August 2011

Robin Hemley Live Discussion

Robin Hemley was online Thurs, June 11 at 1:00 p.m. to take readers questions and comments about literature and writing. This is an archive of that discussion. Hemley is a faculty member of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.


Moderator: Welcome to the first session of our new Writing University 'Live Discussions' series. Today we have Robin Hemley, professor at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Program, online to answer your questions about a variety of literary topics, including his new book 'Do Over! and his McSweeney's article 'The Great Book Blockade'. Feel free to submit questions during the hour.

Robin Hemley will also be reading from Do Over! tonight at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City at 7pm. If you are unable to attend the reading you can listen to it live at the Writing University website.

We will be posting the responses as they are answered, therefore there may be some delay between answers. Thanks, and enjoy!


Cheyenne, Iowa City: Hello. My question has to do with the adage "There's nothing new under the sun" to write about... that all topics and themes have been addressed in literature... as Janet Burroway says, there are only so many themes, or stories. How do you navigate this question in terms of your own writing? Do you feel pressure as a writer to consciously try to "Make it new" in any way, whether via original language, unique framing, experimentally-driven narrative, etc? I often wonder whether writing that isn't striving for at least one new or different aspect in some sense is worth writing or reading. It seems like so much out there sounds the same. Thank you.

Robin Hemley: Hi Cheyenne:

Sure, there's nothing new under the sun in certain ways, but the adage 'make it new" is something I try to follow without being overly self-conscious about it. Although I certainly have played with form in much of my work, such as my memoir NOLA, essentially a pastiche or collage kind of memoir, I let each work I'm writing reveal its form to me, whether traditional or experimental. But I don't try to make some new simply for novelty's sake. Publishers and editors treat the subject of "newness" in an intriguing way. You might write a story about a goldfish but if the publication you've submitted it to has run something within the last year with anything that vaguely resembles a goldfish, they will certainly reject the piece no matter how different the pieces are. Broadly stated, you're writing about the same thing, but if you read the two goldfish pieces, they might be nothing at all like one another. That's all to say that yes, in a broad sense, nothing is new, but most writers know that their perspective is going to be different from anyone else's -- if they have strong imaginations among other writerly necessities. Personally, I don't worry about it much - part of the fun of being a writer is NOT being completely new, but imagining yourself as part of an ongoing conversation with other writers, past and present. When I was in graduate school, my classmates were always talking about "finding your voice." This always made me a little nervous because I hadn't known it was missing until I reached graduate school. Happily, it was still there waiting for me when I graduated. In other words, sometimes self-consciousness about "finding one's voice" or "making it new" actually do more harm than good.


Elizabeth, North Liberty IA: Mr. Hemley, I have question about your book "Do Over": I was wondering if the process of going through your childhood experiences again helped you understand what the world is like today for your own children?

Robin Hemley: Yes, it did. For me, that was a central part of the book, one of its joys. I as able to get a fresh look at childhood by stepping back into the world of childhood, and the project sparked many conversations between myself and my daughters. There are a lot of things that are different now for children, and many are well-documented: children are over scheduled, over protected, sometimes over praised. I certainly found this with my daughters. They were in so many activities that it seemed to stress them out. I don't remember feeling an iota of the stress my older daughters feel. This concerns me a bit because I always want my children to have some outlet for relaxation -- for them, it's reading, which of course, I approve of. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal recently called "Things That Could Have Killed Me," all about my own hypocrisy as a parent. I was always getting into mischief when I was a boy. I even built a bomb when I was nine. While not quite a helicopter parent, I do tend to hover more than my own parents did. Yet I'm not convinced that the world is appreciably less safe than it was when I was a kid. I can list a hundred things that were much more unsafe when I was a kid, starting with no one using safety belts. Anyway, my bottom line is that the world has always been a dangerous place for kids and adults and always will be.


Rick, Chattanooga: DO OVER starts off very comically, and then, while the comic aspect remains, there is an undercurrent that is hard to pin done -- not anything like melancholy, but a more serious sense of how we are what we are and get to be that way... did you have a sense of that as you were working your way through the do overs and through the book?

Robin Hemley: I'm glad you noticed that. I think that setting the tone of the book was one of the big challenges, but that also reflects the changes in my attitude toward the project in the beginning versus my attitude towards the end. At first, I thought of the project as a bit of a lark, a kind of Billy Madison romp through childhood. Of course, I wanted that to be a big part of the book, but I also didn't want to write a book that was total fluff either. As the do overs progressed, I found that the memories being called up were quite powerful and often took me by surprise. Likewise, I wanted to include my daughters in the project, too, because from a very early stage, I saw this as a book about parenthood and specifically fatherhood. I'm divorced from the mother of my two older daughters, and so part of my story in Do Over also involves my attempt to explore my relationship with them as well as my relationship with my other younger daughter, Shoshie. I wasn't only doing over my past, but trying to learn from my mistakes as a parent so I wouldn't have to do over my present. Is it possible to live a life without regrets? That's sort of an unstated question in the book. And do we really learn from our past mistakes? So these are serious questions that hopefully inform a comic and ironic look at foibles and embarrassments.


Susannah in Dallas: Is there anything you would do over about the process of writing this book? Any hard-won knowledge to share with others approaching immersion memoir?

Robin Hemley: I think right now the answer is "no." I might like to do over a couple of interviews I've given for the book, but as far as the process goes, it went surprisingly smoothly. Still, such a book is frightening to contemplate in that so much depends on setting out to do something and hoping that interesting things happen as a result. I think some editors are wary of backing such a project if the results seem too difficult to predict. What helped with this project is that it didn't depend on things always working out. If I failed a do over (and I'd say I only failed one), that in itself was inherently as dramatic and potentially funny as succeeding in one. So my advice would be to make sure as much as possible that whatever you immerse yourself in is something that you can make a story from whether your endeavor is successful or not.

But as far as doing over the process or the writing of the book, I can't think of anything. It was really the most fun I've ever had writing a book.

Oh, there IS one thing! This time, I would bring along a documentary filmmaker perhaps! I'm glad I had photographs at least.


Thomas Vakulskas Iowa City: Did the WSJ solicit your recent article or did you submit it?

Robin Hemley: They more or less solicited it, though I had been asking to something along these lines for them. I've been writing for them for a little while so I have a working relationship with them.


Chris J. Chicago IL: I recently read your article in McSweeney's about the book blockade in the Phillipines and it seems like it was a very touchy topic to report on. Did you encounter any obstacles in writing the piece? And after it was published, was their any backfire, politically or socially?

Robin Hemley: Wow, was there EVER a response to that. You might want to take a look at my follow up article in the FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW ( "Notes from a Blockade Runner" in which I detail the response. I wrote the piece because I was in the Philippines and when I found out that the Philippines was violating an international treaty by taxing imported books, I was shocked. At first, I contacted five of my Filipino writer friends and suggested they should investigate and perhaps protest to PEN International. Two of my friends never responded. Two said they knew nothing about it. But one said he knew about it and introduced me to a book store owner who started to fill me in on the sordid details. This began my investigation. I thought when I wrote the piece that no one would be interested except for my small following on McSweeney's. I was wrong. Within 24 hours, the story had gone "viral" as they say. To make a long story short, within a month, the president of the Philippines had reversed the illegal tax thanks largely to the mobilization of thousands of book lovers in the Philippines. I found the whole thing quite inspiring.

The response to the article was overwhelmingly positive, but at first I wondered whether I should even write it. Now I'm glad I did.


Bee Bee Rabozo: Your writing, especially "Do Over" made my sides ache with laughter. When I write and try to be funny, it doesn't bring that sort of reaction. How do you do it?

Robin Hemley: Thank you! Frankly, I just see the world in an absurd way, I guess. I remember that Stephen King once said that he writes to frighten himself. When I write I try to make myself laugh. It's not always easy to make me laugh, so I'm a tough audience. I've always loved to make people laugh, from when I was a kid and used to entertain my family with absurd anecdotes rather than eat.


Rick, Chattanooga: Sorry, this is my second question. Obviously you can't put everything that happened to you in any of do overs into the space of a chapter. So I was wondering what process you went through in selecting specific things, and which chapter was the most difficult to write about.

Robin Hemley: I always had a little notebook with me, and I took copious notes in it. I loved these little notebooks because they invariably contained nuggets that I knew I was going to incorporate into the book long before I sat down to write a chapter. This had the effect also of jump starting my mind in terms of the narrative of each chapter so that by the time I sat down I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to include and what I didn't. I took many more notes than I could include in the book, and when I started to write I flipped through my notes of each do over and then found a place that seemed a natural beginning. Then I started to shape the chapter. Consequently, there were things that I knew would not fit the shape I had chosen. I found it most difficult to write about living in my old home again. My mother passed away two years earlier (though she hadn't lived in this home for many years) and this was the home in which my older sister had died. At first, I took the chapter out but my editor made me put it back in. I'm glad he did.


Sara, Middle Tennessee: How are you promoting your new book? What are the challenges to marketing such a book - well, any book for that matter?

Robin Hemley: Oh, these days so much of a book's promotion falls upon the author. As print reviews dry up at an alarming rate, word-of-mouth becomes ever more crucial and especially on the internet. Publishers are very wary about spending advertising money, too, and they consider most book signings a waste unless it's in your home town. So I'm doing a lot of radio, and that's both fun and nerve-wracking, especially the live shows. But I'm happy to do it. You spend a lot of time on a book and you want to make sure it has the best shot in the world possible.


cheyenne, iowa city: Hello. Did you find, while researching your book, and being at camp, and all the other things that went into writing it- that you were able to access childhood memories more easily? Can you recall any instances where you remembered things you wish you hadn't, that were a surprise to you- and the converse- things you'd forgotten you were pleased to remember? (sorry, i still have not read the book but will). --did you find any ways to access memories you'd forgotten or did or just happen organically for you?

Robin Hemley: Yes, as a matter of fact, I was constantly stunned by the memories being called up. Sure, there were some unpleasant memories, but I was able to examine them and come to some understanding of why a particular do over was important to me based on some of the memories being called up. But I've always had a good memory of my childhood and have been able to call up events from that time quite easily (I've had a lot of practice), so there were no dark secrets that were uncovered - more like associations. For instance, when my do over kindergarten teacher asked us to draw a pleasant memory, I drew a picture of my older daughters and myself blueberry picking on Mt. Baker in Washington State. It's the first thing that came to mind. I'm divorced and we haven't picked blueberries on Mt. Baker for many years so when I drew this picture it floored me. That was perhaps the first time in the project that I was surprised by the force of emotion of something I hadn't expected.


Suzanne Z., Minneapolis: Is the gift of writing in one's DNA or can one develop the talent to write? I have an MBA in Finance, but want to escape from the travails of Wall Street, do you think writing can be taught, learned, practiced...Or should I just throw in the towel right here, right now.

Robin Hemley: This is an age-old question. The subject of can writing be taught was just written about in The New Yorker a week ago. The standard answer is that craft can be taught but genius can't of course. Still, there are so many reasons to write and to pursue it. Obviously, not everyone is going to become a James Baldwin or Flannery O'Connor, but there are plenty of people who have taken up writing later (who weren't born to it) who have done quite well as writers. Frank McCourt had an entire career as a teacher (though I know he wrote as well during this time) before he wrote a book at age 62, I believe. There are scores of examples of writers who are wonderful who came to it late. It takes passion and persistence and happily, there's no sign posted anywhere in the writing world that reads, MBA's need not Apply. Yes, it can be learned and there are plenty of places where you can learn it. How far you go with it is to a certain extent up to you.

Vivienne, Dallas: Which of the do overs was the most difficult to write, whether from a technique or personal point of view, and why?

Robin Hemley: As I mentioned, I think the most difficult one for me was visiting a childhood home. This was logistically difficult to begin with. I moved around a lot when I was a child and so I had a number of homes to choose from. Still, would you let a complete stranger live in your home with you for a week simply because he says he's writing a book? I hit upon the idea of sending FEDEX letters to the occupants of my various homes so that they might open the letters and read them at least. I wrote my letter on university stationery and included my proto do over article from NEW YORK MAGAZINE so they would know I was legit. Still, I only heard from one person who was wary of me. She eventually said "no," and I was going to give up on the do over when about five months later I received an e-mail out of the blue from a woman who lived in another of my homes. She said she would agree if I kept her anonymous, which I did. It worked out just fine, but it was an emotionally difficult chapter and I wanted to remove it but my editor talked me out of it.

I also hated my attempt to take the ACT test, for a variety of reasons, some of which should be self-evident!


Susannah, Dallas: Second question -- You mentioned you'd do-over some of your recent radio interviews. Since radio has become so frequent a promotional tool, what about those interviews would you do over? Approach, length of responses, yay or nay ahead of time on particular shows or broadcast times? Something else entirely?

Robin Hemley: Most of the shows are just fine but I think it's important to screen the show and get a sense of what the show is about. The Talk Radio Shows are the ones I'm most wary of. I agreed early on to be on a silly show from Austin whose name I've blocked. But it was moronic. As soon as I was patched in, it became clear that they were going to simply riff on my title and do a really stupid schtick on "Do over." I tried to undermine them as much as possible but I would have preferred not going through it in the first place. I was also on a syndicated radio show in Philly done by a conservative talk show host after my WSJ article appeared. The problem with such hosts is that they have most often some social agenda they're touting while you're hoping to say at least something about your book. So that was a bit of a wash. On the other hand, there are a lot of radio hosts who do their homework and ask bright questions . . . I'm happy to do these. Basically, I think it's important not to ramble and also to have a few key anecdotes that you think exemplify your book. But also, keep your cool and don't necessarily answer every question -- like a politician, answer the question you wish you had been asked.


Michael; Des Moines: Robin - I enjoyed meeting & talking w/ you the other night @ Beaverdale Books. My question: how do you learn to trust an editor?

Robin Hemley: I love working with editors. I've had very few bad experiences. They are really on your side and while you don't have to agree with everything they suggest, there's definitely going to be some give and take. That said, in every book of mine there's always something that's taken out that I fight for (and usually lose), generally something to do with my bizarre sense of humor. Sometimes my editors think I go over the top and want to rein me in. I don't always agree, but they have the power. As a writer, you have to learn to compromise. Hemingway made fun of John Dos Passos saying once, "You can turn him on the rack, but that comma stays in!" I was once told by an editor that she loved to deal with experienced writers because they understood the process much better than green writers who were often way too full of themselves when it came to the editing process. Again, it's mostly a matter of compromise.


