 International Impact Award as part of the broadcast of the WorldCanvass program “IWP: Writing the Stories of the World.”
Toward the end of “One Tree Three Lives” — a documentary on the life and work of Hualing Engle, the Chinese novelist and co-founder of the International Writing Program — there is a shot of her dining room table where, she reports, more than 600 writers have come to eat during her time in Iowa City.
It is a telling moment: hospitality is a recurring theme of Angie Chen’s film, which had its U.S. premiere on Sunday at the Landlocked Film Festival. And Engle’s spirit of generosity is what will be celebrated at 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, when the UI’s International Programs awards her its International Impact Award for her contributions to global understanding.
Engle’s lifelong quest to connect with others, on the page and in person, has not only enriched world literature but promoted peace: one reason why she and her late husband, Paul Engle, were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
Engle was born in 1925 in Hubei, China, raised in the shadows of the Sino-Japanese and Chinese civil wars, and suffered a grievous loss when in 1936 her father, an official of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, was executed.
After the Communist takeover, she moved with her family to Taiwan, where she came into her own as a fiction writer, a literary editor, and the first teacher of creative writing courses in Chinese. She published a novel and several short story collections; translated Henry James and William Faulkner into Chinese; endured the hardships of a darkening political climate — surveillance, censorship.
Then she met Paul Engle, the charismatic director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who was traveling in Asia on a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He invited her to attend the workshop, and the rest is history.
She arrived in Iowa City in 1964, and after completing her degree she suggested to Paul, who had just retired, that they start a program for international writers — “a crazy idea,” he said, which they nevertheless proceeded to build from scratch.
They co-directed this one-of-a-kind program for its first 10 years, founding along the way the MFA Program in Translation; after Paul’s second retirement, Hualing continued as its director until she stepped down in 1988.
In fact neither Hualing nor Paul ever stopped inviting writers from around the world to Iowa City to hone their craft, exchange ideas and create cross-cultural friendships. In 1979, they hosted the first encounter between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese writers and intellectuals, after three decades of mutual isolation, and throughout the 1980s they brought together Chinese writers from everywhere.
Even after Paul’s death at O’Hare airport in 1991 (they were en route to Poland to receive an award from the government of Lech Walesa) she kept reaching out. Indeed she has remained instrumental in recruiting new generations of Chinese writers to the IWP.
Somehow Engle finds time to carry on an extensive correspondence with writers world-wide who have remained personal friends, UI supporters and enduring admirers of Iowa.
In short, the gracious hostess, who happens to be an important novelist, editor, critic and translator, who has traveled throughout Asia and Europe, lectured at universities in the United States and China, and published more than two dozen books, including “Two Women of China: Mulberry and Peach,” the winner of the 1991 American Book Award, and a recent memoir, “Three Lives,” which chronicles her experiences in China, Taiwan and Iowa.
Engle has received a host of awards for her efforts on behalf of Chinese literature; in 2009 she was granted a lifetime achievement medal from the President of Taiwan. What writers prize above all is her dedication to the noblest literary ideals, which begin with one word connecting to another, one reader at a time.
Christopher Merrill is the director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program.