Essay from Iowa
Anne Kennedy finds a place to think in the country of dream-merchants.
There was only one way to frame a trip to Iowa in 2017, even a trip for literary purposes – especially a trip for literary purposes; it was a visit to the land of Trump.
Iowa is a swing state, and it had swung. As I packed my bags in Auckland, I had in my head not so much the image of the canary-down-the mine as the dead parrot in the Monty Python skit. I half-expected clashes, raging in the streets, riot gear. But when I arrived in Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is situated and where I was to stay for two-and-a-half months, it seemed clear there would be no such thing. The town is about the size of Palmerston North, and as sleepy, surrounded by miles and miles of corn fields. (The university itself has over 34,000 students, almost half the city’s population.) Although I saw a couple of Trump caps, and on the last night a woman who sits on the board of a bank told me ‘Hilary is a criminal’, you wouldn’t have known a fascist regime had taken over the country. As long as Trump didn’t declare war on North Korea in 140 characters, life, at least for now, looked to be going on eerily the same in this part of middle America.
But while I was there, I saw something quietly powerful: people spontaneously protesting Trump – to my knowledge the only successful protest to date – in the name of diversity and education.
I was in Iowa to join thirty-four other writers from around world at the 2017 Fall Residency of the International Writers Program in Iowa City (also a UNESCO City of Literature). The State Department annually funds many of the writers from certain countries, but most of the rest of us were sponsored by our own countries. Creative New Zealand paid my way, and I’m grateful for New Zealand’s support for the arts, because going to Iowa was important to me – as a New Zealand citizen, as a teacher, and as a writer. In Iowa, we wrote, read, discussed, and visited other educational institutions. I saw the academy upholding its value as an institution, its right to be, and to be for everyone.
I knew about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of course: the seat of the ‘Iowa Method’, the workshopping system I and many other creative writing teachers have been using since forever; and the programme associated with writers like Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Alice Notley, and Ann Patchett, to name a few. (Our own Eleanor Catton and Paula Morris are Workshop graduates.) On the International Program, I followed a line-up of remarkable New Zealander writers, including Courtney Sina Meredith, Daren Kamali, Joanna Aitcheson and Vivienne Plumb.
That 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the program added to the excitement. There were festivities, visiting alumni; the story of how the IWP came into existence was told over and over (how stories get remembered; that’s why we write in the first place). Legend has it that the idea to invite a group of international writers to Iowa on a yearly basis was suggested by Hualing Nieh Engle, novelist and wife of the late Paul Engle – Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1941–65 – one day while they were rowing on the lake. Paul said, ‘That’s a crazy idea’, but by the time they’d rowed ashore, IWP was a thing. Fifty years later the program, having hosted over 14,000 writers, is still going strong.
The current director Christopher Merrill is America’s Bill Manhire – not-in-your-face, witty, formidable, a great writer. A poet and memoirist, Merrill is a former war correspondent, whose gift to the program is diplomacy, and if the US ever needed diplomacy, they need it now. It seemed to me that Merrill and the wonderful staff of IWP – who are all writers; they are there because they are writers – found themselves in a hall of mirrors this year. Their stock in trade is discourse. They reach out (as if across a lake) across borders, across culture and language. And remember, the IWP is part-funded by the State Department. At any IWP gathering, the Americans lamented Trump in some way – sometimes by allusion, sometimes overtly, sometimes simply with an enormous sigh. More than once, the hair stood up on the back of neck to see the intolerable nature of their situation. In 2017, the university was no longer the undisputed critical, free-thinking arm of society, but the resistance.
This is the university being universal. Along with a manuscript, that was the impression I brought home.
A morning’s Tweet-season is a long time in politics these days, let alone ten weeks, and a heck of a lot happened while I was in Iowa. Like most people, I approached the morning news the way Dorothy Parker opened her front door: ‘What fresh hell is this?’
First was the DACA debacle, and I want to talk about it because it has been one of the most dramatic sequences of events in the administration so far, and it says something about what is still possible in the US, and anywhere.
