Vivienne Plumb recalls her own private Iowa
My room was a white square with a smoke alarm on the ceiling and an extra-large bed which often had to serve as a second table, covered with copies of The New York Times, plates, library books and crackers. My view was of the river. And the ducks on the river made interesting background noises until it became too cold and they all left.
There was a strange red scrape mark halfway up the wall, next to the photo of the English country house with a topiary tree, and a small black fridge that made so much noise that I dreamt it was preventing “wonderful secrets” from entering my brain. This was my living environment for almost three months, and since we were all writers, we obsessed over our rooms and unanimously disliked our noisy black fridges.
So how did I end up in Room 220 of the Iowa House Hotel, Iowa City, Iowa, USA, watching the Country Music channel (clips of blondes wearing white leather minis walking through spiritual-looking sand dunes) and educating myself about the father of American country music, Hank Williams?
Last year I was chosen by Creative New Zealand for a three-month writing residency on the University of Iowa International Writers Programme. This is not part of the university’s more famous writing course; it is a funded writing residency for writers from outside the USA. In 2004, there were 38 of us – poets, playwrights, novelists, film-makers and journalists – from the most fantastic array of countries, including Bolivia, Egypt, Slovakia, China, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Ireland, Turkey, Israel, Rwanda, Chile, India, Nepal, Greece and Japan.
Let me describe some of the writers I met. Chen Danyan had grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Her parents were former diplomats and because of this their home had been confiscated, and her father’s books and records and her mother’s high-heel shoes had been burnt. Their bank savings had been frozen. Now she lives with her own children in Shanghai and has recently published a book of interviews with people who lived through the Cultural Revolution.
Giovanna Rivero from Santa Cruz in Bolivia was the size of a Barbie doll and could dance the salsa with flair in her ten-inch heels. In Bolivia she was famous for writing a chick-lit novel so erotic that her husband left her. Sulkhan from Tblisi, the capital of Georgia (the ex-USSR country), claimed to have produced “the first novel to be published in Georgia that was completely written in English by a Georgian”. The novel was about a man who left Georgia for Frankfurt with a large amount of money sewn (by his elderly mother) into the crotch of his underpants in order to purchase his dream car, a baby-blue Mercedes, which he would then drive back to Tblisi.
Sulkhan was obsessed with English and the English-speaking world and constantly asked me difficult questions about English words. He described his fellow countrymen and women as “thieving and corrupt” and at most times he wore a cap with a logo on it which read “Get ahead with SAP”. Eventually I asked him what SAP meant. He replied that it stood for “SAP juice”, and then asked, “Are you laughing at me?” Sulkhan suffered from several grades of the paranoias, but then Tblisi sounded as if it could be a paranoid kind of place to live.
Samson Oke Akombi from Cameroon was very cold while we were in Iowa. He had borrowed his wife’s fur-lined and fur-collared coat to wear during the cold weather, and looked like a dapper character from an Edward Gorey cartoon, striding across the campus in this furry piece of clothing. His wife must have been large, maybe even bigger than Sami. She often rang him from Cameroon, urging him to “wear your socks, Sami, wear your socks”. Sami had been writing a column for the Cameroon newspaper about an educated young man who goes back to his village roots. This had been very popular, and he was now trying to put the series together to make a book.
The backdrop to our literary community was the University of Iowa campus and Iowa City. Iowa is regional America, agricultural heartland with a heart made of corn and soya beans. Des Moines is the capital, but Iowa City is the cultural centre, a university town surrounded by a rural farming community that includes an Amish settlement.
Here’s an extract from my diary which gives some impression of the immediate locale:
It is the first cold weather in Iowa City since we arrived and the big brittle leaves make a sound like tiny bones rattling in a box as they skidder and skudder across the footpath and the street. A shiver goes all the way up my vertebrae. Adam and I have walked in the early morning for more cigs and beer to Kum and Go, a twenty-four hour convenience store. We see rabbits under the moonlight, ricocheting out of the grass, their hearts beating bumpety, bumpety.
Inside Kum and Go it is really freezing because of the aircon and there’s some quasi Dixie blues muzak playing in the shop, that I suppose is designed to make you want to strut right up to the counter and slap those greenbacks down. I had been busy describing churches of Iowa City to Adam. There are seven pages of them in the Iowa City phone book, and they range from the Gospel Explosion Ministry to the African Methodist Episcopal, the Iowa City Zen Centre to the Vineyard Community Church of Iowa – “strong coffee, rock ‘n’ roll and Jesus”. The Amish aren’t listed as they do not have phones.
The campus itself is reminiscent of a set for one of those all-American university movies, with fraternity and sorority houses, muscle guys in “IOWA” windcheaters and blondes with “IOWA” tattooed across their campus-clothing butts. So the experience is a total immersion into the food, culture and social behaviour of Iowa.
The assembled writers came from many different cultures and ethnic and religious groups. There were Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, among others. The Irish writer and I were the only participants with English as our first language, and occasionally I felt so surrounded by different languages that I forgot I was in America. But the experience of being among a community of that many writers was enormous. At first when we ventured out together, I felt I was part of a 38-headed monster, but as we came to know each other better (a task that with writers generally involves alcohol and continuous late nights), great bonds were formed, friendships that bridged the gaps from one culture to another.
Adam Wiedemann, the man with whom I went to Kum and Go, was a Polish poet from Krakow. He and I became great friends. We often wrote in our rooms in the mornings and spent the afternoons together roaming the second-hand bookshops and record shops for Gertrude Stein books (for Adam) and Hank Williams CDs (for me). In Chicago, where we read at the Humanities Festival, Adam took me to see a stage adaptation of Ferdyduke, a Witold Gombrowicz novel, and we visited the Polish village and Polish friends of his who lived in the area. The outcome of this Polish/New Zealand literary friendship is that Adam has been translating poems from Nefarious, my latest book, into Polish. I plan to visit him in Poland and have been learning the Polish language. I will give some readings there, and we plan to finish writing the play we began while we were together in Iowa.
These friendships are, I think, integral to the Iowa experience. Back in New Zealand, I am aware once again of how far away we are physically from the rest of the world. To live with and get to know writers from such entirely different literary backgrounds was wonderfully exhilarating and stimulating.