Jennifer, Detroit: Robin, Can you talk a little bit about how it felt to live out moments you knew you would write about? Did you hear yourself writing as you were running on the playground, for instance, almost as voice-over? I guess I'm wondering how you managed to experience your Do-overs authentically before crafting them. Thanks.

Robin Hemley: Good question. I felt that I was three people at once half the time as I was experiencing my do overs. I was remembering the original experience. I was living a new experience. And I was the writer observing it all. I had no trouble keeping all three of these "selves" in my head at once. Although I was taking notes, I was very much into the experience and of course I couldn't always take notes. I did that after the fact sometimes. It's kind of like a photographer who takes thousands of photos. At first, his/her subjects are wary and stiff around the camera, but then they stop seeing it almost. For me, it was similar as a writer. I rarely thought I was hamming it up, and I rarely thought anyone else was hamming it up. If they did, I certainly didn't include that scene in the book. Mostly, the kids seemed quite relaxed around me.


Rick, Chattanooga: How does your writing affect your teaching, and how does teaching affect your writing?

Robin Hemley: I'm affected variously by my teaching. I never would have written Do Over if not for my teaching. It came directly out of a brainstorming session I was holding with my grad students here in Iowa. I truly love teaching and I love writing and I find the enthusiasm of my students rubbing off on me. But like everything, teaching should be done in moderation!


Moderator: Well, we have reached the end of our time with Robin, thanks to everybody who submitted questions! Any questions submitted during the hour that were not posted here in the 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. time frame will be posted later on the Live Discussion archive. And remember to check back for more upcoming Live Discussion in the future. Robin Hemley will be reading from Do Over! tonight at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City at 7pm. If you are unable to attend the reading you can listen to it live at the Writing University website.

Eavan Boland Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with Irish poet Eavan Boland at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14. Boland discussed poetry, writing in an international community, as well as other literary topics.


Scott Doll, Iowa City: Eavan Boland,

You have said that the prescriptions of Romanticism and Separatism have governed female poets in a phallocentric society. Has this changed over time in favor of women writers at all? Also, has an increasing role of feminism had any beneficial effects?

Eavan Boland: Dear Scott -

Thanks for your question.

A "phallocentric" society is not a term I would use, nor associate myself with. It's a term that doesn't seem precise or useful. (The term has been used in some essays by other writers that I've quoted.)

But in the essay "The Woman poet Her Dilemma" I did raise the issues of Romanticism and separatism. How they seemed oppositional and might well be wrenching opposites for women poets.

I think some things have changed. Do I believe feminism has had beneficial effects? Absolutely. But as an ethic and not as an aesthetic, and I've said that about myself elsewhere. I'm feminist. I'm not a feminist poet. I think poetry begins where certainties end. Even the finest ethics and collective historical movements or aspirations can't come to the space between the page and the pen and the poet's mind.

But I do believe that feminism has played a great and powerful role in recovering texts, in challenging the silences and lacks of permission surrounding women poets - whether their absence from anthologies or curricula or their missing presence on a canonical record. It's also effective in that it challenges the idea that issues raised by women poets -of craft and tone and self -are issues only for women. It commends the idea that these are issues for all of poetry, and that they benefit all poets and readers regardless of gender.

best wishes
Eavan Boland

Patrick, Iowa City: Dear Prof. Boland,

Could you talk a little bit about the difference between "memory" and "history," and how these operate in your poems? Many of your poems make reference to historical events, such as the 1847 Irish famine and the Northern Troubles. At the same time, personal memory (of marriage, motherhood, and travel) is the doorway through which you enter into your meditations of these larger events. Does personal memory serve history, or betray it? Are the two phenomena completely separate for you?

Eavan Boland: Hi Patrick -

Thanks for the question.

I probably have never quite resolved these issues in my mind. Let me take the question you ask. "Does personal memory serve history, or betray it?". Look for instance at Yeats's "Easter 1916" poem. Yeats opens there with a personal memory of the combatants in the Irish Rising ("I have met them at close of day/Coming with vivid faces"). And he then enters the event as he sees it.

Yeats salts that whole history in the poem with personal memory until you're not sure which is which. Does his personal memory betray the history of the Rising? No, but it shapes it. After you read the poem, the history has become plastic again, not fixed. Yeats doesn't just affect history in this poem. He makes it. The same would be true of Whitman, for instance. Their fusions of memory, feeling and history are thoroughly dynamic.

So to go back to your question -I am not sure whether personal memory serves history. But them I'm not at all sure that history deserves to be "served". And if there is a betrayal it seems to me history is the treasonous part of the equasion, not the other way around. History overwrites, makes anonymous, depersonalizes at a great rate. Personal memory retrieves what it discards.

Hope this helps -

Eavan Boland

Neill, Iowa City: Eavan, I'm a fiction writer and plan to apply for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Do you have any advice for me? Or any thoughts about the program in general? Thanks!

Eavan Boland: Neill -

We are always delighted to have talented young writers apply. (The email of our administrator is But you probably know that from the website.) It really is a strong and vivid community of young writers. And we're always thrilled that young writers turn to it.

I should add however that it's extremely competitive. I think's that's been on the increase. We have wonderful teachers in the program and they are real mentors to the Stegners.

Last year we had above 1600 applications for 5 places in fiction and 5 in poetry. But I don't add these statistics to be disheartening. 5 poets were chosen, and 5 fiction writers. And young, gifted writers are always defying the statistics anyway.

So the best of luck with the application and, of course, with your future work.

Eavan Boland

Jess, Chicago, IL: Do you find yourself using and re-using themes and/or words in your work? For example, in my own work, I am always coming back to a 'field' when I write. 'Field,' the word and all the different ways of describing a field, is always present. Do you think this sort of tendency should be fought or avoided as a writer? If not, what is the best to follow this tendency and still keep your work and your writing 'new'? Thank you!

Eavan Boland: Hi Jess -

Thanks for the question -

Certainly, I've often used the same words again and again. Or phrases. The problem is that the word begins to acquire a certain symbolic meaning for you and yet may not have that for a reader. So the reader can see that you're using a word that has great meaning for you. And not for them.

I would certainly set yourself a task of avoiding the word - or even the concept for a month -and see what happens. Otherwise you're falling back on something which may be a bit like poetic comfort food!

Eavan Boland

Zlatko Anguelov, Iowa City, IA: In the Internet and, especially, the social media era, poetry looks like an art of the past. It is an elevating, elite art, which has very little in common with the simplicity of mind revealed by the free access of non-educated people to the public space. For whom do you write your poems in this unpoetic context?

Eavan Boland: Hi Zlatko,

Thanks so much for the question.

I'm not sure I agree with its premises however. First of all I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "the free access of non-educated people to the public space".

In a country like Ireland we have a very strong question mark over the term "non-educated". Education is such a rich, variable and profound concept. People acquire it in so many different ways. And into the whole art of poetry -for hundreds and hundreds of years -the most democratized and nurturing encounters have taken place between people and poetry. Human experience has educated poetic form here. And poetic form has shaped human experience. I'm speaking about the ballad, the ghazal, the narrative etc. That is the education which is consequential in poetry. Formal education is not an issue. William Yeats never went to University.

William Blake probably had little formal instruction in that sense - though he worked as an artist and scrivener. Charlotte Mew didn't go to College. Virginia Woolf said she had six guineas spent on her educatiohn. Yet they are the source of education for thousands of readers on thousands of college courses all over the world. That should guide us in thinking about education.

So I don't see the relationship between poetry and the virtual public space in the way you do. Not at all. It's not oppositional. And it's not new. The internet doesn't replace the meeting hall, the room at midnight where someone reads a poem they love alone, or the poetry reading in a crowded hall. What is wonderful about the internet is that it knows how to be all these spaces at once. It adds to them. It doesn't subtract. The reader is not changed there. They are simply set free into new opportunities. But the art is the same. The encounter is the same.

As for an audience, nothing has changed. I write for myself and hope that a reader will find that poem and be able to include it in their experience. The reader of poetry -as far as I'm concerned -is involved in an essential action. It follows logically for me that there cannot be anything non-educated or elite in that -on either side of your equasion. The poem and the reader always make up a human, democratic and profoundly educated unit. And always will. In any space -virtual or actual -

Best wishes

Ben, Iowa City, IA: Can you discuss the way that you weave narrative into your poems, while still maintaining the lyrical aspects?

Eavan Boland: Hi Ben

Thanks for the question -& it's an interesting one.

I don't think narrative and lyric are oppositional elements of the poem. But there can be conflicts of interest between them. For instance you might have something in a poem that wants to work towards revelation (to use a simplistic tag) and if you narrate it you simply keep the reader in a logical posture. And the lyric mode would be best there.

Similarly a lyric mode can suppress a narrative just when you need to engage the reader and draw them in. Poems that are too cryptic, where you have to guess at what the narrative really is, just keep tripping you up.

I think the best advice is to think of yourself as a reader when you look at your own subject matter. Do you want it to go to a lyric mode, or do you want to know what happened.

A very interesting poet in this regard is Brigit Pegeen Kelly. She has a wonderful book called "Song" and the poem at the back called "Three Cows and the Moon" is a perfect balance of lyric and narrative. They work with and for each other in that poem -

Eavan Boland

Jennifer, Iowa City, IA: Looking back, do you think the anti Irish resentment you experienced fueled you to dispel myths and become a poet? Did you use writing as a release while you felt resentment or did you start afterward?

Eavan Boland: Dear Jennifer, thanks for the question. I started thinking about it and writing about it well after that. I left England when I was twelve, so I had no clear consciousness of anti-Irishness then. It had certainly existed in London when I was a child at school btu ti's only when you grow older that you being to remember it and articulate it clearly.

But your question is certainly right. Later that feeling of displacement I had in London --and the anti Irishness there added to that- became a real influence on me.

Best wishes,
Eavan Boland

Sallie, Rock Island, IL: Hi Professor Boland, I had a few questions about your poem "The Pomegranate" that I was hoping I could get answered.

I noticed in your poem that you make the strong connection of mother and daughter, and I was wondering if this had anything to do with the connection between England and Ireland?

I also saw that you do not mention a father to the daughter you're writing about, does this play into the myth that women didn't have a strong voice? Or that men create problems, and it's up to women, or possibly mothers, to fix them?

Knowing that your father was a diplomat, did that have any significance in this poem?

Eavan Boland: Thanks for your question. I'll start at the end of it first: the poem is closely built around the Ceres & Persephone myth. In that, a young girl is kidnapped and brought to the underworld. Her mother comes to bargain her back. She negotiates with the king of the underworld.She gets her back for six months and the girl stays for six months.

So it's a myth of the starting of the seasons. The time the mother gets her back becomes spring and summer. The time she stays there becomes Fall and Winter.

I hewed pretty closely to this. There's no father in that myth. There's no father in the poem. The archtype of the legend is mother & daughter only.

I wouldn't have thought of it as England and Ireland. But I entirely see why you ask the question. In the myth the underworld ruler represents all the negatives of power. The mother signs off for the light and steadfastness of love and womanhood.

Best wishes & thanks for the question! Eavan Boland


Christopher Merrill and Marvin Bell Live Discussion

University of Iowa International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill and UI Professor Emeritus Marvin Bell, joined us for a live discussion today at 1 PM on Thurs., Oct 15th. Bell and Merrill discussed their new collection "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" and other literary topics.


Corey, Madison, WI: Chris and Marvin,

I love the concept of group writing that is explored in your book '7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book'. I wanted to ask you is you consider what you did as a group a type of Exquisite Corpse (when a a few writers add lines to a poem without seeing what the others have written) or more of a conversation?

Marvin Bell: More of a conversation. Not serial, but many impulses coming in from seven directions at once. Kaleidoscopic. Crazier, too.

Chris Merrill: Thanks for your question, Corey. Although I wasn’t sure where this project might go, it quickly became a conversation in poetry, a forum in which seven poets writing in different languages found ways to speak to one another about matters of the heart.

Lucas, Minneapolis, MN: Marvin, Chris,

Did you feel as you were writing poems for the "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" book that a momentum developed in which you were lead by the work in a different way than when you usually write alone?

By this I mean: did you begin to feel a different relationship between yourself and you work during the experience?

Marvin Bell: No, because I have done a good bit of collaboration with writers, dancers, musicians and composers. William Stafford and I wrote two books back-and-forth. The musician Marvin Tate and I did just did a back-and-forth collaboration for MAKE Magazine (Chicago). I am always willing to surrender to the materials. That's where the fun is, as well as the discoveries. Make sense?

Chris Merrill: Wonderful questions! Indeed the poems gathered momentum day by day, line by line, joke by joke, and I know that I found myself writing poems that seemed to come from the center of the table around which we had gathered. I wondered how my relationship to my work would change as a result of the experience, and all I can say about that is that it is too soon to say!

Elizabeth, Iowa City, IA: I loved your reading last night, thank you! You mentioned at your reading for the book "7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book" that when you first started the project the 7 poets didn't necessarily know each other. How do you think that working in the creative process together helps bond people?

Marvin Bell: If one can surrender, or perhaps at least relax, "one's ego at the door," yes, I suppose the participants "bond" a bit. Though I've never been sure about people "bonding." Sounds as if there might be glue involved. Seriously, I like the idea that we are all in this together. Collaborations by artists can have that feel.

Chris Merrill: Thanks, Elizabeth. Indeed I was the only one to know all of the poets before we started, but I think it is safe to say that as the week wore on we all became rather close. It was as if we had entered a space in which freedom reigned, and there we could experiment with new ways of writing, new ways of configuring our relationship to the world. For four magical days we wandered together in the world of the marvelous, hoping to return with maps of where we had been.


Heather, Iowa City: I very much enjoyed your collection of poetry written by Dean Young, Marvin Bell, and others in the same space.

I was wondering about the international aspects of it. Were there difficulties in translation?

Also, did you find that any political aspects came up out of the writing?

Marvin Bell: Chris can speak to the translations. I think overall there was more play, and maybe a little poetic reaching for the sublime, and also a feeling at times of love poetry--more of all that than of politics, but there was a little politics, too--especially, you may find, in some of my contributions.