But before that, I need to show my hand – because part of my heart is in the US. My family and I lived in Honolulu from 2003–13. For some of that time, I taught at the University of Hawai`i. I have extended family on the both coasts and have travelled there often. So I know Americans are just people, like you and me. Its history is diabolical, its size is mind-boggling, it’s a place of extremes, socially, politically and in every other way. When you look at it on paper, it shouldn’t function, but it does. (Imagine if New Zealand was 70 times its size and ran the planet. Well, there’d be a lot of methane. And homelessness. And 70 Destiny Churches.)
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) bill that Obama passed in 2012 enabled young adults brought to the US as children by their parents (some illegally, some on visas that expired) to get temporary immigration status while they sorted out their next step. This meant that 800,000 people (they call them ‘Dreamers’ after the American Dream) could now legally get a job, drive a car, and enrol in an educational institution for the first time. It wasn’t carte blanche to stay, but it was a start.
On September 5th, Trump, in a kind of Twitter Kristallnacht, tweeted that he would carry out one of his election promises and scrap DACA. The 800,000 Dreamers who had grown up in the US, who perhaps spoke only English, would be sent back to the country of their birth, a country they couldn’t possibly know because they had not been free to travel in and out of the US.
There was an outcry. It seemed that, ten months into the administration, the reality of Trump had finally come close to home. The Dreamers were people’s next-door neighbours, their school-friends, their colleagues – and their family; this was going to break up families. For the first time, people recognized that this was Fascism, and all across America, they rallied, mostly on university campuses.
I was at the rally at the University of Iowa. It wasn’t huge – maybe 500 people – but it was impassioned. Dreamers spoke about how before DACA they had lived in secret. Now they could work, healthcare and a driver’s license. Most important, they could study. People listened, cheered, and cried. Around me, people were weeping.
A few days later, in response to the rallies, Trump airily announced he hadn’t really meant it: DACA would stay. It was as if smashed windows were boarded up – not mended, because no one could forget the damage to the Dreamers and their families who had spent a week thinking the only country they knew was going to deport them. But amid the nuttiness and instability, hope flared. Then it was gone again.
For a moment there, amongst the unspeakable ugliness that is going on in the US, the power of protest, which is the power of democracy, had asserted itself in the university; the university had spoken for the people.
The thirty-five of us were in the country of dream-merchants, and strange things were bound to happen.
We were from, respectively: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Basque, Belgium via Palestine, Belgium via Somalia/Italy, Egypt, Germany, Guyana, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Macedonia, Mexico, Myanmar, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, The Philippines, Singapore (two), Slovenia, South Africa/Zimbabwe, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, and Venezuela. (Three of these countries are on the travel ban list that has been enacted despite oppositional proceedings in the Supreme Court. Ostensibly, next year there will not be participants from Iraq, Somali, or Venezuela at IWP. In 2017, I met three extraordinary writers and thinkers from those countries, and the loss of that kind of interaction, even on a purely personal level, is staggering.)
The IWP put us up in the Iowa House, a plain but nice university hotel – a college dorm for grown-ups. Some people had a view of the stunningly beautiful Iowa River. Others looked out on a brick wall. On the first day, one of the staff, our house mother, Mary, kindly told the brick-wall people not to feel hard-done by. Historically, those writers had got the most done; they did more dreaming without a real river to distract them. I guess that’s the point about walls; you can only imagine what’s behind them.
I had a brick wall for six weeks and the river for six weeks. I was also the person who had travelled furthest to be there, but what I realised, as I got to know the others – because one of the wonderful, border-dissolving aspects was that we got to know each other really well – was that all of us, while in the US, looked back down a long telescope at our own existence.
In the early evening, like many, I walked along the banks of the Iowa River. In the summer heat it was flat calm like polished steel; flocks of birds flew up, and the sun turned everything gold then rose-coloured. Iowa was a place to think.
