Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Christopher Merrill, director of the International Writing Program, describes the program as a one-of-a-kind opportunity that gathers some of the most talented writers in the world to Iowa to write, research, and inspire robust conversation from perspectives of different literary traditions.

“The International Writing Program has been around for more than 50 years. It’s a place of connections for writers,” Merrill explains. “We invite distinguished writers from around the world – poets, fiction writers, playwrights, essayists – for a three-month-long residency.”

Headshot of Christopher Merrill smiling
Christopher Merrill on a cultural diplomacy mission

IWP fall residents participate in an array of activities such as giving panel discussions at the Iowa City Public Library, presenting their work to undergraduate students, and participating in a graduate literary translation workshop. Dominika Słowik, author of two novels and a collection of short stories, travels from Poland to participate as one of the eighteen fall residents at Iowa.

“I was invited by the U.S. embassy in Poland,” says Słowik. “They contacted my publishing house after I received one of the most important literature prizes in Poland, and they asked if I wanted to apply, so I just needed to say yes!”

Słowik refers to the Paszport Polityki, a highly regarded annual Polish prize awarded to creators for their outstanding cultural work. She was awarded this literary prize for her 2019 novel, Zimowla, which entails the many secrets and dangers in the fictional town of Zmornicka Valley. Słowik credits the Paszport Polityki for opening new doors of opportunity and changing her literature career with its honor.

“It’s a kind of prize that allows you to negotiate better book deals, devote more time to writing, and just feel free choosing what you want to write about,” Słowik reminisces. “You don’t need to struggle that much after receiving such a prize, so it was really a big change for me.”

Headshot photo of Dominika Slowik
Dominika Słowik, photo by Radoslaw Kazimierczak

In addition to the events lined up for IWP residents, Słowik uses her time in the program in search of a new subject as she published her book of short stories, Samosiejki, only a few days prior to arriving in the U.S. Słowik’s previous works explored the recent history of Poland’s political transformation but now with her book of short stories she has transitioned to topics involving climate change and the Anthropocene. With her distinct writing voice and interest in important topics, Słowik provides a unique perspective for the IWP.

“The extraordinary riches of the Polish literary tradition have been uppermost in my mind for most of my writing life,” Merrill expresses. “So, when Dominika came here, I knew that we’d have a lively conversation over the course of the residency.”

Słowik continues that lively conversation with students and members of the community. The literary translation workshop in which Iowa graduate students translate IWP resident’s work allowed Słowik to share her most recent piece with a new audience.

“I think what’s most interesting to me personally is that we had a chance to take part in translation workshops,” Słowik says. “Pavlina Manavska decided to translate a piece from my most recent book. And thanks to that, I’ll be able to read this piece on our public reading, which is pretty amazing because book was just published so it will be great to share it with an American audience.”

The program’s public readings and discussion panels allow for writers and the community to make connections with one other. Merrill states that in addition to working with both undergraduate and graduate students, “we also interact with the community in what we hope are inspiring ways.” Not only do these community-based activities inspire locals, but also provide an insight to American life for the IWP residents.

“What’s on one hand challenging but on another hand very inspiring, not only in creative ways but also regarding politics and current events, is that we have a lot of interaction with students and local society – having different lectures, public discussions, and panels.”

Słowik continues to speak to the experiences that have impacted her most during her residency.

“Besides being able to experience the life of an American campus and having access to the library resources, the biggest advantage of it for me is just being able to meet writers and creators from different backgrounds, cultures, countries, and to stick with them. I think this the greatest journey of all in this American journey.”

Merrill describes cultural diplomacy as a two-way street. In addition to bringing residents to Iowa, the IWP connects with writers and readers across the world by bringing American writers overseas and coordinating activities abroad such as summer writing programs, digital learning courses, and reading tours that bring American writers to countries of strategic interest.

“I think with all the incredible gains that have been made in American literary life thanks to the Writer’s Workshop and its model of bringing creative writing into a public university, we have had the chance to bring an international focus to writing, and that’s thrilling.”