Chris Merrill: The translations were made on the fly, and no doubt there were not only mistranslations but also some infelicities in the language—which became part of the process of writing. Indeed we seemed to mishear many lines, and those mishearing found their ways into some of the poems. Chance is an integral part of the creative process, and I sometimes think that we undertook was a grand experiment in chance. To be tugged in different directions by a colleague’s imagery or intonation or inflection was thrilling.

I found that politics entered my poems from the side, in the form of images drawn from my experience of covering the war in the Balkans—a subject that I have heretofore rarely addressed in poems, although I wrote a long nonfiction book about it. And I am happy that in the company of my friends I felt free enough to wander in that direction.

James, Iowa City, IA: What are your favorite words?

What is your favorite shape?

Which do you enjoy more -- reading or composing?

Marvin Bell: I'm afraid I don't have favorite words, shapes or a preference for reading or composing. Well, composing is something different from reading, for me, and all-engrossing, but also perhaps more metabolic? But I do laugh a lot and sometimes it's words that are at hand, such as, say, Doo-wop. My wife, Dorothy, has invented the word boflippybrick. Not sure how to spell it, but one "goes boflippybrick."

Chris Merrill: Albany is a word that has always intrigued me. And this morning my eight-year-old daughter asked me what fisticuffs means: marvelous word! But, really, any word becomes magical, if you listen to it long enough, no?

Otherwise I like circles, and although I may think that I prefer to read, at least when I am avoiding sitting down to write, in fact I prefer to compose.


John, Iowa City: I am an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and I was wondering what is the best path to take to become a professional writer. How does one become a published poet, etc. It all seems like a mystery to me. Thank you!

Marvin Bell: Oh, it's actually simple. Read and write--a lot. Read good stuff. You can't learn to hit a baseball by watching someone strike out. Read something, then write something. Then read something else, and write something else. But here's the trick: show in your writing what you have read. Not by referring to it but by letting it affect how you write. That amalgam of influences will become your "writing voice." As for being "professional," you'll find that out as you go. You may even decide it's more fun to be an amateur. I can tell you this: wanting to be a writer is different from wanting to (having to) write. Does this help?

Chris Merrill: Read and write, write and read—and the rest will take care of itself. I’m quite serious about that. If you spend your best hours reading as widely as you can, in other languages, if possible, and trying to write in as many forms as you can think of, in poetry and prose, then page by page you will begin to make your way. The late John Gardner liked to say that if you write seriously for ten years you will become a successful writer. Now success means different things to different people. It might mean publication of a book or two, or fame and riches, or the simple validation of attempting to find order in a sequence or words—an activity that is addicting. Good luck.

Karen, Rock Island, IL: I wanted to ask you about poetic form. Do you have a form that you prefer to write in? Do you use form to break periods of writers block or start poems? And how do you think the public responds to form (iambic pentameter, the sonnet, etc) these days?

Marvin Bell: William Stafford used to say, "Got a writer's block? Can't write? Lower your standards." Clever, cagey advice. Writing is largely getting into motion in the presence of language. It's not what one starts with, but the quality of attention one pays to it thereafter. Sure, one can use a known form, but it is best if one knows the form well from reading. There are some poetic forms that don't cause that much in English: the haiku, the pantoum... There are some that promote tediousness: the classroom sestina. But any form works if you pledge loyalty to it, find an identity for the line as you go, etc. Free verse isn't a form but a method for finding new forms. Again, one can only imitate what one has read. Hence, the good effect of reading a range of writers. Me, I have written mostly in forms of free verse, and lately have returned to a form I created, known as the "dead man poem." It comes in two titled sections, the poetic line is an elastic sentence, and there are some other unusual traits to it. The "dead man" is alive and dead at the same time. People send me their own "dead man" and "dead woman" poems. As for the public, who are they? Figuring out what the public likes--that's vaudeville. I can do it, but I only do it when asked to write an "occasional" poem. Does this windy reply help?

Chris Merrill: Good questions. I often write in meter, though I am not wedded to that, and indeed I like to write prose poems, too. What I hear in the first instance—a word that seems to ring in my ear, a phrase with a certain rhythm—may prompt me to seek other words or phrases in that register or key, and then I may follow them for as long as possible, wherever they may lead. I like to keep the process open in order to make my way into what I hope will be new terrain, a subject or theme or musical idea that intrigues me enough to keep writing.

As for public responses to form: a poet is interested first and foremost in his or her own response to the material at hand. If you hear something you like, chances are it will find a readership, however small that audience may be, and what matters most is that you listen hard for what seems central to your being, whether that arrives in traditional or open forms.

Marvin Bell: A PS for Karen: it is good for any writer of poetry to know meter and poetic forms. Besides, even a free verse writer needs sometimes to prove himself or herself to the metricians by speaking their language. I recall a teacher looking at a poem of mine on a worksheet and saying, with arched eyebrows, "This poem appears to be written in free verse." I replied, "Oh no, it's written in sprung accentuals with variant lines."

Tim, North Libery, IA: Thank you for your time. Have you considered making the book '7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book' into a series, doing it again with different poets? And how did you choose the poets the first time for this book?

Marvin Bell: Chris knows best. I'm always willing.

Chris Merrill: I would not want to repeat the experiment—and this book really was an experiment. But I love to collaborate with other creative people, and I’m thinking of different ways to continue this adventure in the language. The French Surrealists conducted many such experiments during the most vital period of the movement’s history, games of chance and sessions of automatic writing and nights devoted to the exploration of dreams, and I like to think that another journey is awaiting the right group of poets. Indeed Marvin and I have just been discussing ways to continue the conversation. Which is to say: we’re open to suggestions.

How did I choose the poets? I asked Marvin first, because we have been friends for more than twenty-five years, because I admire to no end the book or poems he wrote with the late William Stafford, Seques, and because I had a feeling that he would love the project. Then I asked Tomaz Salamun, whose poems I had translated for many years, because I hoped that he would return to the University of Iowa to give a reading as part of the International Writing Program’s (IWP) fortieth anniversary celebration. Then I asked Dean Young, who was teaching in the Writers’ Workshop, because I love his poems. And finally I asked the poets from the IWP, Istvan Laszlo Geher and Ksenia Golubovich and Simone Inguanez, after I had come to know them well enough to imagine that they would like to take part in this project. In retrospect, things could have turned out quite badly if I had chosen less open-minded poets. But from the start there was a good feeling in the air, and so we began.

Emily, Iowa City, IA: We've all heard of 'lost in translation'. Do you think anything is 'gained' in translation?

Marvin Bell: Ah yes, translators like to argue about what makes for the best translation. What is retained in a good translation? --The spirit, the feel, the voice, most of the content, varying amounts of the culture of the original, and the very idea of, say, poetry... Some "translation" can only be a transliteration; the languages are too different. Ah, the impure world. Poets just get on with it. Biographers, critics and theorists are sometimes befuddled by the impurity. Translation is not cloning, it's true.

Chris Merrill: Much is gained in translation: poetic logics that are not part of a national literary discourse, patterns of images that may lead readers and writers into new fields of inquiry, visions of the world that broaden one’s sympathies. Yes, the music may be lost in translation. But since the alternative is silence I am all for translators finding a music that will suffice.

Jon, Des Moines: I write poetry as a sort of meditation, but also as escape, and sometimes, rarely, as communication with others. James Joyce spoke of the difference between making art for yourself and making art for an outside audience. What do you think of these two different aspects, the audience of self and the audience of the public? Do you think of others as you write, and who do you write for?

Marvin Bell: I think one writes up to one's own limits--linguistic, psychological, intellectual and perhaps emotional--and lets the chips fall where they may. Frost said it: "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." However, I have written "occasional" poems when asked, and that's a different matter, as you might assume. Make sense?

Chris Merrill: I think of a poem as a dialogue with the language—which is to say: a dialogue with the self. In the case of 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book that dialogue was refracted through six other voices, other selves. What fun we had!

Alice Pung Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with Australian writer and International Writing Program alum Alice Pung at today 2:00 p.m. (CST). Alice discussed her experience as a resident at the IWP, her place in the international writing community, as well as other literary topics. To peruse Alice's work and read more about her literary career, visit her website:


Kathy, New Zealand: My question is: How difficult is it for you to write authentically about your family, and to accurately reflect conflicts with people? Do you worry about offending people? Also, is it difficult to write about yourself when you know complete strangers are going to read about you?

Alice:Thanks for this question Kathy. I recently discovered that the American writer Maxine Hong Kingston first wrote her book The Woman Warrior to be a set of short stories, but her publishers thought that the only way that stories about Chinese women would appeal to an American audience was to publish it as a memoir.

The Bangladesh poet Tagore wrote that “Truth in her dress finds facts too tight. In fiction she moves with ease.” So when I first started writing my book Unpolished Gem, I had meant for it to be a book of fictional stories, but the more I wrote the more truthful I found the stories became, until I didn’t need to make anything up to have material to write about.

I was very conscious of the need to not hurt people in my writing. I remember Amy Tan at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival when I was nineteen, teaching me one of the most important lessons I will ever learn as a writer – that writing is an act of compassion.

That book was meant to be funny, and I only write about myself if I can mostly make fun of much of myself. I also don’t see the book as defining who I am. Me at age five is a very different person to me at age seventeen, and now that I am 29 if I were to write the book again, I am certain it would be completely different. So I don’t worry about strangers reading about me.


Sally, Melbourne, Australia: Alice, I love the way you make the ordinary extraordinary. When you write a piece, say about shopping after midnight, or giving a talk in schools, you often end with some beautiful twist that creates meaning and context out of the most mundane situations. When you set out to write a piece like this, do you know what you are going to say - or the 'point' of your article - as you write it, or do you discover it as you are writing?

Alice: Thanks, Sally. When I start writing, I usually have the beginning of a scenario that I think might be interesting, and then because most of my work is non-fiction, I will take myself back to that scenario and this time around, look around slowly and notice details. The 'point' of the article, or epiphanies, only emerge when I write the piece.


ashur etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: As a writer of Asian origin living in Australia, do you think that a marginal culture has more chance in understanding the richness of a multicutural society? and do you look at yourself as a writer from a lateral stream rather than from the main stream?

Alice: Thanks for the question Ashur. I don't see myself as part of the mainstream not do I see myself as part of an alternative culture. I don't put myself in any stream because I know people are going to inevitably put me in a stream whether I like it or not (and often without a life raft)! Although I was born in Australia, our country has not reached the stage of acceptance where Asian-Australians are naturally accepted as part of Australian culture, as Asian-Americans seem to be in the United States. In the US, I was very heartened to see many Asian Americans on American television and advertisements. Being an outsider has its advantages too - like being able to see the humours and hypocrisies of both cultures.


Scott Iowa City IA: Alice, what is your writing regiment? & how do you write? -- do you write in large blocks at a time, or smaller pieces? is there a certain time of day that you like to write?

Alice: Thank you for your question Scott. I work full time as a lawyer in Melbourne and so I don't have a clear and set regiment of writing. For instance, if I have spent the day working on minimum-wage decisions, which is also writing, by the end of the day I might not feel too creative. But I try and write everyday - whether it be in the form of a handwritten letter to a friend, emails or a handful of sentences for a short story.

Often I find that when I have large blocks of set time (for example, a two week residency somewhere) I will accomplish a lot. Long stretches of time also give me the chance to be more reflective in my work. Yet if I were to have an infinite amount of time to write, then I know that I would waste a lot of it idling away. So balance is very important to me.


Ryan, Denver CO USA: You work both as a writer and a lawyer. Do you find that you are utilizing different parts of your personality and intellect in pursuing each endeavor? And if so, how do they correspond with each other, or conflict?

Alice:Dear Ryan, thanks for your question. Lawyers are known for their creative writing skills! Only kidding. I work in the area of minimum-wage law, and I write stories about families. So in this respect, the writing I do as an author and as a lawyer are very different - one involves reports based on evidence, and the other narrative based on people's interior lives. One involves having a critical, analytical mind; and the other involves being able to see both the specks and enormous orbs circulating at the same time in people's emotional spheres.

Yet there are times when my two kinds of writing seem perfectly aligned: on weekends when I might write character non-fiction about the factory workers and migrant women in the neighbourhoods in which I grew up, and then the next day go to work and see how their living breathing lives fit within government policy.



Ed Laarman, Iowa City, Iowa: What writing projects are you working on now? And do you work on one thing at a time, or several projects simultaneously?

Alice: Thank you for your question Ed.

I am writing a book about my father, a man who survived Pol Pot’s Killing Fields during a time where many Chinese were purged. The most significant years of his young adult life were spent as a slave labourer. It often amazes me how ordinary he seems, and how resourceful and funny. I have realised that these were the qualities that probably got him through alive.

Then he arrived in Australia, seven years after the White Australia Policy was officially abolished by the government. I’ve noticed that as he has become older, he has sequestered himself from the outside world in order to stay safe. So this is a book about how two different generations grow old and come to understand what it means to have a family.


Ellen, Iowa City: Alice, you spent time here in Iowa City as a member of the International Writing program. How did you like you're experience? Could you tell us about anything that was surprising to you -- or enlightening about your stay in Iowa, or about the people you met?

Alice: Being part of the Iowa International Writing Program was one of the best experiences of my life. It is a very unusual and pioneering program, because there is nothing else quite like it in the world. Very rarely does an adult get to live with thirty five other adults in the same profession from all different parts of the world, for an extended period of three months.

The most remarkable thing about my residency was befriending the other writers, particularly Kathy White from New Zealand, Salomat Vafo from Uzbekistan and Millicent Graham from Jamaica. In no other circumstance would I have had the opportunity to live on a day-to-day basis with these extraordinary people.

There was also a real community feel to Iowa City. I participated as a guest speaker in many classes including Ana Merino's Spanish literature class, while her husband the artist Felix De La Concha involved me in his painting project. Kathy and I went to a barn dance at the senior citizens centre, and we went on hayrides at the Dane's farm. Chris Merrill, the Director of the Program, invited all the writers to his house; and local doctors (the Lims) and kindly general members of community also invited us to dinner.

The whole town seemed to be imbued with a deep aura of respect for the international writers, which made the experience all the more magical.



Erin, Iowa city: I am a writing student and I am interested in how to start a writing career. do you have any suggestions about the path to take in order to become published? Thank you!