After a few weeks, we began to compare notes on how it was being away from home for this length of time – away from our normal lives, not on holiday, but not having emigrated either. I’d thought it was just New Zealanders travelling overseas who feel as though we’ve been hiding in the jungle since 1945, not knowing the war was over. But no, everybody, it seemed, felt some degree of that. Over time, it became clear that it was true not just because we were away from home, but because we were in the US, and we all knew the place on some level whether we had lived there before, or never set foot in it until now. We had gone behind some kind of wall to a place we always knew was there. The common impression was of living in a surreal world: Did I die, and this is afterwards? Am I in a dream? I couldn’t count the number of times I heard the participants say they felt like they were in The Truman Show. That phase passed, but for a while, it cast me, at least, half behind ‘Plato’s wall’ in the state where writing comes from.
But not only were we in the place we already knew, we were aware of the necessity of that place to make The Truman Show. In the land where capitalism had run amok in an unprecedented way, we could locate an artistic metaphor there to describe our sense of dislocation. Every time we saw a corn field, someone joked about The Children of the Corn. Left and right, we used America’s Gothic version of itself as a lens on America.
Then, as if this wasn’t complicated enough – Harvey Weinstein.
It’s impossible to underestimate how potent this development was at a time when the American Dream was being rudely shaken awake. One of the major dream-merchants, a purveyor of dreams, a prince of dreams, had been toppled like a statue of General Lee – yes, that was going on concurrently. Except Weinstein wasn’t like General Lee; no one was calling for his reinstatement ‘because it’s history’. Hell no, we were going Me Too, Me Too all over our Facebook pages.
When I say we, I mean anybody who has ever fallen under the spell of a Hollywood movie. That’s the thing about mass culture, it enculturates. The strange power of America – why we were at the IWP, even – is not just the dream which turns out to be myth (so the DACA Dreamers found out) but that the critique of the dream is also a mirage. The layers are all simply degrees of impossible in which we are complicit. In the end, no one can take anything at face value, and that inability to read has produced Trump.
The book project I worked on in Iowa is set in New Zealand around the time of the counterculture movement in the US, which of course had huge influence in New Zealand, on Pāhekā culture in particular. As I researched the roots of the movement in the US, I marvelled afresh at how such a seismic cultural shift could have been so subsumed, in both countries. I blame the dream mentality; it grew out of a dream and went the way of dreams.
But dreaming is complicated. All of us need to dream on some level – whether it’s the dream of getting your job back in a coal mine, watching a film that critiques its own industry, or looking at a brick wall or a river in Iowa – and something very deep in America knows that.
Staggering off the plane to a Labour-Green-and-the-other-lot coalition reminded me of once, years ago, returning home from a trip to find our neighbours-from-hell had moved out – a sense of elation and possibility. But perhaps spending time in Trump’s America has made me allergic, because I’m still very worried. We have a long way to go.
I have come from the land of Trump with my hand up like a protestor at a DACA rally: Education for All. And that means education across all fields because we are all different, and our society is layered.
The journey home, for me, has been to go from an academic programme whose purpose is to promote diversity and discourse in arts and creativity – despite everything – to the one I teach in which, well, isn’t doing that. From my vantage point, our failings in education look stark. We are standing by while the Humanities sink, while Arts are taught as a tool for commerce, where we mistake entrepreneurship in the art for art itself.
Our educational institutions are being managed like chain stores. Instead of standing up to government and being the resistance on behalf of education, ‘managers’ in education are complicit in its corporatisation. There is nothing more Trumpy. Trump is only Trump because of the people around him who carry out his deeds.
Anne Salmond puts our desperate need in a nutshell: ‘More than a change of government, what is needed is a change of heart. We must demand of our leaders – and ourselves – that at the very least, the land, the sea and our young people are cared for. Without them, there is no future.’
We think we’re okay, but like the US, we are dreaming.
Anne Kennedy is a poet, novelist, screenwriter and editor who has received numerous awards and residencies. Her most recent works are a novel The Last Days of the National Costume (Allen & Unwin), and The Darling North (AUP).