The University of Iowa

The world writes back

August 26th, 2016
fountain pen

By Tessa Solomon, The Daily Iowan

Thirty-five writers from 30 countries now call Iowa City home (temporarily) after being selected to be members of the International Writing Program’s 2016 fall residency.

Three rising South American writers, Mariano Tenconi Blanco (Argentina), Carlos Patiño Pereda (Venezuela), and Ruel Johnson (Guyana) will usher in the semester with a reading at 5 p.m. today in the Shambaugh House.

The readings — a play and two fiction excerpts — illustrate the diversity of content and form especially pervasive this fall.

“We’ve really noticed this year that writers don’t seem to be coming to us from working in a singular genre,” fall residency coordinator Kathleen Paltrineri said. “What can happen in the United States with M.F.A. programs is a singular genre focus, but that’s not something we’re finding with the International Writers Program.”

Comics, playwrights, and poets will intermingle in the literary and cultural exchange.

“It’s going to be a very interesting reading because we are from South America, but the writing is not all similar,” Johnson said. “We are reading plays and fiction, but you can see some similar lines — politics, relationships, Borges.”

Jorge Luis Borges, the 20th-century Argentine fiction writer, essayist, and poet, is frequently mentioned while the writers discussed their options for Friday’s reading. Borges’ more fantastical themes — dreams, labyrinths, philosophy — are more apparent in Pereda’s H.P. Lovecraft-inspired short story about a lawyer, a Necronomicon page, and a world inside mirrors.

His influence is more subtle in Johnson’s and Blanco’s pieces — a politically charged fiction excerpt and experimental play chronicling a feminist narrative of friendship — but Blanco promises “Borges will be in this house of writing.”

Which other writers, both present and deceased, will prove influential during this residency remains to be seen. One thing evident, even now though, is the overarching sense of community that the program enables.

“Writing is lonely work; you just sit in front of the computer,” Pereda said. “Being here, talking with other writers, it’s like magic.”

Pereda related with excitement an intense comparison of writing processes — by IWP members from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia — held in an Iowa City bank.

“The challenge is transcending the space we’ve been selected from,” Johnson said. “How can we interact with each other and come up with writing that is not blindly cohesive or raises differences?”

As an example, he pointed out that Pereda’s native Venezuela and Guyana are technically in conflict over border issues.

Pereda said, though, “We make peace here.”

“What makes this residency critically important is that we leave America on Nov. 8, when America makes a critical decision on its own future,” Johnson said. “One of the things I hope comes out of [the residency] is various modes of writing capturing the snapshot of what America is from a global context.”

The timing of the residency offers an opportunity for the writers, many of whom are fierce political activists in their countries.

“We are involved in this election because we are here,” Blanco said . “Maybe it could be great for the Americans to listen to what is important to us or what things we expect them to decide, because we might end up suffering more than the Americans.”

It is a sensitive, but exciting, position for the residents as they navigate their temporary home.

“I think that every travel changes you,” Pereda said. “It’s not only that we are here, but our life seems on stop in our countries. But as a river flows, the life will be flowing there.”

With a slap on Pereda’s knee, Blanco interjected, “Or maybe not. Maybe like in a Borges story, there is your double sleeping with your wife in Caracas.”

Pereda laughed and was swift to build on Blanco’s imagination.

“And then I will have to fight the other. I kill him, but it was me from the mirror. See,” Pereda said. “We’re already writing something together.”