Alice: Dear Erin

Thank you for your question. It is a difficult one to answer as each writer starts out differently. I started out writing short stories for local and literary magazines. Many of them were rejected but sometimes one or two would get picked up by a magazine or journal. Eventually a publisher had read one of my stories in his spare time and called me up to ask whether it could be expanded into a book. That is how my career started.

There is no set path except to keep on submitting your work, and being able to accept a few rejections before you are published. It is never easy, but if it is any consolation, when you are published you will probably have a far larger audience in the States than we have in Australia (I am told our entire country's population could fit into New York City!)

My other piece of advice (because I also believe in being practical about these things) is to have another job at least until you get your first book published. Then you will not be beset with anxieties about not being able to feed yourself!


Maxine Case and Zuki Wanner Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with South African writer and International Writing Program alum Maxine Case at 3:00 p.m. (CST). Maxine was joined by Zuki Wanner. They discussed the international writing community, as well as other literary topics. To peruse Maxine's work and read more about her literary career, visit the IWP Website.


Cody, Iowa City: Maxine, you were part of the International Writing program in Iowa. How was your time here? Could you tell us about the people you met? And anything that was noteworthy?

Maxine Case: Everything was memorable ... in a word "awesome", which came to typify the Iowa City experience for all of us. As I mentioned before, I have begun packing for my return to South Africa and came across notes I had made after meeting Marilynne Robinson, although meeting is an overstatement, I attended one of her lectures. I ended up writing about this experience yesterday, months after meeting her. It is always wonderful to meet one of your idols, and she was definitely one of mine! On a lighter note, I acquired serious poker skills while in Iowa City and had a drink named after me at the Foxhead.


Pascal, London, U.K.: Where do you draw your ideas from? When and how do you usually write?

Zukiswa Wanner: I draw my ideas from society. I could be walking around and I will see something that gets me and I will think 'hey, good idea.' Some of my best ideas have also come from discussions I have overheard on public transport or among my family members (please don't tell them, they might sue me for my measly royalties:-0) I write whenever inspiration hits. I make it a point to walk around with a pen and a notebook and if something gets me I will write about it later.


Manju Kanchuli, Napal: What is the taste, interest and demand of the readers of fiction writing in South Africa regarding subject matter and the way of writing styled. Would you like to say a few words about it?

Zukiswa Wanner: If you judge from the sales, one would assume there is not much interest in fiction reading in South Africa but I think the problem is more of limited marketing. many a time I have encountered people who have read my work after finding it from somewhere else and they can always identify. Most readers want stories they can identify with. I believe maxine and I (and a whole range of other South African writers who have cropped up in the last five years) feel that need. Tjis has led to an increase in book sales and the creation of book clubs - higher than at any other time in South African fiction I believe.


Maggie, Iowa City: Maxine, I wonder if you got to watch the Orange Bowl football game? And how about those Hawkeyes?!

Maxine Case: Hi Maggie, I didn't watch the Orange Bowl, but heard about the win immediately after the game and felt very proud. I was thinking about you and the Hawkeyes today as I came across the memento ribbon you gave me as I was packing today. As my second residency ends, I've begun to become very nostalgic about Iowa City.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Because the tongue of narrative in short story is richer with silence than the tongue of narrative in novel: do you agree that the skills of fiction writer are more challenged in writing short stories than in writing novels?

Zukiswa Wanner: There is some truth to that. You can only use a minimal amount of characters and in doing that, you need to ensure that you make your story tighter and more appealing.



Pascal, London, U.K.: Where do you draw your ideas from? When and how do you usually write?

Maxine Case: My ideas come from various sources, from the stories I grew up with - I was lucky to have a strong oral tradition in my family, things I read about; hear. If something stays with you, it almost begs to be written.

I am currently a writer in residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, so I write throughout the day in fits and starts.


Bonface, Kakamega, Kenya: I have read the swahili literature play book titled 'Masahibu ya ndugu Jero" english translation (The Trials of Brother Jero). Did you authorize this translation, and if yes:
1. why did you let it be a swahili version?
2. Do you know the impact the swahili version had to it's readers(what was the readers feedback?)
3. How much did you earn monetary speaking from this Swahili translated version?

Maxine Case: Erm, as far as I know, The Trials of Brother Jero was written by Wole Soyinka. He would be a better person to answer this question.


Manju Kanchuli, Napal: What is the taste, interest and demand of the readers of fiction writing in South Africa regarding subject matter and the way of writing styled. Would you like to say a few words about it?

Maxine Case: I don't think that there is one thread of interest or demand regarding subject matter. Many South Africans have expressed fatigue at the the so-called struggle novel, but I think that there remains a place to explore the undocumented stories, not only of this time, but earlier too. Generally, South Africans are no different to the rest of the world in terms of the kinds of books they buy. As South African authors, we have to compete with books written by international authors more so than amongst each other. As I'm sure Zuki will mention, the South African book-buying audience is far too small, which I hope will change during my lifetime at least.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Because the tongue of narrative in short story is richer with silence than the tongue of narrative in novel: do you agree that the skills of fiction writer are more challenged in writing short stories than in writing novels?

Maxine Case: I can't answer for all fiction writers, but I find writing short stories and novels to be very different experiences. I wouldn't say that one is more challenging than the other. I also think that novels too can be "rich with silence", and which I explored in All We Have Left Unsaid.


Kecia, Iowa City: Hi Maxine! Simple question: How are you liking Pittsburgh?

Maxine Case: [Ask Joe show you what I wrote, which sums up my thoughts on Pittsburgh.] Generally, I do like it, but this weekend we had to be evacuated to a hotel due to the snow storm, which left us without electricity. I became a Steelers supporter and way too fond of Primanti sandwiches. The best thing about where we are staying is that it meant a lot of time to write without as many distractions as in Iowa City.


Elizabeth, IC, IA: The World Cup will be in Africa this summer -- has this upcoming event spurred any writing projects? Do you think you can using as inspiration?

Maxine Case: The World Cup will take place during South Africa's winter, which is much milder than the winter I am currently experiencing in Pittsburgh. I think that writing projects spurred by such an event would be pandering, and I try not to pander, or consider a potential market etc before writing a book. That being said, I saw a wonderful installation at the District Six Museum in Cape Town on the history of soccer and thought that it would make a good coffee-table book. I am sure that we can look forward to several children's books with a soccer theme, and I remember hearing about a romance series that has sports stars as the romantic interest. Each to his own, I guess.

Zukiswa Wanner: I have done some writing for a French photographer for it. Whether there will be more stuff in the works will depend on whether my country wins the World Cup though:-)


Doug, North Liberty, IA , US: How do politics affect your writing?

Maxine Case: Politics had a substantial impact on my writing, but that's probably because I am interested in history and politics overshadowed South Africa's history and continues to loom large today. I was raised on stories and politics formed a large part of those stories. I can never say (as many younger people do today) that I was unaware of what was happening in South Africa then. I was confronted by the realities of growing up under apartheid at a young age, and perhaps that's just because of my own family. Can I condemn people who say that they never knew what was happening? No. Do I agree when they profess total ignorance? No, again.

Zukiswa Wanner: My father always told me everything in life is political so because I deal with contemporary issues, there will always be politics in it, whether it will be class politics or gender politics but ultimately, I try to write work that makes society question ourselves and our values while still keeping it amusing to the reader.


Shannon, Iowa City: Was becoming a writer hard for you? How did you start your career. Do you have any advice for new writers?

Maxine Case: It was hard for me because I had no confidence in my own writing at first. My mother is a children's book writer in South Africa, and you'd think that that would make it easier for me, but it made it harder. My older sister published her first novel at the age of 20, so I was very embarrassed to admit that I too wanted to write. I began writing while I was working as a book editor. Editing other people's writing was the ideal training ground for me, and I began to see what worked and what didn't. I learned about the flow of a novel, which is also important.

My advice to new writers is to continue writing. There are good writing days and bad ones, but the trick is to carry on regardless. Someone once told me: "Do it badly, but do it." And I still hear these words when I have a bad day and think of starting something new instead of completing the book I'm currently busy with. Try not to judge yourself and your writing.


Fedosy Santaella and Roberto Echeto Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted a live discussion with Fedosy Santaella, a participant in the IWP (International Writing Program), and Roberto Echeto, at 2:00 (CST). This is the first conversion to take place entirely in Spanish. This is a transcript of the English version. For more information, visit their websites:


Miriam, Venezuela: Greetings! Thanks for answering my previous questions. How might we recognize “Venezuelan literature” today? Is Gustavo Valle, for example, part of ‘Venezuelan literature’? How does it differ from other literatures? Is there anything in particular that sets it apart?

Roberto Echeto: The truth is I don’t know how to distinguish Venezuelan literatures from other literatures. I think it’s as extensive, diverse, and full of good, bad, and mediocre works as that of any other country. Perhaps the only way in which it differs is the specific way the language is used, but I’m not sure that’s enough to characterize it one way or another. At least in my case I don’t like to talk about a “Venezuelan literature”. That I’m Venezuelan doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to Venezuelan issues or not engage in issues from any other continent or any other planet.

Yes. Gustavo Valle is part of what we call (for lack of a better name) Venezuelan literature. Even though he’s lived in Spain and now lives in Argentina, he hasn’t lost the vocabulary or Venezuelan rhythms, the manner in which we use Spanish.

Fedosy Santaella: Miriam, I don’t think that a “Venezuelan” literature exists. It’s all just literature. We (still can) read books from all over the world, we see movies from all over (we can still do this too), we go online (still able to), we live in a global, virtual world. Is a Venezuelan or Columbian or Argentinean literature possible in this context? Perhaps chronicles for news and even literature no longer exist for local things? Certainly Gustavo Valle writes literature, and in my opinion, really good literature. But don’t listen to me, my taste is my taste, and some people might think it’s not the best. That said, I’d still recommend Gustavo. I hope my recommendation isn’t harmful to him. Hahaha.


Doris, Rodesia del Sur: My question concerns the wonderful poetic tradition in Venezuela, and whether this tradition establishes any sort of bridge with contemporary narrative. Also, do young people from Venezuela read poetry? Thanks.

Fedosy Santaella: I read poetry, especially if the authors are Venezuelan. I’m fascinated by Elenora Requena, Cecilia Ortiz, Milton Quero, Ramón Palomares, Eleazar León, who is a giant among giants… In my opinion the union between poetry and narrative is fundamental. Every time I feel stuck with a narrative, I read poetry and it recharges me. Poetry unlocks the words.

Roberto Echeto: Again, I can’t speak for all my contemporaries, but I suppose most do read a lot of Venezuelan poetry. Especially José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Vicente Gerbasi, Fernando Paz Castillo, Antonia Palacios, Eugenio Montejo, Rafael Cadenas, Armando Rojas Guardia, Eleazar León, Hanni Ossot, Yolanda Pantin and so many more. Reading poetry is vital for a narrator. There are tones, rhythms and cadences in it which, in general, don’t exist in prose. To this we can add that good poetry offers narrative a constant renovation of language, a re-semantization of words.


Elena Broszkowski, Caracas, Venezuela: Fedosy, ¿Could you tell us a little about the Los Hermanos Chang website and what you’re trying to do with it? I have the impression that it’s very appreciated among Venezuelan writers and its humor is so unique. Regards, I love that you and Roberto are doing this discussion.

Fedosy Santaella: Hi Elena:

Los Hermanos Chang [The Chang Brothers] ( is a literary magazine-blog (or perhaps its focus is literary humor, or who knows what) that’s been online four years already. The magazine comes out every two months, the work is solicited, and it was created by José Urriola and I, who also serve as the editors. But we also count on the fundamental support of Roberto Echeto, as well as collaborators like Enrique Enriquez, Carlos Zerpa y Joaquín Ortega among others. The magazine always has a theme, usually each issue is about a business. We’ve had a funeral home, an events agency, a mariachi office, a nuclear plant, etc. We editors get in touch with the collaborator by mail and we don’t say anything except what the business is, and from there the collaborator is free to do what they like. Freedom is fundamental for our magazine. The freedom to create original and juicy texts, but always of quality. Oh, I almost forgot, the Chang brothers are two Chinese gangsters who live in Venezuela, and one day they got in touch with us (José Urriola and me) and made us their front men. That’s why we’re always starting up businesses. They launder their money in these businesses (the Chang brothers trade bearded women and lethal weapons like chopsticks with poisonous steel points). Venezuelan writers like Armando José Sequera, María Celina Nuñez, Jacqueline Goldberg, Edda Armas, Israel Centeno, Oscar Marcano, Salvador Fleján, Rodrigo Blanco, Adriana Bertorelli, Eloi Yague have collaborated with Hermanos Chang, as well as many others who I apologize to for not naming here. With luck, Hermanos Chang has become a point of reference for online Venezuelan literature; we think some people may have been tortured just to make them say nice things about it. Because, as far as we’re concerned, this fame doesn’t have another explanation. By the way, in the last issue, the Chang Brothers made several members of IWP participate in their project. So, we had a magnificent international issue that we’re so grateful to all our friends for who were at Iowa last year.


Sandra, Caracas, Venezuela: I’d appreciate it if you’d elaborate on the fact that writing isn’t only writing but also the act of re-reading, erasing, re-writing, until one finds what they really want to say. Is this process absolutely necessary? And, if so, is it directed only toward perfecting form or is does it also explore content? Roberto Echeto: Writing shouldn’t be called “writing”. It should be called “re-writing” and its most precious tools should be the eraser and the drawer. The eraser to erase and the drawer to store something for awhile that was written with naïve illusion.

This process isn’t only necessary: it’s THE PROCESS (in capital letters).

You re-read, erase, re-write, erase, and re-write in order to perfect the form and so that content comes to light with absolute clarity. In writing, form and content are so united that it’s almost impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Yes. Writing exhausts and hurts.


Effie, Israel, Tel-Aviv: You write in three different geners (Children books, Short stories and Novels) - Is there any relationships between the three? And if there is, what each genre is covering that the other can not? Is it a matter of 3 different mentalities? Ways of expressions that you practice as a writer?

