The International Writing Program Fall Residency at The University of Iowa brings together writers from India and other countries for creative work and collaborations.
Chandramohan Sathyanathan (center), who participated in the 2018 International Writing Program Fall Residency, attends a panel discussion at the University of Iowa. (Photograph courtesy Chandramohan Sathyanathan
The International Writing Program Fall Residency at The University of Iowa is one of the oldest and largest multicultural writing residencies in the world. Since 1967, emerging and established writers from around the globe have been coming to the university to participate in this unique writing program. It aims to provide authors the setting for cultural exchange, and the time and space to write, read, translate, study, and to become part of the literary and academic community at the university. The program is supported by the U.S. Department of State.
Each fall, about 25 to 40 writers gather in Iowa City for an approximately 10-week residency to work on their own projects, to give readings and lectures, and to interact with American audiences and literary communities across the United States.
Chandramohan Sathyanathan, a poet from Kerala, was selected as the Indian participant for the program in 2018. His poems often portray the sociopolitical struggles of the marginalized, the working class and the nomadic outcasts of the world.
Excerpts from an interview.
When did you realize that poetry was something you wanted to pursue as a career? Who were your early influences?
I first encountered poetry at a library, reading the works of Tomas Tranströmer. I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue after some major local poets approved of some of my poems and encouraged me to write more. As part of a reading assignment, a friend of mine had suggested “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. This book had a profound impact on me.
My influence is a Malayalam poet, K. Satchidanandan. I have also been devouring the works of Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott for a long time, not to mention the contemporary poets like Lesego Rampolokeng, Nathaniel Mackey, Terrance Hayes and Kamau Brathwaite.
How did you become involved in the International Writing Program Fall Residency at the University of Iowa?
The U.S. consulates in India nominate writers for the program. The Chennai Consulate nominated me, and I eagerly accepted.
What were some of the most distinct differences you observed—both academically and culturally—at The University of Iowa, as compared to an Indian educational institution?
My first observation was that the system worked much more efficiently there than in my own country. American academia seems to value every individual. I did suffer a certain degree of cultural shock, even though I was familiar with most of the American way of life.
The punctuality with which every event would start and the commitment to the profession by every member of the teaching staff were inspiring. The United States provides an ideal habitat for a dedicated artist to thrive in.
Please share your key takeaways from your time at The University of Iowa?
Some key takeaways were to believe in yourself and be the voice no one else can be. Strive to be a writer who can encode our words with our life experiences that are unique and representative of the cultures we come from.
What advice would you give other aspiring poets or writers?
The only suggestion I can give an aspiring writer is to read as much as possible. Read voraciously every strand and genre of literature that you can get your hands on. Also, engage with other art forms like painting, cinema and music. A writer should be aware of his or her own privileges and take advantage of all the art that surrounds us.
What goals do you have for the future?
The main focus I have at the moment is to study Malayalam Dalit poetry and translate them to English, and develop platforms for a conversation between Dalit writers and African American writers.
I have recently been scrutinizing the works of Shane Book, Safiya Sinclair, Anne Winters, Vladimir Lucien, Ishion Hutchinson, Natasha Trethewey and Chris Abani. I am inspired to experiment with my writing along the lines of these authors.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.