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Iowa City’s world-class wrestling, writing and the politics in between

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Iowa City’s reputation for good literature and wrestling has an international reach. — illustration by Marcus Parker

It’s not surprising that Iowa City is hosting an international literary conference and an international wrestling championship in the same week. After all, Iowa City has been a literary center for 70 years, and Iowa has been a leader in wrestling since the days of disorganized catch-as-catch-can matches in the 19th century. What is surprising is which of these events is embroiled in international controversy.

Normally, bringing together representatives from the 28 UNESCO Cities of Literature might seem likely to produce political sparks — especially with Donald Trump in the White House — but it’s the United World Wrestling (UWW) Freestyle World Cup that’s been the focus of international controversy.

That’s not to say the UNESCO Cities of Literature meeting is completely free of political considerations. There is a Trump-shaped cloud hanging over the conference.

In October, President Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization). According to Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Executive Director John Kenyon, that decision hasn’t affected Iowa City’s status yet, and hopefully won’t. But that isn’t clear, even though the other Cities of Literature have been supportive.

“My phone rang off the hook, my email was jammed, my text messages were pinging every few seconds that day [when the withdrawal was announced],” Kenyon said. “Not only from people internationally, but also from a lot of local people, who were concerned.”

The Iowa City meeting had already been scheduled before the withdrawal announcement in October — Iowa City was selected as the host, in part, to mark its 10th anniversary as a UNESCO City of Literature — but Kenyon said the Trump administration move was the cherry on top.

“It certainly gave us additional motivation that we wanted to show to everyone that there is a strong connection between Iowa City and UNESCO and the rest of the world, regardless of what is coming out of Washington,” Kenyon said.

But the concerns shadowing the meeting of representatives from the 28 cities pale compared to what has been happening with the Freestyle World Cup.

First, Iran, the defending team champion, dropped out. Iran has been a target of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the Trump administration as well as new visa restriction on its citizens seeking to enter the U.S., but according to Iran’s official news agency, the team dropped out due to a “scheduling conflict.” UWW, the governing body for international amateur and Olympic wrestling competitions, has not publicly commented on Iran’s withdrawal beyond announcing India had been invited to fill the tournament’s empty slot.

Then nine days before the first match on April 7, Russia announced it might not be sending its national team. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed the U.S. was deliberately making it difficult for its team to get visas in retaliation for Russia ordering the expulsion of 60 American diplomats. That order came in response to the U.S. ordering the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats in response to Russian involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom.

USA Wrestling, UWW’s national affiliate, asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to look into the visa problem. Two days after the Russian complaint, USA Wrestling announced Russia had been dropped from the tournament’s roster.

In its announcement, USA Wrestling quoted from a statement it received from Grassley’s office: “Due to the staffing reduction forced on the U.S. Mission in Russia by the Russian Federation, there is very limited appointment availability for visa interviews at this time. In the current situation, the Embassy is not able to provide expedited appointments for sporting events.”

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UWW invited Mongolia to take Russia’s place.

The visa row echoes a controversy at the 2017 Freestyle World Cup. Then it was the American team having visa difficulty.

The 2017 championship was held in Iran, just weeks after President Trump imposed his first travel ban, preventing people from seven predominantly Muslim countries — including Iran — from entering the United States.

The Iranian government relented, and the Americans were able to participate (the team finished in second place). The Americans reported having a great time in Iran (“This was the best tournament I have ever participated in, even better than the Olympics in Rio,” a member of the team told The New York Times) and were impressed by how enthusiastic and knowledgeable about international wrestling average Iranians were (“In America we are misfits. In Iran we are heroes, so it is really cool to see,” another team member told CNN).

The Americans came away from the 2017 tournament with a very different impression of Iran than the image of unsmiling mullahs and angry militants that is the mental picture of Iran for most Americans. And that was the point of letting the American team participate.

Since the 1990s, Iran has made sports a focus of outreach to countries with which it wants to improve relations.

“Sport is a gigantic and powerful medium for the international spread of information, reputations and relationships that are the essence of public diplomacy,” said Barry Sanders, author of American Avatar: The United States in the Global Imagination. Public diplomacy isn’t aimed at negotiating treaties or trade deals, it tries to create a positive image of a country.