Fedosy Santaella: My dear Effie. A thousand greetings. Listen, I believe there’s a certain unity in all the elements because they all pass through my hands. That is to say, if you revise my children’s stories, my short stories, and my novels, you’ll see that several constants run throughout: humor, playfulness, games with language. Nevertheless, with children’s literature I’m able to play more, and without a doubt, must think a little more about my readers. That said, I do think children’s literature exists, and that it’s possible to write and study it beyond commercial interests.

Roberto Echeto: Even though it seems this question is for Fedosy, I’d like to offer my point of view. I write stories, novels, essays, articles, scripts for radio…. The only relationship I find between everything I write is an immense need to communicate with others. Perhaps a person develops “various mentalities”: one to write stories, articles, scripts…Nonetheless, I think that all of them are united by a common imagination and set of similar concerns.


Whitney, Chicago, IL: Have you adjusted to a life of being seen once more as a below-average dancer?

Fedosy Santaella: I don’t know how to dance, Whitney. But there in Iowa, the few times I did, I was a star. There’s a saying that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But I’m a terrible dancer, seriously.

Roberto Echeto: Hahahahaa. If it’s possible, I’m a worse dancer than Fedosy. I didn’t dance even at my wedding.


Juan Carlos Herrera Mujica, Iowa City (Department of Spanish): The University of Iowa's Spanish and Portuguese Department has taken firm steps in the development of a future MFA in Spanish Creative Writing.

As professors of Creative Writing in Venezuela. ¿How crucial do you think is the development of this program in Spanish for the the university that historically founded the concept of the writers workshop? and ¿How do you think this will after the future of writers workshops in the United States and for US-Latino writers?

Juan Carlos Herrera Mujica

Fedosy Santaella: Juan Carlos, I think answering that might require a greater understanding of the situation of literary workshops in the U.S. However, I understand that every year there’s more demand for Spanish language learning, and that every year there’s more Hispanics living in the U.S. I do think that every effort that contributes to bringing attention to Latin American writers in the U.S. is important. So, if the MFA focuses part of its efforts on bringing to light literature from these parts, well then, that seems wonderful.

Roberto Echeto: Yes. I think an MFA in creative writing would positively affect American/Latino writers who wanted and were able to do it. A language is a universe, a tradition and a way of seeing the world and interacting with it. Everything that enriches life, stimulates cultural exchange, fosters respect among people, and helps them make their way in life should be supported.


Gustavo, Buenos Aires, Arg.: Fedosy, Roberto, my question is:
What is being written about today in Venezuela, and what hasn’t been written about yet, or what hasn’t been wanted (or able) to be written? Thanks!

Fedosy Santaella: As long as writers are more honest and freer, they’ll write whatever appeals to them. It’s important to be a little careful with the repetition of repetition of repetition. To not get swept up trends, to not feel like we must enter the canon of those who want to tell us what to like. As long as we’re honest, as I said before, we’ll write whatever we truly like. There’s not enough horror novels, for example. And don’t try to tell me that horror isn’t literature.

Roberto Echeto: In Venezuela, they’re making really good literature. A lot of essays about our political and social future are being written. Novels, stories, and lots of poetry are being written. The subject matter is really varied, just like anywhere else. There are love stories, erotica, detective stories, political thrillers, historic novels… There’s a desire to analyze our problems through writing.
To say this is new would be silly. What is relatively new, for the momentum it’s gained over the last seven or eight years, is related to publishing. A lot of books have been published, book stores opened; a lot of reading groups, analysis groups, and workshops have surfaced, giving our country’s literature a breath of fresh air that wasn’t so common before.
I don’t think there are limits (at least visible ones) for what can be written and published.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: To both writers:

Living in a country where the tone of revolutionary slogans is high, does this make your language recede to themes where it can invent its own body with a sophisticated and at the same time undamaged texture?

Fedosy Santaella: I’m not sure I understood the question very well. But I would like to say that an author isn’t obligated to get tied up in political issues in their writing. If they do, that’s fine, but the important thing here is the story being told and the writing. My last novel has a strong political component, but it goes beyond the national. Let’s say that I tried to make the gaze more Latin American, more universal, if that’s possible. However, I think that no matter how much you try to distance yourself from current issues, your writing will always reflect your existential situation. In some way the present is reflected. In the violence, for example, or the character’s neuroses. They’ll always be something there. Just distancing yourself from reality says something about it. You’re reacting against something you don’t like, and that’s already a reflection or response to reality.

Roberto Echeto: That’s right. There’s nothing worse than becoming an echo of a language that’s dirty, frayed, and full of hate.


Roberto Ampuero, Iowa City, US: There is no doubt that the current political and economic situation in Venezuela is fueling tensions between Venezuelans. Usually narrative is close related to political events. My question: do you and your colleagues include the current political situation of Venezuela in recent works, or do you feel you and your colleagues need a certain historical distance (or prefer allegories) to represent in your/their fiction the current political situation of your country?

Thanks very much,

Roberto Echeto: I can’t speak for my colleagues, but, as a reader of many of them, I can say that in a good part of their narrative they’ve preferred to create a distance with respect to the political, economic, and social situation of our country. And yes, in contemporary Venezuelan narratives there’s a little of everything: allegories, stories that tell of other times and places, fantasy, humoristic, pornographic stories… In literature there’s more than one way to portray the facts. In my case I can say that I take elements from the environment around me (for example the absurd and the violent) and I try to give them back to this reality in the form of stories full of humor and cold anger.

Fedosy Santaella: Hello Roberto. I think, just as Roberto said, that most of our colleagues have distanced themselves from politics in their literature. And if they deal with it, they talk about it indirectly. Why? I don’t have any idea. I think maybe it’s a Latin American tendency, or even a global one. I also think, Roberto, that this whole political and economic process in Venezuela is so complex, so overwhelming, and so recent (even though more than ten years has gone by, we’re still not sure where we’re going) that we haven’t been able to assimilate what’s happening. Literature, in that sense, is slow. However, politics and its thought, its analysis is very present in the essay, in the article, that is to say, in journalism. My novel “Las peripecias inéditas de Teofilus Jones”, has a strong political element, but in my case, I wrote a satire with a lot of science fiction of chaos or dystopia. Satire and science fiction allow me a distance that helped me to feel good while I wrote. To have fun, let’s say. But at the same time that I had fun, I was able to talk about the reality of the continent. I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself. If I tried to write a novel about the current political situation of Venezuela, I wouldn’t be able to. I don’t know, I try to think about it and I get bored. I haven’t been able to find the fun side of the stupidity of the present. On the other hand, when I modify it, when I project it to other places, when I put in imagination and humor, then it starts to get fun. And once again, if I don’t have fun while I’m writing, then it doesn’t make sense to write.


Miriam, Venezuela: When trying to find a balance between the word and the story: How do you achieve it? Is this balance imperative? What makes you search for it, what signs appear? Or does it emerge naturally? In this respect, do you have a strategy you could reveal to us?

* Could you show us a few ideas or images that define the concept or notion of “Venezuelan Literature” today?

Roberto Echeto: When trying to find a balance between the word and the story: How do you achieve it?

Sometimes the balance comes on its own because the story shows you how to tell it. Sometimes the balance doesn’t emerge on its own and you have to juggle on a tightrope made of words and more words.

Is this balance imperative?

Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. It all depends on the effect you’re looking for. If you write fantasy, for example, it’s not a bad idea to use an extensive vocabulary to talk about the details. In those kinds of stories, being very careful when describing realistic elements allows the narrator to be convincing when it comes time to show supernatural elements. In this case, the balance between word and story plays to the reader, their surprise and their fright.

Maybe you want to write a fantasy story in which the real elements (like, for example: the carpets, lamps, character’s clothing) aren’t as detailed as the supernatural manifestions. It’s another way of tackling the same matter and will probably produce a different effect in the reader. It’s in the writer’s hands to decide what to do.

What makes you search for it, what signs appear?

Sometimes you look for this balance because the relationship between the words and the story should be evident. Sometimes you just go with the flow.

In this respect, do you have a strategy you could reveal to us?

My strategy is the same as everyone else’s: write, read what I wrote, erase, re-write, re-read, erase again… Have a beer, read once again, cross out, erase, rewrite until I find the tone that best goes with the effect I’d like to cause in readers.

Could you show us a few ideas or images that define the concept or notion of “Venezuelan Literature” today?

Basically, Venezuelan literature is good, like so many other literatures in so many other countries. However, I don’t think it’s right to put into the same sack the work of people who are so different, so diverse, with so many different interests. There’s a little of everything. There are short stories, novels, plays, poetry. There are love stories, detective stories, historical stories, erotica, humor, drama…For several years now a lot is being written, and publishing has taken off in a way that has filled us with an optimism that might be somewhat exaggerated, but, without a doubt, is different and greater than in past decades.

Maybe our historical circumstances (full of excesses and the absurd) has awakened something that was asleep inside us.

Fedosy Santaella: This is a search I’m always engaged in. Stories are very important to me, I like telling stories. But if I focus only on the story, then I suppose I’d be nothing more than a joke-teller. The word, language is fundamental. I think that every story project should also be a language project. I can’t tell the story of the Duke of Rocanegras (I’m talking about my novel) with the same language that you tell “Las peripecias inéditas de Teofilus” (my last novel). The story of Rocanegras happens in the past and furthermore Rocanegras is a far-fetched character, we could even say a Mannerist character. To write this novel I used language in line with the historical setting and the character. Then, to write the novel of Teofilus, which a dystopia, I used language that was more direct, less formal, but baroque in its constructions. So, the balance for me is in thinking a lot about how to get the story and language on the same plane of signification.


Ana Merino, Iowa City, IA: A hug from the city of ice and corn…
This question is for both of you.
What’s the situation of the comic in Venezuela?

On one hand in terms of domestic production and on the other, in terms of strong influences from Anglo and Hispanic countries…European countries…What do the young people you meet read? Local production, Manga, superheroes…alternative. And you? What comics have marked you and why?

Well, since there’s a lot of questions here, please answer the ones you like best. Thanks so much!!!

Fedosy Santaella: Hi, Ana:
It’s a pleasure to receive your questions. Warm memories from my stay at Iowa connect me to you, your students, Félix, and the fantastic Halloween party we had at your house. But let’s get to it. The situation of comic production is that it’s all handcrafted. That is to say, there’s no comic industry. I know that some time ago there was a magazine called Zuplemento. I also understand that soon they’ll be a comic exposition at the Universidad Metropolitana. I know there’s lots of young people who are very invested. But in terms of market, the truth is it’s really poor. In the 80s there was a certain fever. Fierro arrived, the famous magazine from Argentina, and so did El Víbora, from Spain. Some bookstores carried material by Manara, especially. Things were going well, but something happened. It become difficult and expensive to carry magazines, and the trend lost ground, or was limited to Graphic Design Institutes. Wow, now that I’m thinking about it what’s happening here in Venezuela is like the Middle Ages. The comic, like culture, hid itself in Graphic-Design-Academies-Monasteries. I hope someday they’ll come out, and contribute to the Great Comic Renaissance in Venezuela. It’s sad to think one is living a dark Middle Age in their country, don’t you think?

As far as influences. American comics have been very present in recent years. There’s no denying that movies like Sin City have been a powerful promoter of the comic. In fact, I’ve seen Sin City books in respectable bookstores and, in addition, other Frank Miller works. Of course Manga has a place. We also enjoyed Dragon Ball and all its variations here for a long time. The cable channel Animax has also been a good influence. Obviously there are hardcore groups of Animé and Manga fans. Anything related to Akira and films like Ghost in the Shell is well-known. Batman is here, of course, it also makes it to a few bookstores. Still, I repeat, I think most people still consider the comic to be something of lesser importance. There’s a long way to go before Alan Moore or Frank Miller are understood as great artists and that their works are true works of art.

We could talk about this for quite awhile. But I’ll close by saying that I was marked by “El Incal” de Moebius and Jodorowski, “Batman” by Miller, Alan Moore, all those morbid things I read in El Víbora, and of course, Milo Manara.


Fedosy Santaella y Roberto Echeto Conversación en Vivo

La página web de la Writing University (Universidad de Escritura) presenta hoy una charla con Fedosy Santaella, un participante anterior del IWP (Programa Internacional de Escritura), y Roberto Echeto, a las 15:00 (CST). Es la primera Conversación en Vivo que ocurre exclusivamente en español. Se producirá un transcrito en inglés después de la charla. Las temas de conversación incluye la literatura/la cultura pop y la literatura/el humor. Para más información, visita sus página web::


Miriam, Venezuela: Saludos! Gracias por responder mis anteriores preguntas. En la actualidad, Como podemos reconocer "la literatura venezolana"? Gustavo Valle, por ejemplo es parte de esa literatura venezolana"? Que la distingue de las otras? Tiene alguna particularidad

Roberto Echeto: La verdad es que no sé qué distingue a la literatura venezolana de otras literaturas. Creo que es tan extensa, tan diversa y tan llena de obras buenas, malas y regulares como la de cualquier otro país. Quizás lo único que la distinga sea una manera muy particular de usar un idioma, pero no sé si eso sea suficiente para calificarla de tal o cual manera. A mí en particular no me gusta hablar de "literatura venezolana". El que yo sea venezolano no me obliga a hablar de temas estrictamente venezolanos ni a dejar de hablar de temas de cualquier otro continente o de cualquier otro planeta.
Sí. Gustavo Valle es parte de eso que llamamos (a falta de un nombre mejor) literatura venezolana. Aunque haya vivido en España y ahora viva en Argentina, no ha perdido el vocabulario ni el ritmo venezolanos, la forma que tenemos aquí de usar el castellano.

Fedosy Santaella: Miriam, yo no creo que exista una literatura "venezolana". Existe la literatura, sin más. Leemos (todavía podemos) libros de todas partes del mundo, vemos películas también de muchas partes (todavía podemos esto también), nos metemos en la red (podemos aún), vivimos en un mundo global y virtual. ¿Es posible una literatura venezolana o colombiana o argentina es este contexto? ¿Acaso ya no existe la crónica periodística o incluso literaria para esas cosas locales? Gustavo Valle, por cierto, escribe literatura, y de la buena, según mis gustos. Pero no me hagan caso, mis gustos son mis gustos, y algunos pensarán que no son los mejores. Aún así, no dejo de recomendar a Gustavo. Espero que esta recomendación mía no sea dañina para él. Jejeje.

