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University of Iowa International Writing Program Bridges the Cultural Divide.


How does literature bring us together? Does some quality contained within allow us to communicate beyond linguistic, cultural and personal barriers – barriers many of us find insurmountable? Can the stories of cultures distinct from our own tell us more about ourselves than we expect? These were the sort of questions which arose recently as four Chinese authors visited Iowa City as part of the University of Iowa International Writing Program’s (IWP) Life of Discovery exchange.

Authors Zhang Yun-tao and Liu Yewei visting with students in collaboration with the Iowa Youth Writing Program.

The four authors – Sun Wei, Zhang Yun-tao, Mao Juhzen, and Liu Yewei – each provided a unique voice to the week’s events, which included three public readings, writing workshops with members of the IWP and a visit to Horace Mann Elementary in collaboration with the Iowa Youth Writing Project where they spoke with students about the writing process and life in China. This visit represents the second wave of Life of Discovery’s exchange. Over the summer, four American writers – Dora Malech, Amelia Gray, Kaui Hart Hemmings and Dan O’Brien – visited cities in China where they engaged in similar activities. The exchange’s primary aim is to encourage a dialogue between cultures with distinctive approaches to writing.

“When writers from different countries work together, they generally discover common ground on a number of issues,” said Christopher Merrill, the director of the IWP, “from the mystery of the creative process to the joy of dining together, not to mention the pleasure of writing new poems and stories.”

These relations were particularly cogent among the writers themselves. “[Programs like Life of Discovery] give writers a chance to get to know each other’s writing and culture up close, and to think about ways to innovate in a collaborative environment,” said Ashley Davidson, IWP’s Program Coordinator who helped plan the week’s itinerary alongside the Program Coordinator for China’s Writer Association, Wu Xinwei. “Writers often have a lot more in common with other writers, even if they are from different countries, than they do with non-writers who share their nationality.”

Indeed, much of the Chinese authors’ work dealt with subjects of interpersonal connection, alienation, and the emotional void left in the wake of a bustling, materialistic society. Each of the writers expressed these themes in vastly idiosyncratic ways.

“We are two hedgehogs, living together / hug so tightly. / Then we will hurt each other” reads the opening stanza of Liu Yewei’s poem, “Two Hedgehogs”. Like the stories contained in ancient Chinese mythology, Liu employs anthropomorphism as metaphor for much larger examples of human conflict. Unlike these mythologies, however, Liu eschews any notion of a grand moral, and opts to focus on subtle interpersonal relationships grounded in a contemporary sphere. What comes through is a delicate balance between whimsical allegory and the desolation of domestic ennui. His poem ends: “The day before yesterday / you did not come. / Yesterday / you still did not. / Today / you do all the same. / But how about tomorrow?”

This predilection for combining the fantastical with aspects of the mundane is shared in Mao Juhzen’s poetry. Known as “A Mao” throughout China’s literary community, her poetry often grounds itself with a tangible subject, such as a cat or a living room, only to explode these commonplace items with illusory symbolism. “Now it is 13 o’clock, I enjoy peace of mind and heart:” reads her poem “Sketch of a Noon Living Quarter”. “The sea bottom under wind and waves, / The living room becomes a coral, I become a sea-taming needle.”

Like Liu Yewei, A Mao’s writing is highly invested in symbols rooted in rural Chinese superstition and myth. Symbols which have become obsolete by the current cultural status quo, which is more concerned with business success and one’s personal career growth.

During her interview, A Mao explained the significance of her poem “Persian Cat”. “The idea was to write a poem about the cat’s eye colors: blue and green,” she explained. “In China, these are lucky colors – fantastical and alluring. Yet, in some rural communities and psychologies, they are associated with sadness. The cat is a symbol of grace, highly cherished by Chinese families. Cats walk so slowly and calmly; they look so kind then, suddenly, they attack! This illusion is a sentiment I felt strongly in contemporary Chinese culture. That we are so close to understanding one another, but at the same time so far.”

