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)
This year, interest on both the American and Russian sides sharply increased from the previous year. Out of more than 40 applicants from an already self-selecting group of Russians ages 16-19 who had to submit work in English and Russian to be considered, 10 were chosen for the all-expenses paid opportunity to travel to the U.S. and spend two weeks focusing on nothing but writing.
Each morning, both English and Russian participants joined in a two-hour seminar in English, this year with American poet Kiki Petrosino. For the second half of the day, they took part in creative workshops held in their native language. Russian students worked with the award-winning novelist Alan Cherchesov, a writer-in-residence at the Iowa Writers Workshop. In addition to working on poetry and fiction in both languages, the participants also had the opportunity to attend guest lectures on playwriting, contemporary Russian poetry and the international novel.
Cherchesov, who visited Iowa in 2008 as part of the delegation of Russian writers participating in an Open Society Foundation program, as well as a 2010 writer-in-residence at IWP, was invited by the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program director Christopher Merrill to participate in the BTL program.
“It’s a unique chance to understand oneself better, and both the country that invited you and the one you represent,” said Cherchesov. “The famous American saying about the fish that only understands what water is when it’s taken out of it is more fitting than anything else.”
“The results of two weeks of work for the young program participants will extend, I believe, to a much longer period. Possibly for their whole lives. They will henceforth look at the world through different eyes, because their inner world has become markedly different.”
It’s also, Cherchesov commented, not by chance that the quality of the students’ work had improved noticeably by the end of their session at Iowa.
“The U.S. and Russian participants lived, ate, and attended classes together, so they created strong bonds and could talk about writing at any moment,” said Morse.
Zaharov said one of the most moving moments of the trip was when Russian and American participants united in a khorovod, an ancient Slavic ritual of joining in a circle of dance and song, at an organic farm near Iowa City. “We’re all humans after all, I thought, with flaws and strengths, and there is so much beauty in this paradox,” he said, reflecting on that moment. “We were not supposed to be there — Putin’s policy obviously says no to the collaboration — and yet here we are, like there’s nothing wrong, like there have never been any disputes, like we’ve never been enemies.”
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