Wrestling is an obvious choice for Iranian public diplomacy. It’s considered the national sport. There’s a long tradition of Iran producing great wrestlers, and its citizens really do follow international wrestling with an enthusiasm seldom seen in the U.S.

“For a smaller country like Iran, it does make sense to use sports as a form of public diplomacy,” Sanders said. “But for America any public image produced event like the [Freestyle World Cup] wouldn’t have much impact in other countries.”

That’s because people around the world already have a clear image of America in their heads, as Sanders pointed out. Some of those images are almost utopian, many aren’t.

“The general attitude about America, going back to the earliest days of the country, would be that we’re a place where ignorance is plentiful, that we are not a place you look to for literature,” Sanders said.

That makes Iowa City, with its a long-established international literary reputation, something of an anomaly.

“I tell people we were a city of literature before UNESCO gave us that designation,” Kenyon said. That reputation, of course, is based on it being the home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“Before I came to Iowa City to teach in 1965 and ’66, I could name only three things I knew for sure about [Iowa]: Corn, pigs and the Writers’ Workshop,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 1991 following the death Paul Engle, the director of the workshop when it gained international prominence.

Founded at the University of Iowa in 1936, it was the first creative writing degree program in the U.S. In 1941, Engle, a poet and native of Cedar Rapids, became its second director.

Paul Engle (right) and his wife Hualing Nieh Engle (a Chinese novelist and poet) with international writers. — photo by Frederick Wallace, courtesy of the Iowa Digital Library

Much has been written about Engle’s relationships with some of the great writers who were students or instructors at the workshop (Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Vonnegut — to name three from a very long list), but less attention has been paid to the practical realities of administering and funding it.

In Workshops of Empire, a 2015 book on the creative programs at Stanford University and UI during the Cold War, Eric Bennett documents how Engle persuaded philanthropic foundations and even the U.S. government to support the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by presenting it as a way of refuting the commonly held image of the Midwest as a cultural and intellectual wasteland.

A 1959 sales pitch to Iowa business executives made by Engle when he was trying to raise money to bring international students to the workshop was typical of his approach.

“The young writer is not merely a student,” he wrote. “Far more than any other person of talent, he creates the image by which a country sees itself, and the image by which other countries also see it.” Engle went on to add, “It is important that these most articulate of all their generation should write and study far from both coasts, where foreign students tend to congregate. Here [in Iowa] they learn the essential America.”

In his book, Bennett includes the response of Henry Hall, president of Iowa Manufacturing Company in Cedar Rapids (then the city’s largest employer), to this pitch. Hall was enthusiastic and liked the idea of international writing students becoming what he called, “cultural missionaries, taking the name of Iowa around the Free World.”

Engle’s approach to fundraising was very much in step with American public diplomacy during the Cold War. Demonstrating the country’s cultural and intellectual vibrancy was considered a priority, especially during the 1950s and ’60s.

“This is the period in which the CIA was secretly funding the Paris Review, Partisan Review and other literary efforts in a very aggressive secret effort to change the international image of America being a country without literary accomplishments,” Sanders noted.

Bennett was only able to find one example of CIA money going to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 1967, the Farfield Foundation, a front organization the CIA used to fund cultural activities, donated $7,000 to the workshop (the equivalent of $53,000 today).

Whatever the CIA officers hoped to accomplish with that donation, they certainly couldn’t have expected to have any influence over the workshop at that point. A year earlier, the poet George Starbuck succeeded Engle as director. Starbuck, described by a former workshop student as “one of the nation’s most articulate critics of the military/industrial complex,” was arrested at a protest against the Vietnam War at the Iowa Memorial Union the same year the CIA made its contribution. More importantly, Starbuck was one of six State University of New York faculty members to sue after being fired in 1963 for refusing to take a loyalty oath. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that loyalty oaths were unconstitutional.

There was a short, loud controversy over the Cold War-related funding of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when Workshops of Empire was published, but the government never controlled what went on in the workshop. And regardless of whatever the Trump administration decides to do about UNESCO, there’s very little it can do to diminish Iowa City’s reputation as a center of literature.

Paul Brennan once had a tooth knocked out during a wrestling match in gym class. Fortunately, it was just a baby tooth, but since then he has only wrestled with works of literature. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 240.


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