Similarly, Zhang Yun-tao’s work of flash-fiction, “Love Refusing to Stop”, deals with the contradictions of physical and emotional proximity. The story takes place almost entirely atop a motorcycle, with the two main characters – a couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary – situated as close as humanly possible. Though the young boy drives recklessly, the girl believes him to merely be playing an innocent game. Just as the motorcycle reaches the climax of its acceleration, the story abruptly transfers locales. We find the couple at a hospital, where the girl is informed her husband has died; the motorcycle’s accelerator, it is learned, was stuck.

“Love,” Zhang explained, “reveals itself in extreme situations. It is my experience that many people do not believe in true love. I, however, do. In the face of death, especially, love becomes more prominent.”

The story is something right out of a pulp novel with its focus on steamy romance amid life-threatening danger. Yet Zhang’s premise ultimately appears to insinuate that, perhaps in a culture numbed by endless stimulation, such a dangerous catalyst is necessary to inspire a palpable emotional revelation. That despite the widespread celebration of modernity’s convenience and security, there exists a collective desire to be the person in the car wreck – if only to break through the monotony.

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Sun Wei and Dora Malech visiting with students.
Photos by Ashley Davidson

Sun Wei, the youngest of the visiting Chinese writers, was shy during her interview and opted to answer questions via email. This quality, however, belied a writer with a shrewd approach to the themes explored by her fellows. Sun’s author bio. foregrounds her “examination of the ‘malaise’ in an increasingly materialistic world, with a fickle and fast-developing economy in China as the social background.” “Ignition”, the short story Sun read at Prairie Lights during her stay, exemplifies this theme.

Like Zhang’s “Love Refusing to Stop”, Sun’s “Ignition” deals with a young couple in conflict with technology. In this instance, the ignition on their gas stove fails to work. Without this convenience, both members of the relationship become invalid. The woman cannot fix the dinner which the man expects upon arriving home. He, on the other hand, feels emasculated when he is unable to repair it. The two flounder in a mild confusion, agitated and uncertain, their anxieties are expressed, not through any physical or verbal cues, but through their interactions with material objects.

As the man resigns himself to watching TV, the woman attempts to get his attention by stepping in front of it. “‘Can’t you hear me?’” she asks. To which the narration responds, “She could sense that behind her the channels were changing rapidly. With her standing in the way, he stretched his neck in different directions, which was the only sign that she was, after all, not transparent.”

“People are chased by their greed and feel unsettled by the lack of a sense of security in this materialistic society,” said Sun, “They are too busy to be aware of the processes of their life, which is the only treasure we bring with us to the grave. They skip the steps to reach the target, which makes their lives seem ridiculous.”

Though Sun referred primarily to her own country, as an American reader, one feels an unsettling familiarity in the sentiments expressed in her’s and the other Chinese writers’ work. Many of us place a dichotomy between America and China; the common notion being that both are superpowers with radically opposed ideologies which lead to their formation. Yet when Sun explained at her reading that she lives in a country where, “Passengers ride the train, too busy to know who they are,” it was hard to consider such an attitude as foreign. Such contemporary dilemmas are not lost in translation.

“Before I came to America, I viewed Chinese writing as being in the middle; by no means at the top in terms of how the world ranked literature,” said Liu Yewei, when asked how his experience with Life of Discovery changed his understanding of Chinese literary work. “After talking with writers in Iowa City, however, I feel that Chinese literature could become exalted. Our literary tradition is excellent and on par with what is produced in other countries, but the lack of translation makes being well-known difficult.”

This sentiment was shared among the visiting Chinese writers. Each of them felt that Chinese literature was primed to reach a wider audience; it only required adequate and popular translation. With the Chinese author Mo Yan announced as the 2012 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this dream may be closer to a reality.

“Literature speaks to the deepest parts of our souls,” said Christopher Merrill. “When we read literature from another country we may connect with its culture in ways that we had not imagined possible. In exchanges like Life of Discovery we learn from one another, fostering deeper cultural relations.”

Upon departing, both A Mao and Sun Wei expressed their intense appreciation for Iowa City as a place of literature. A Mao described the city as, “a fairy tale world.” Whereas Sun portrayed it as a “dream place” that she “will never compare with other cities.”

Many of us who live in Iowa City may not agree with these views; we look upon our own culture with a critical eye, just as these visitors look upon theirs. We may dream of faraway lands more opulent than the Midwestern languor to which we’re used, but through literary exchanges such as these, we sometimes learn that they also dream of us.


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