Doris, Rodesia del Sur: Mi pregunta es acerca de la gran tradición poética en Venezuela, y si esa tradición establece algún puente con la narrativa actual. Además ¿leen poesía los narradores jóvenes venezolanos? Gracias.

Fedosy Santaella: Yo leo poesía, y si son autores venezolanos más todavía. Me fascinan Elenora Requena, Cecilia Ortiz, Milton Quero, Ramón Palomares, Eleazar León, que es grande entre los grandes... Para mí es fundamental ese enlace entre poesía y narrativa. Cada vez que me siento muy estancado con la narrativa, leo poesía y esto mi carga las baterías. La poesía me destranca las palabras.

Roberto Echeto: Nuevamente no puedo hablar por todos mis colegas, pero supongo que la mayoría lee mucha poesía venezolana. En especial a José Antonio Ramos Sucre, a Vicente Gerbasi, Fernando Paz Castillo, Antonia Palacios, Eugenio Montejo, Rafael Cadenas, Armando Rojas Guardia, Eleazar León, Hanni Ossot, Yolanda Pantin y tantos otros.

La lectura de poesía es vital para un narrador. En ella hay tonos, ritmos y cadencias que, por lo general, no existen en la prosa. A eso podemos añadir que la buena poesía le ofrece a la narrativa su renovación constante del lenguaje, su resemantización de las palabras.

Elena Broszkowski, Caracas, Venezuela: Fedosy, ¿podrías contarnos un poco de la página web de Los Hermanos Chang y qué intentas hacer con ella? Me da la impresión de que entre los escritores venezolanos es un lugar muy apreciado y el humor que manejan es muy singular. Saludos y me encanta que Roberto y tú estén haciendo este chat.

Fedosy Santaella: Saludos, Elena:

Los hermanos Chang ( es una revista-blog literaria (o quizás de humor literario, o quién sabe de qué) que ya lleva cuatro años en línea. La revista aparece cada dos meses, se trabaja por invitación, y fue creada por mí y por José Urriola, quienes somos los editores. Pero también hemos contado con la ayuda fundamental de Roberto Echeto, y de colaboradores como Enrique Enriquez, Carlos Zerpa y Joaquín Ortega entre otros. La revista es temática, cada número por lo general es un negocio. Hemos tenido una funeraria, una agencia de festejos, una oficina de mariachis, una planta nuclear, etc. Por medio de un correo, los editores invitamos al colaborador y le decimos nada más de qué va el negocio, y por ahí el colaborador se va libremente. La libertad es fundamental en nuestra revista. La libertad para crear textos originales, sabrosos, pero siempre de calidad. Ah, se me olvidaba, los hermanos Chang son dos chinos mafiosos que viven en Venezuela, que un día nos contactaron (a José Urriola y a mí) y nos obligaron a ser sus testaferros. De ahí que siempre estemos montando negocios. En esos negocios ellos lavan su dinero sucio (los hermanos Chang son tratantes de mujeres con barba y de armas tan letales como palitos chinos con punta de acero envenenadas). Con los hermanos Chang han colaborado escritores venezolanos como Armando José Sequera, María Celina Nuñez, Jacqueline Goldberg, Edda Armas, Israel Centeno, Oscar Marcano, Salvador Fleján, Rodrigo Blanco, Adriana Bertorelli, Eloi Yague, entre otros tanto a los que pido excusas por no nombrar en este espacio. Por fortuna, los hermanos Chang se han convertido en un referente de la literatura venezolana en la red; creemos que algunas personas han sido torturadas con el sólo fin de obligarlos a hablar bien de los Chang. Porque para nosotros esa buena fama no tiene otra explicación. Por cierto, en el número anterior, los hermanos Chang obligaron a varios miembros del IWP a participar en su proyecto. De ahí que tuvimos un magnífico número internacional que agradecemos a todos nuestros amigos que estuvieron Iowa el año pasado.


Sandra, Caracas, Venezuela: Me gustaría que ahondaran en el hecho de que la escritura no es sólo escribir sino releer, borrar, reescribir, hasta encontrar lo que realmente se quiere decir. ¿Ese proceso es realmente necesario? Y de serlo, ¿se dirije solo hacia el perfeccionamiento de la forma o pasa por otras búsquedas de fondo?

Roberto Echeto: La escritura no se debería llamar "escritura". Se debería llamar "reescritura" y sus herramientas más preciadas deberían ser el borrador y la gaveta. El borrador para borrar y la gaveta para guardar durante un tiempo aquello que alguna se escribió con ingenua ilusión.

Ese proceso no sólo es necesario; es EL PROCESO (en mayúsculas).

Relees, borras, reescribes, borras, reescribes para perfeccionar la forma y para que el fondo salga a la luz con absoluta nitidez.

En la escritura, forma y fondo están unidos a tal punto que es casi imposible separar dónde termina uno y dónde comienza el otro.

Sí. Escribir cansa y duele.


Effie, Israel, Tel-Aviv: Usted escribe en tres géneros (libros para niños, relatos cortos y novelas) – ¿Ve una relación entre los tres? Si es así, ¿Qué puede cubrir con cada género que no puede cubrir con los otros? ¿Es una cuestión de tres mentalidades distintas? ¿O maneras de expresarse que practica como escritor?

Roberto Echeto: Aunque esta pregunta me parece que es para Fedosy, quisiera ofrecer mi punto de vista.

Yo escribo cuentos, novelas, ensayos, crónicas, libretos para la radio... La única relación que encuentro entre todo lo que escribo es una necesidad inmensa de comunicación con mis semejantes.

Quizás uno desarrolle "varias mentalidades": una de cuentista, otra de articulista, otra de libretista... No obstante, creo que todas están unidas por un imaginario común y por un conjunto de preocupaciones similares.


Whitney, Chicago, IL: ¿Se ha acostumbrado a una vida donde una vez más está usted visto como un bailador por debajo de la media?

Fedosy Santaella: Yo no sé bailar, Whitney. Pero allá en Iowa, las pocas veces que lo hice, fui una estrella. Hay un dicho que dice que en la tierra de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey. Pero yo bailo muy mal, en verdad.

Roberto Echeto: Jajajajaa. Por si acaso, yo soy peor bailarín que Fedosy.

Yo no bailé ni en mi boda.

Juan Carlos Herrera Mujica, Iowa City (Department of Spanish): El departamento de español y portugués de la Universidad de Iowa está tomando medias para el desarrollo de un MFA en escritura creativa en español.
Como profesores de escritura creativa en Venezuela ¿Piensan que es esencial el desarrollo de este programa en español para la universidad que históricamente fundó el concepto del taller de escritura? ¿Y piensan que afectará el futuro de talleres de escritura en los EE.UU. y otros escritores estadounidenses/latinos?
Juan Carlos Herrera Mujica

Fedosy Santaella: Estimado Juan Carlos, creo que esa es una respuesta que requiere mayor conocimiento de la situación de los talleres literarios en Estados Unidos. No obstante, tengo entendido que cada año hay mayor demanda de la enseñanza del idioma español, y cada año también hay más hispanos allá. Sí creo que toda labor que contribuya a que los escritores latinoamericanos nos demos a conocer en Estados Unidos es importante. Así, si estos MFA enfocan parte de sus esfuerzos en dar a conocer la literatura de por estos lados, pues entonces me parece magnífico.

Roberto Echeto: Sí. Creo que un MFA en escritura creativa en español afectará positivamente a los escritores estadounidenses/latinos que quieran y puedan tomarlo. Un idioma es un universo, una tradición y una manera de ver el mundo y de interactuar con él. Todo lo que enriquezca la vida, estimule el intercambio cultural, promueva el respeto entre las personas y ayude a la gente a abrirse caminos en la vida, debe ser apoyado.


Gustavo, Buenos Aires, Arg.: Fedosy, Roberto, mi pregunta es:

¿Sobre qué se está escribiendo hoy en día en Venezuela, y sobre qué no se ha escrito aún, o no se ha querido (o no se ha podido) escribir?

Fedosy Santaella: Mientras los escritores sean más honestos y más libres, es decir, podrán escribir lo que se les antoje. Hay que tener cuidado un poco con la repetición de la repetición de la repetición. No dejarse llevar por modas, no sentir tanto que debemos entrar en el canon de los que quieren imponernos gustos. Mientras seamos honestos, ya lo dije, escribiremos lo que realmente nos gusta. Falta, por ejemplo, novelas de terror. Y que no me vengan con que el terror no es literatura.

Roberto Echeto: En Venezuela se está haciendo muy buena literatura. Se están escribiendo muchos ensayos sobre nuestro devenir político y social. Se están escribiendo novelas, cuentos y mucha poesía. La temática es muy variada, como en cualquier parte. Hay historias de amor, relatos eróticos, policiales, thrillers políticos, novelas históricas...

Hay un deseo de analizar nuestros problemas desde la escritura.

Decir que eso es nuevo sería una tontería. Lo que es relativamente nuevo, por el impulso que ha tenido durante los últimos siete u ocho años es el tema editorial. Se han editado muchos libros, se han abierto librerías; han surgido muchos grupos de lectura, análisis y talleres que le han dado a la literatura de nuestro país un soplo aire fresco que antes no era tan común.

Creo que no hay barreras (al menos visibles) para lo que se pueda escribir y publicar.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Está pregunta está dirigido a los dos autores:

Como ustedes viven en un país donde el tono de los lemas revolucionarios es alto, ¿es necesario que su lenguaje se retire a temas donde puede inventar un cuerpo de escritura con una textura sofisticada y a la vez intacta?

Fedosy Santaella: No sé si entendí bien la pregunta. Pero sí me gustaría decir que el escritor no está obligado a atarse a temas políticos en su escritura. Si lo hace, está bien, pero lo importante acá, es la historia a contar y la escritura. Mi última novela tiene un componente político muy fuerte, pero no se queda solamente con la nacional. Digamos que traté de que mi mirada fuese más latinoamericana, más universal, si esto fuese posible. No obstante, yo creo que por más que te apartes de los temas actuales, tu escritura siempre reflejará tu situación existencial. De alguna manera el presente está reflejado. En la violencia, por ejemplo, o la neurosis de los personajes. Siempre habrá algo allí. El mismo hecho de alejarte de la realidad, está hablando de la realidad. Está reaccionando contra algo que no te gusta, y eso ya es un reflejo o una respuesta a la realidad.

Roberto Echeto: Así es. Nada peor que convertirse en eco de un lenguaje sórdido, destemplado y lleno de odio.

Roberto Ampuero, Iowa City, US: No hay duda que la situación política y económica actual en Venezuela está alimentando tensiones entre los venezolanos. Normalmente el narrativo está estrechamente relacionado con los sucesos políticos. Mi pregunta es: ¿incluye usted y sus colegas la situación política de Venezuela en sus obras recientes, o siente usted y sus colegas la necesidad de crear una cierta distancia histórica (o prefieren las alegorías) para representar en su ficción la situación política actual del país?

Muchas gracias,

Roberto Echeto: No puedo hablar por mis colegas, pero, en calidad de lector de muchos de ellos, puedo decir que en buena parte de su narrativa han preferido crear una distancia con respecto a la situación política, económica y social de nuestro país. Y sí, en la narrativa venezolana actual hay de todo: alegorías, relatos que hablan de otros tiempos y de otros lugares, historias fantásticas, humorísticas, pornográficas... En la literatura no existe una sola manera de retratar los hechos.

En mi caso puedo decir que tomo elementos del entorno que me rodea (verbigracia el absurdo y la violencia) y trato de devolvérselos a esa realidad en forma de relatos llenos de humor y rabia congelada.

Fedosy Santaella: Saludos, estimado Roberto. Creo, tal como dice Roberto, que la mayoría de nuestros contemporáneos, se han alejado del tema político en su literatura. Y si lo hacen, hablan de esto indirectamente. ¿Por qué? No tengo la menor idea. Creo que se trata quizás de una tendencia latinoamericana, o incluso mundial. Creo también, Roberto, que todo este proceso político y económico de Venezuela es tan complejo, tan arrollador, y tan reciente (a pesar de que han pasado más de diez años, pero aún así no terminamos de saber hacia dónde vamos) que aún no se ha terminado de asimilar lo que ocurre. La literatura, en ese sentido, es lenta. Lo político y su pensamiento, su análisis, no obstante se encuentra muy presente en el ensayo, en la crónica, es decir, desde el periodismo. Mi novela, Las peripecias inéditas de Teofilus Jones, tiene un fuerte elemento político, pero en mi caso, yo escribí una sátira con mucho de ciencia ficción del caos, o distopia. La sátira y la ciencia ficción me permitieron un distanciamiento que me ayudó a sentirme bien mientras escribía. A divertirme, digamos. Pero al mismo tiempo que me diviertía, también me permití hablar de la realidad del continente. No sé si me explico. Si me pones a escribir una novela sobre la situación política actual de Venezuela, no me saldría. No sé, trato de pensar en ella y me aburro. No le he conseguido el lado divertido a la tontería del presente. En cambio, cuando la modifico, cuando la proyecto hacia otros lugares, cuando le meto imaginación y humor, la cosa sí se pone divertida. Y una vez más, si no me divierto cuando escribo, entonces no tiene sentido escribir.


Effie, Israel, Tel-Aviv: Usted escribe en tres géneros (libros para niños, relatos cortos y novelas) – ¿Ve una relación entre los tres? Si es así, ¿Qué puede cubrir con cada género que no puede cubrir con los otros? ¿Es una cuestión de tres mentalidades distintas? ¿O maneras de expresarse que practica como escritor?

Fedosy Santaella: Mi querida Effie. Mil saludos. Escucha, escucha, yo creo que en todos los elementos hay cierta unidad, porque todos pasan por mis manos. Es decir, si revisas mis historias para niños, mis cuentos y mis novelas, verás que están atravesados por varias constantes: el humor, lo lúdico, el juego con el lenguaje. No obstante, con la literatura para niños puedo jugar más, y sin duda, debo pensar un poco más en mis lectores. No obstante, creo que la literatura infantil sí existe, y sí es posible escribirla y estudiarla más allá de los intereses comerciales.


Miriam, Venezuela: Cuando intentas buscar un equilibrio entre la palabra y la historia, ¿Cómo logras ese equilibrio? ¿es imperante ese equilibrio? ¿Qué te hace buscarlo, qué indicios aparecen? O ¿Surgen naturalmente? Al respecto, ¿tienes alguna estrategía que puedas revelarnos?

