“There is a moment I cherish,” said Venezuelan poet Natasha Tiniacos, reflecting on her 2014 residency at the International Writing Program in Iowa as it drew to a close.
It was at the beginning of the program. The 29 international writers were just starting to socialize. Most of them had gathered in the common room of their hotel. The writer from Greece sang while the writer from Afghanistan danced with the Israeli. The Syrian was talking to the Iraqi and South Korean writers while others read poems to each other in their mother tongues or shared photographs of their families.
“I saw in that very moment that there were no conflicts in my version of the world,” said Tiniacos. Her poetry echoes the beauty she finds in transient moments:
No fact is insignificant,
we have stepped on gas of the instant
holding on to fugitive time
In its 47th year, the writers program attracted a convivial group for its annual three-month stay. Each year, the people and the feel of the program change. “This is kind of `The Real World’ long before MTV was even dreamed of,” said its director, Chris Merrill, referring to a popular reality show on a U.S. television channel.
The residents range from age 26 to 60 and all are published authors in their home countries. They spend the three-month residency however they choose — researching, writing, thinking or exploring — while sharing a dwelling on the University of Iowa campus. (All of them shared an enemy in nearby construction noises.)
“Doing common life things with people from everywhere in the world is very interesting,” said Franca Treur, whose bestselling novel in the Netherlands, “Confetti on the Threshing Floor,” was recently adapted into a feature film. “As a writer, the details had my attention,” she said. Eating together. Doing laundry. Even watching some people use a coffee machine for the first time.
“It was a local and a global experience at the same time,” she said, “grounded in a small town in the Midwest, which gives an idea about ‘real American life,’ but shared with people from everywhere.”
There were late-night conversations about books, music and politics, and personal accounts of racism and depression. Some of the writers had never made friends with someone of the opposite sex before or met someone who is openly gay.
Friendships formed quickly among people sharing a mother tongue. But eventually, camaraderie, even some romance, played out in English among speakers of many languages.
For Treur, Tiniacos and the other writers, much of what they saw and felt will be fodder for future projects — not just in the details of a small, Midwestern American town, but in the types of characters they might draw of people from all over the world.
“We erased the frontiers between our cultures,” said Tiniacos. “I don’t think I’m going back to my country the same person.”