Budding Writers Gather in Iowa
Russian teenagers spend two weeks learning the craft of writing at one of America’s best literary arts institutions.
Published: August 14, 2013 (Issue # 1773)
Mikhail Zaharov, a 16-year-old from Smolensk, thought his English was near perfect when he went to the United States for the first time this July to participate in Between the Lines, a creative writing program. He had been studying English “relentlessly” for 10 years and began to write plays and screenplays a few years ago after the Paul Thomas Anderson film “Magnolia” inspired him to become a film director.
“I tried to order a hamburger, which seemed really easy and not challenging at all,” Zaharov told The St. Petersburg Times of his first time putting his English to the test. ”But when the employee started speaking I was shocked. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying.”
In the short span of two weeks, however, Zaharov’s eyes and ears tuned in to his new surroundings, and his exploration of language went far deeper than the subtleties of ordering lunch.
The principle goal of Between the Lines, a program sponsored by the Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs at the U.S. State Department that brings young writers from across the globe to participate in a two-week long writing camp at the University of Iowa, is to promote cultural exchange through creative writing. Having just finished its sixth summer session, last year was the first to include Russian participants. That program was both the largest and most diverse in the program’s history: 44 students participated, including 10 from Russia, 22 from across the U.S. and 12 from 10 Arab countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The program is unique in that it doesn’t focus on American culture and literature, or on improving foreign participants’ English skills, “but rather to explore what it means to be a writer in one’s own literary tradition and to learn from other’s literature,” said Program Coordinator Kelly Morse.
“Literature can reveal the heart of a people’s culture in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else, not even in movies, because reading requires active participation on the part of the reader,” said Morse.
Beginning with the Middle Eastern countries, where creative writing is generally not taught in schools despite the ancient tradition of Arabic poetry, Russia’s rich literary culture made it a natural next choice.
“The University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop and the Gorky Institute of World Literature were founded within four years of each other in the 1930s. So for the BTL Russian program, it is more a case of two literary traditions meeting and exchanging ideas with one another.”
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