* Actualmente, ¿Podrías mostrarnos algunas ideas o imágenes para definir el concepto o la noción de "literatura venezolana"?

Roberto Echeto:
Cuando intentas buscar un equilibrio entre la palabra y la historia, ¿Cómo logras ese equilibrio?
A veces ese equilibrio llega solo porque tu historia te dice cómo debes contarla. A veces ese equilibrio no surge solo y tienes que hacer malabares en una cuerda floja hecha de palabras y más palabras.

¿Es imperante ese equilibrio?
A veces sí. A veces no. Todo depende del efecto que busques. Si te dedicas a escribir relatos fantásticos, por ejemplo, no estaría mal que usarás un vocabulario muy amplio para hablar de los detalles. En ese tipo de relatos, la prolijidad a la hora de describir los elementos realistas le permite al narrador causar un efecto contundente cuando le toca mostrar los elementos sobrenaturales.

En ese caso, el equilibrio entre palabra e historia juega a favor del lector, de su sorpresa y de su susto.

Tal vez quieras escribir un relato fantástico en el que los elementos reales (qué sé yo: las alfombras, las lámparas, la ropa de los personajes) no están tan bien detallados como las manifestaciones de lo sobrenatural. Es otra manera de abordar el mismo asunto y seguramente producirá un efecto distinto en el lector. Está en manos del escritor decidir qué quiere hacer.

¿Qué te hace buscarlo, qué indicios aparecen o surgen naturalmente?

A veces buscas ese equilibrio porque te parece que la relación entre las palabras y la historia debe ser evidente. A veces simplemente te dejas llevar.

Al respecto, ¿tienes alguna estrategia que puedas revelarnos?

Mi estrategia es la de todos: escribir, releer lo que escribí, borrar, reescribir, releer, volver a borrar... Tomarme una cerveza, volver a leer, tachar, borrar, reescribir hasta que encuentro el tono que mejor se lleva con el efecto que deseo causar en los lector.

Actualmente, ¿Podrías mostrarnos algunas ideas o imágenes para definir el concepto o la noción de "literatura venezolana"?

En principio, la literatura venezolana está bien, como tantas otras en otros tantos países. Sin embargo, creo que no es justo encerrar en un sólo saco el trabajo de gente tan distinta, tan diversa y con tantos intereses diferentes. Hay de todo. Hay cuentos, novelas, obras de teatro, poesía. Hay relatos de amor, relatos policiales, históricos, eróticos, humorísticos, dramáticos... Desde hace unos años se está escribiendo mucho y se está editando a un ritmo que nos ha insuflado un optimismo quizás un tanto exagerado, pero que, sin duda, es distinto y mayor al de décadas pasadas.

Tal vez nuestra circunstancia histórica (llena de excesos y de absurdos) haya despertado algo que teníamos dormido por dentro.

Fedosy Santaella: Esa es una búsqueda en la que ando. Para mí es muy importante la historia, me gusta contar historias. Pero si me quedo sólo con la historia, entonces imagino que seré nada más que un contador de chistes. La palabra, el lenguaje es fundamental. Yo creo que cada proyecto de historia también debe tener un proyecto de lenguaje. No puedo contar la historia del duque de Rocanegras (hablo de mi novela) con el mismo lenguaje con que vas a contar las peripecias de Teofilus (mi última novela). La historia de Rocanegras transcurre en el pasado, y Rocanegras, además es un personaje rocambolesco, manierista digamos. Para escribir esta novela usé un lenguaje parecido al tiempo histórico y al personaje. Luego, para escribir la novela de Teofilus, que es una distopia, use un lenguaje más directo, menos formal, pero barroco en sus construcciones. Así, el equilibrio para mí, está en pensarse bien cómo darle a la historia y al lenguaje un mismo plano de significación.


Ana Merino, Iowa City, IA: Un abrazo desde la ciudad de hielo y maiz...
Esta pregunta es para los dos.
Qué tal es la situación del cómic en Venezuela?
Por un lado la producción autóctona y por otro lado las grandes influencias de otros países tanto anglos como hispánicos...europeos... Qué leen los jóvenes con los que tratais? Producción local, manga, superhéroes...alternativo.Y vosotros? Qué cómics os han marcado y por qué?

En fín, como son muchas podeis contestarme las preguntas que os gusten mas. Mil gracias!!!!

Fedosy Santaella: Hola, querida Ana:

Un placer recibir tus preguntas. Gratos recuerdos de mi estadía en Iowa me unen a ti, a tus alumnos, a Félix, y la fantástica fiesta de Halloween que tuvimos en tu casa. Pero vayamos al tema. La situación de producción del cómic en Venezuela es totalmente artesanal. Es decir, no hay una industria del cómic. Sé que hace algún tiempo existió una revista llamada Zuplemento. También tengo entendido que habrá pronto una exposición de cómics en la Universidad Metropolitana. Sé que hay mucha gente joven con ganas de trabajar. Pero en cuanto al mercado, en verdad es muy pobre. En los ochenta hubo como una cierta fiebre. Llegaba Fierro, la famosa revista de Argentina, y también El Víbora, de España. Algunas librerías trajeron material de Manara, sobre todo. El asunto iba por buen camino, pero algo pasó. Se hizo difícil y costoso traer revistas, y la tendencia bajó, o se recluyó a los institutos de diseño gráfico. Fíjate, ahora que lo pienso, esto acá en Venezuela es como la Edad Media. El cómic, como la cultura, se fue a esconder a los monasterios-academias-de-diseño-gráfico. Espero que de algún día salgan de allí, y aporte el Gran Renacimiento del Cómic en Venezuela. Es triste decir que uno vive una oscura Edad Media en su país, ¿no es así?

En cuanto a las influencias. Pues el cómic norteamericano está muy presente en los últimos años. No cabe duda que películas como Sin City han sido poderosos impulsores del cómic. De hecho, he visto libros de Sin City en librerías respetables, y por extensión, otras obras de Frank Miller. El Manga, por supuesto, tiene su lugar. Acá disfrutamos durante mucho tiempo de Dragon Ball y todas sus variantes. El canal por cabel Animax, también ha sido buena influencia. Claro está, hay grupos de fanáticos duros del animé y del manga. Todo lo que corresponde a Akira y a filmes como Ghost in The Shell es bien conocido. Batman, claro, está, también llega a algunas librerías. No obstante, insisto, creo que la mayoría de la gente sigue considerando el cómic como algo menor. Falta mucho para comprender que Alan Moore o Frank Miller son grandes artistas y que son trabajos son verdaderas obras de arte.

Podríamos estar hablando un ratote de esto. Pero cierro diciendo que a mí me marcaron El Incal de Moebius y Jodorowski, me el Batman de Miller, Alan Moore, todas aquellas cosas morbosas que leí en El Víbora, y por supuesto, Milo Manara.



Gustavo, Buenos Aires, Arg.: ¿Sobre qué se está escribiendo hoy en día en Venezuela, y sobre qué no se ha escrito aún, o no se ha querido (o no se ha podido) escribir?

Roberto Echeto: En Venezuela se está haciendo muy buena literatura. Se están escribiendo muchos ensayos sobre nuestro devenir político y social. Se están escribiendo novelas, cuentos y mucha poesía. La temática es muy variada, como en cualquier parte. Hay historias de amor, relatos eróticos, policiales, thrillers políticos, novelas históricas...

Hay un deseo de analizar nuestros problemas desde la escritura.

Decir que eso es nuevo sería una tontería. Lo que es relativamente nuevo, por el impulso que ha tenido durante los últimos siete u ocho años es el tema editorial. Se han editado muchos libros, se han abierto librerías; han surgido muchos grupos de lectura, análisis y talleres que le han dado a la literatura de nuestro país un soplo aire fresco que antes no era tan común.

Creo que no hay barreras (al menos visibles) para lo que se pueda escribir y publicar.



Yasser Abdel-Latif Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with International Writing Program alum Yasser Abdel-Latif at 2:00 p.m. (CST) Friday, Feb. 26th. Abdel-Latif discussed modern literature in Egypt, his experience in Iowa among IWP writers, as well as his philosophy of teaching writing. You can find samples of Abdel-Latif's writing at the IWP website. Yasser Abdel Latif participated in the 2009 IWP residency courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State.


Maddalena, Iowa City: Mr. Abdel-Latif, you are a poet, translator, novelist, and scriptwriter--so many different fields. Do you believe that a successful writer must be a master of multiple forms?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: I consider my self a prose writer that commit the poetry sometimes. the translation and writing for the screen i do it to gain bread, as you cannot live from literature in my country. Even Naguib Mahfouz, our only Noble prize winner(1988) use to work as a journalist and scriptwriter to gain life.

But also as a paid translator or scriptwriter i choose topics that suites my literary interests.

Coco, Iowa City: Yasser, I would like to know more about your time in Iowa City. How did you enjoy living and writing in the U.S.A.?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: My first impression about Iowa city as a man coming from a 22 millions of habitants city like Cairo, that It is a very quiet place. The second impression was it is a young place too. Regarding to all those students between 18 and 21 walking down the streets of the campus and downtown with the Hawkeye shirts.

I use to spend my day time reading or working in my room. Then go out for lunch with some friends from the fellow IWP writers. Then back to my room in Iowa House to continue work. In the evening i like to go to listen to some live music in THE MILL or SANCTUARY. If not, just couple of beers in GEORGES. I also enjoyed the trips to New Orleans, and Chicago where we hear more of authentic jazz. And the trips to NY an Washington DC with their great museums and night life.


Hisham, Alexandria, Egypt: Do you teach creative writing in Egypt? Is there anything like this in our country? Where exactly?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: Well, I do not teach creative writing as they do in Iowa university. but i Lead two seasons of creative writing workshop in Kotobkham Bookshop in Maadi-Cairo. the first one 2007-2008 was about what we can call "auto fiction" like memoires and blogs and diaries and how to transform it into creative fiction. The second season was under the title of "your first novel" 2008-2009. you can check the talk that i gave i Iowa City public library about this experience in this link:

Elizabeth, Iowa City: Hi Yasser, what is your writing process? And how do you compose poetry -- do you write a piece in one sitting, or pull together notes and ideas into poems over time?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: Hi Elizabeth,
The writing process is different between poetry and what you call in America "fiction". For the fiction, I work long time in my mind before start writing, and it is always on nonlinear basis. I compose the fragments in my mind, then start to type them down on my pc and in the end the "montage" stage to arrange the sequences in their right positions. And finally, the editing.

For the poems, I often write it in one shot. It is like a glimpse or a day dream. But for the long poems, I use the same method for the fiction, but with more complications.

Natasa, Iowa City: Among the contemporary Arabic writers, whose work do you look forward to and read with the greatest interest? And do you, as a reader, think differently about what comes out of the "western" Arabic (Maghrebi) and "eastern" Arabic (Beuruti, Syrian, Saudi, etc) writing?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: In Egypt I prefer the work of Mohamed Makhzangi who is one of the best short story writers in the arabic world. From Lebanon I like the work of the novelist Hassan Dawood and the poet Wadie Saada. From my generation there are such names like Haytham Wardani, Ahmad Yamani, and Mustafa Zekri. I think the Arabic litrarry scene is lead by Egyptian and Lebanese writers; as the journalists use to say that the fiction is from Egypt and the poetry is from Lebanon. But also we have a very strong literary movement in the diaspora. Exiled writers and poets from Iraq and Lebanon and Morocco and from Egypt in Europe or America and even in some countries in the far East. I use to like the prose poetry from an Iraqi poet living in filipinas called Salah Fayeq.

Talking about difference between the east and the west of the Arabic world. There is really a difference in terms of using and dominating the Arabic language between the two regions. And this is very clear in the translations, some times I find it hard to understand book translated into Arabic in Morocco or Tunisia. On the creation level I don't feel this difficulty. They have a strong poetry movement in morocco but I hardly know about literature in Tunisia or Algeria.


Fedosy, Caracas, Venezuela: Do you think your novel Legacies of Cairo, also can be considered a book of stories?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: It is a very good question my friend Fedosy. The structure of this novel is built on the relation between four different moments in the life of three generations from the same family. Those moments are linked together and separate in the same time. It is a "broken novel" as you told me one of these afternoon in Iowa city while we were walking down the hill to have lunch. May be this broken or sparkling structure that make this novel "unique" if I can say that.

But I do believe that a collection of short stories must be more variable than this book on the level of subject at least. Here you have the unity of the protagonist, the space and the main story seen in a broken mirror.


Ashur Etwebi Tripoli, Libya: How do you see the present poetry scene in Egypt? And how could you explain the fierce attack on prose poetry by Ahmed AbdilMoeti Hijazi in his recently published book?

Yasser Abdel-Latif: Well, It is nice to talk to a writer from the neighbor Libya. From my point of view, the prose poetry is leading the real poetry scene in Egypt. And all those attacks are coming from the retro voices of the past like the former poet now governmental journalist Hijazi. Prose poems are in the front lines of the publishing houses that still publishing poetry, and in the cultural supplements of the news papers and magazines.

Hijazi is still fighting for his faded glory of the years 1950 from the 20th century.


Tarek Eltayeb: Kommunikation in Echtzeit

The Writing University Website hosted a live discussion with IWP alum Tarek Eltayeb on March 5, 2010. You can read the transcripts in English, German and Arabic below.

Die Writing University Website hat am Freitag, 5.3. zwischen 11 -12.Uhr (CST) zu einem Echtzeit-Chat mit dem IWP Alumnus Tarek Eltayeb eingeladen.

Das Gespräch wurde durchgehend im Englisch und Deutsch gehalten; die nachfolgende Abschrift wird ins Englisch und Arabisch übersetzt.



Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Als Sohn von sudanesischen Eltern, in Ägypten geboren und in Österreich lebend: man würde annehmen, dass Du nicht zu viel von Nationalität als Identitätskategorie hältst. Welche von den drei Nationalitäten ist deine Haupt-Referenz - oder vielleicht gar keine?

Tarek Eltayeb: Es gibt für mich keine verschiedenen Identitäten, sondern eine Identität mit Vielfalt, in der sich immer wieder etwas ändern kann, etwas dazu kommen oder wegfallen kann. Für mich ist das wie ein ständiger Prozess, nichts Starres und Fertiges, sondern immer wieder Veränderbares. Identität birgt ein historisches und kulturelles Erbe in sich, aber keine Nationalflaggen oder Staatsnamen.

Es ist für mich wie mit den Sprachen - wenn man eine neue Sprache lernt, verliert man die andere nicht, sondern lernt etwas dazu.

Ich wurde in Kairo als Kind sudanesischer Eltern geboren, lebte 25 Jahre in Ägypten und lebe nun seit eben so langer Zeit in Österreich. Wie sollte ich hier eine Grenze zwischen diesen Orten ziehen, die mich alle geprägt und geformt haben, wie sollte ich einen davon vergessen oder auslöschen.


Yasser Abdel-latif, Egypt -- Canada: Lieber Tarek-- Zählst Du dich zu ägyptischen, oder sudanesischen, oder gar arabischen Schriftstellern in der Europäischen Diaspora?

Tarek Eltayeb: Nein, ich möchte mich nur als Schriftsteller ohne bestimmte Zuschreibung zu einem bestimmten Land sehen. Natürlich, was die Sprache betrifft, in der ich schreibe, so ist diese Arabisch, meine Muttersprache und natürlich hat mich das Leben in Ägypten geprägt, so wie auch die Tatsache, dass ich sudanesische Wurzeln habe, und mittlerweile 25 Jahre in Wien lebe.

Die Sprache ist wohl ein Kriterium für Zugehörigkeit, doch eine Zuordnung ist für mich selbst unmöglich - ich habe in Ägypten meine arabischen Bücher publiziert und viele AutorInnen im arabischen Raum als Freunde und Kollegen, und dasselbe gilt für hier, ich habe hier meine Bücher in Übersetzung herausgebracht, mit anderen KollegInnen Lesungen gemacht, wurde schon öfter als österreichischer Autor eingeladen usw.

Ich habe kein Problem, wenn mich die Anderen zu einem bestimmten Land zuordnen, aber ich selbst kann das nicht.

Als Autor in der Diaspora sehe ich mich gar nicht - ich lebe 25 Jahre in Europa und kehre auch immer wieder nach Ägypten zurück, habe ständigen Kontakt und Verbindung.


Nora, Iowa City IA US: Wie verschieden ist Deine Arbeit/ Dein Denkprozess, wenn Du auf Deutsch oder auf Arabisch schreibst? Gibt es einen Unterschied zwischen den zwei Schreib-Stimmen, sozusagen?

Tarek Eltayeb: Eigentlich schreibe ich literarische Texte bisher immer in meiner Muttersprache Arabisch. Doch zweifellos haben sich die beiden Sprachen mittlerweile in meinem Kopf aneinander gewöhnt und beeinflussen sich auch gegenseitig.

Ich liebe die deutsche Sprache, die meinen Alltag prägt und sogar schon meine Träume erobert hat, aber das Werkzeug meines Schreibens ist Arabisch geblieben, denn meine Augen, Gedanken und Buchstaben beharren darauf, von rechts nach links zu wandern.


Douglas, North Liberty: Es scheint mir, dass Du vor ein paar Jahren bei IWP in Iowa warst. Wie hat es Dir hier gefallen?

Tarek Eltayeb: Mein Aufenthalt in Iowa im Rahmen des IWP war für mich in vieler Hinsicht eine sehr gute Erfahrung: zuerst einmal die Begegnung mit einer literarischen Familie, vielen AutorInnen aus verschiedenen Kontinenten mit unterschiedlichen Sprachen, das war eine außergewöhnliche Erfahrung für mich. Ich habe viel durch den ständigen Austausch mit den Anderen, die gemeinsamen Projekte, die Möglichkeit, bei Lesungen und Präsentationen den Anderen zuhören zu können, gelernt.

Das Leben in einer kleinen Universitätsstadt wie Iowa City mit seinem schönen Campus war für mich völlig neu und ganz anders wie die bisherigen Städte, in denen ich gelebt habe.

Es war für mich sehr positiv, wenn auch manchmal anstrengend, über den relativ langen Zeitraum von drei Monaten gezwungen zu sein, fast ausschließlich in einer Fremdsprache, in diesem Fall Englisch, zu sprechen. Besonders spannend waren für mich auch die Übersetzungsprojekte mit Menschen, die Englisch als Muttersprache hatten, aber kein Arabisch konnten, und mit ihnen einige meiner Texte aus dem Arabischen ins Englische zu übersetzen, durch mich als Vermittler, der versucht hat, über die englische Sprache meine Gedichte verständlich zu machen - ein Experiment.

Es gab eine ganze Reihe von kulturellen und literarischen Veranstaltungen und Besuche in Chicago, in SF, in Washington, Connecticut und New York und besonders die beiden Veranstaltungen an der Northwestern University und an der Georgetown U waren für mich sehr spannend.

Es war für mich eine sehr wertvolle Zeit, in der Freundschaften geschlossen wurden, in der es zu einem Austausch mit anderen AutorInnen kommen konnte, und vor allem auch, in der ich viel Ruhe hatte, ungestört literarisch zu arbeiten. So ist es mir gelungen, einen Gedichtband fertig zu stellen und die Idee für einen Roman zu einem Großteil umzusetzen (Wake Up in Iowa).


Elizabeth, Iowa City: Hallo Tarek-- Wie war es, mit dem Between-the-Lines Programm zusammenzuarbeiten? Hat es Dir gefallen, mit ganz jungen Schriftstellern zu arbeiten?

Tarek Eltayeb: Ich war im Vorfeld zu BTL sehr gespannt auf diese beiden Wochen, da es auch für mich eine ganz neue Erfahrung werden sollte. Es hat mir sehr großen Spaß und Freude gemacht, mit diesen jungen, begabten und so unterschiedlichen Menschen zwei Wochen zu arbeiten. Ich hatte mir schon immer eine Begegnung dieser Art gewünscht, und es war für mich eine große Herausforderung. Ich habe sehr gerne mit dieser Gruppe gearbeitet und auch viel von den jungen AutorInnen gelernt und mitgenommen, mich sehr an ihrer Kreativität und ihrem Enthusiasmus erfreut.


Erin, IC IA: Was ist deine tägliche Arbeitsroutine? Wann (im Laufe des Tages) schreibst Du am besten?

Tarek Eltayeb: Ich habe immer ein kleines Notizbuch bei mir und schreibe alles auf, was mir einfällt - manchmal nur Gedanken oder etwas, das ich beobachtet habe, manchmal auch ein Gedicht oder ein Gerüst dafür. Wenn sich dann vieles in diesem Büchlein gesammelt hat, die Ideen konkreter geworden sind, dann beginne ich meistens sehr intensiv zu arbeiten.

Ich habe keine fixen Tageszeiten, allerdings schreibe ich gerne nachts, wenn es ganz ruhig geworden ist.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Do schreibst im einem breiten literarischen Spektrum: Poesie, Geschichten und Romane. In welcher von diesen Gattungen fühlst Du dich am besten?

Tarek Eltayeb: Schreiben ist für mich wie ein Strom, der durch verschiedene Landschaften fließt - von Bergen herab, durch Täler, Ebenen, Wälder, Steppen, durch kalte oder warme Regionen - doch sein Wasser bleibt immer dasselbe.

Zuerst ist da eine Idee in meinem Kopf - sie bestimmt eigentlich, in welcher Form ich sie zu Papier bringe.

Die Idee ist mein Rohstoff, aus dem ich Poesie oder Prosa mache, je nachdem, was mir beim Schreiben leichter fällt, wie die Idee für mich am besten auszudrücken und zu verarbeiten ist. Ich könnte also nicht wirklich sagen, womit ich mich am besten fühle.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: In einem von deinen Essays hast Du gesagt, dass du den sudanesischen Schriftsteller Altayeb Saleh (der die Einleitung zu einer von deinen Kurzgeschichtensammlungen verfasste) als einen (Kurzgeschichten- und nicht als einen Romanautor siehst. Warum denkst Du so, und bist Du noch immer dieser Ansicht?

Tarek Eltayeb: Das scheint ein Missverständnis zu sein, was ich damals sagen wollte, ist, dass ich Eltayeb Saleh für einen großartigen Schriftsteller halte und seine Begabung vor allem auch im Verfassen von Kurzgeschichten sehe, da ich denke, dass diese von vielen nicht die nötige Beachtung und Aufmerksamkeit erhalten haben.

Tarek Eltayeb: Kommunikation in Echtzeit

The Writing University Website hosted a live discussion with IWP alum Tarek Eltayeb on March 5, 2010. You can read the transcripts in English, German and Arabic below.

Die Writing University Website hat am Freitag, 5.3. zwischen 11 -12.Uhr (CST) zu einem Echtzeit-Chat mit dem IWP Alumnus Tarek Eltayeb eingeladen.

Das Gespräch wurde durchgehend im Englisch und Deutsch gehalten; die nachfolgende Abschrift wird ins Englisch und Arabisch übersetzt.


Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Being a son of Sudanese parents, born in Egypt, living in Austria, it seems that you don't think much of nationality (as identity). the references to your writings are they: Egyptian, Sudanese or Austrian? or no particular reference?

Tarek Eltayeb: For me there is no such thing as different identities but rather one identity with many facets; and within it it is always possible to change, to add or to give up something. To me this appears as an ongoing process, not something rigid and closed but rather a continually changeable stance. Identity includes one’s historical and cultural heritage, but not flags or names of states. Much like when you learn a new language, you don’t forget the others bur rather add to them. I was born in Cairo of Sudanese parents, lived in Egypt for 25 years, and have now lived In Austria for the same length of time. How should I then draw a boundary between these places, all of which influenced and formed me, how could I forget or expunge one of them.

Yasser Abdel-latif, Egypt -- Canada: Dear Tarek, do you place yourself among Egyptian writers, or Sudanese writers or Arab writers in the European diaspora?

Tarek Eltayeb: No, I’d simply like to see myself as a writer, without a country affiliation. Of course, as for the language in which I write, it is Arabic, and living in Egypt has naturally been an influence, right alongside the fact of my Sudanese roots and of my 25 years in Vienna.

Language is of course one criterion of belonging but I myself cannot decide on an affiliation. My Arabic-language books have been published in Egypt and many writers in the realm of Arabic literature are my friends and colleagues and the same goes for here: my translations are published here, I do readings with my (Austrian) colleagues, have many times been invited somewhere as an Austrian writer etc.

It doesn’t bother me when others associate me with a particular country but I myself really can’t to do that. And I don’t see myself as a diaspora writer at all—I’ve been living in Europe for 25 years yet return to Egypt all the time, where I maintain contacts and relationships.

Nora, Iowa City: How different is your thought process as a writer when you write in German in comparison to when you write in Arabic? Do you feel each language provokes a different voice inside you?

Tarek Eltayeb: Up until this point I have always written my literary texts in Arabic, my mother tongue. But in my head the two languages have now undoubtedly become accustomed to each other, and influence each other throughout.

I love German, the language that makes up my daily life and that has now also overtaken my dreams, but Arabic remains the tool of my writing for my eyes, thoughts and letters insist on wandering from right to left.

Douglas, North Liberty: I believe you were in the IWP at the UI a few years ago -- did you enjoy your time in Iowa?

Tarek Eltayeb: My stay in Iowa in the context of the IWP residency was a very good experience, in many ways: first off, it was an encounter with a literary family, with the many authors from the various continents and speaking varied languages—that alone was an exceptional experience. I learned a whole lot from the ongoing exchange, the shared projects, the opportunities to listen to others’ views during the assorted readings and panels. What was for me completely new was life in a small university town like Iowa City, with its beautiful campus—a city experience of a whole new kind.

A big challenge, if ultimately a good one, was to spend a relatively long stretch (3 months) speaking almost exclusively in a foreign language, in this case English. I was especially excited about the experimental translation project with native speakers of English who had no Arabic and with whom I translated some of my texts from the Arabic into the English, becoming a mediator in my attempts to make my verse comprehensible in the English language.

We took part in a variety of cultural and literary events and visits, in Chicago, San Francisco, Connecticut, Washington DC and New York; especialy exciting were the two events at Northwestern and Georgetown universities.

For me this was a truly valuable time, on one hand because of the many friendships potentially leading to exchanges with so many other writers, yet at the same time because of the peace I had to concentrate on my writing. I managed to finish a volume of poems and to substantively work out an idea for a novel (Wake Up in Iowa) .

Elizabeth, Iowa City: Hi Tarek -- What was it like working for Between the Lines? Did you enjoy working with younger writers, especially writers from a different culture?

Tarek Eltayeb: I was really excited at the prospect of these two weeks of BTL, as this was going to be an altogether new experience. And my two weeks of work with these young people, so talented and so varied, were at once fun and joyful. I have always hoped to experience a gathering of this kind, and this was a huge challenge. I loved working with the group, and in turn learned and received so much from these young authors, taking in their creativity and their enthusiasm.

Erin, IC IA: What is your writing routine? How do you write -- is it during a certain time of day?

Tarek Eltayeb: I always carry a small notebook and write down whatever occurs to me—at times just a thought or an observation, at times a poem or its skeleton. And when I have gathered enough, when the ideas have become more concrete, then I usually begin a period of intensive work. I don’t have set work times but I do prefer writing at night, when things have quieted down.

Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: Your writings took wide spectrum, from poetry to short story and novels. Do you look at yourself as a poet, a short story writer or a novelist, or all of them?

Tarek Eltayeb: Writing for me is like a current flowing through different landsapes—from the mountains down into the valleys, flatlands forests, steppes, though warm and cold regions—yet the water remains the same. I begin with an idea in my head, which then determines the form in which I will put it on paper. The idea is my raw material from which I then craft poetry or prose –depending on which feels easier as I write, depending on what seems the best way of expressing it and working it through. So I couldn’t really say in which of these I feel best.

Ashur Etwebi, Tripoli, Libya: In one of your articles, you said that you consider the Sudanese novelist, Altyeb Saleh, a short story writer and not a novel writer, although he wrote an introduction to one of your earlier short story collection. On what bases did reach to such conclusion? And Do you still have the same opinion?

Tarek Eltayeb: That must have been a misunderstanding. What I had meant to say was that I think Eltayeb Saleh is a terrific writer and that I see his talent not in the least in his short stories, which in my view have not received as much respect and attention as his novels.



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