A challenge: to study Fiction at the University of Iowa


Christopher Merril

Christopher Merril

Last month I have graduated the International Writing Program from the University of Iowa, a cutting edge course dedicated to Fiction, more precisely the art of writing good novels. I have enjoyed it very much and my final profile can prove this statement: 95% (writing assignments, quizzes, and reviews), 29 discussion contributions and 12 peer reviews.

It was an awesome and delightful experience, our instructors being two successful writers, Christopher Merril (IWP Director and University of Iowa Professor of English) and Angela Flournoy (her debut novel, The Turner House, was nominated during our course on the shortlist for the National Book Award), who invited many guest writers/featured authors from all over the world, like Paul Harding, Venise Berry, Edward Carey, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Bernice Chauly, Susan Taylor Chehak, Boris Fishman, Angela Flournoy, Paul Harding, Boaz Gaon, Andrew Sean Greer, Naomi Jackson, Leslie Jamison, Mamle Kabu, Jonathan Lethem, Margot Livesy, Stephen Lovely, Peter Orner, and Douglas Trevor, among others, who shared with us useful tips and memories related to the process of writing novels. To learn and debate on the intimate mechanisms of writing novels is a fruitful experience for any writer.

The course structure was composed by 7 class sessions: Starting with Character, Expanding on Character: Cast and Dialogue, Working with Plot, Using Character to Produce Frame and Arc, Voice and Setting, Immersion in Setting: Description and World-Building and Embracing Revision. Each week, a team of teaching moderators, all MFA graduates with substantial writing and teaching experience, started discussions of the topics and the challenges of the writing assignments. Community moderators actively supported the participation of writers who were new to writing fiction, and/or writing as non-native speakers of English. These community moderators facilitated the formation of writing groups and supported the vitality and inclusivity of a true international writing community. I have joined the workshop in a difficult creation period as a writer, while working at my second novel- in- progress, “The Stranger of Ada Kaleh’’ (counting almost 8 months since I was not capable to write a single word!), but finally I surpassed the moment at Iowa Writers Workshop and for the first time in my life I wrote fiction in English…You may read below some excerpts from “The Stranger of Ada Kaleh’’, a part of my assignments for this workshop.

Many thanks to my new friends and fellows, reviewers of my assignments, who transformed this wonderful experience into a crucial moment for my intellectual life: Slim FitzGerald, Linda Masi, Ann Godrige, Ray Busler, Marianne Moran, Peggy Duffy, Chris Coen, Mimi Mellman, Tricia Wagner, Eric Meyer, Lauren Bello, Che Sing, Ismaila Yahaya Kana, etc.

Angela Flournoy

Angela Flournoy

Christopher Merrill’s work has been translated into twenty-five language, his journalism appears in many publications, and his awards include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions to more than forty countries for the United States Department of State. In April 2012 President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities.
He has published six collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water, and Watch Fire, for which he received the Peter I. B. Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; translations of Ales Debeljak’s Anxious Moments and The City and the Child; several edited volumes, among them, Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keefe as Icon; and five books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War.
Angela Flournoy is the author of critically-acclaimed novel The Turner House, which has been selected for the National Book Awards Longlist. The Turner House was also a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a May 2015 Indie Next pick, and a New York Times Sunday Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, and she has written for The New York Times, The New Republic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy received her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. She has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and Trinity Washington University.

The Stranger of Ada Kaleh (novel in progress, excerpts, Iowa assignments)

I was still a student when my teacher Giambattista Vico recommended me to be hired as a librarian at the Royal Library in Naples. I was appointed after a long and intense dialogue with the respected members of the local public authority, Sacro Regio Consiglio. I will never forget the day of July 19, 1708, a shining summer day, resembling a piano keyboard. The city was in a boiling mood due to Händel, who have been invited to play a sacred serenade at harpsichord for the wedding party of Duke Tolomeo Saverio Gallio and Beatrice di Montemiletto, Princess of Acaja. Our daily life was so close to music in the bel canto epoch, that even babies were not baptized in the absence of a sacred song, played on organ or harpsichord.
The Royal Library was on the left side of the imposing Palazzo Reale, the palace of Capodimonte viceroys, where I used to study since I was a teenager. I loved its tremendous walnut shelfs, stuffed with old books, incunabula and manuscripts, with beautiful floral ornaments, the tall and elegant chairs clothed with blue French velvet, the small santal tea table where the delicate hand of a woman looked like a Japanese rose, the velvet lilac colored large Empire sofas, the golden draperies bound with white satin ribbons and especially the beautiful still lifes with glass vases of flowers, inscriptions like AMOR IN UMBRAM, candles and sand timers of the local painter Francesco Solimena, whose patron was the Cardinal Vincenzo Orsini (who later became Pope Benedict the XIIIth).
From daybreak to late in the evening, I was almost buried alive in letters and signs of countless cultures. I was breathing and tasting them smoothly, trying to deform and recompose them in other shapes, setting them in order like in a dreams book, and making complicated statistics on the frequency of vowels and consonants in some famous authors’ writings or in the common language of my readers, all prestigious intellectuals of the city. One day, in the storm of these passionate researches, situated at the border between language and reality, which pierced my heart and eyes with the hypnotic promise of some possible revelations, I had the bizarre idea that it could be found a magic link between our character and the frequency of certain vowels we use. I became persuaded by the fact that the vowels shape our character and irrigate all the capillary vessels of our emotional life…I discovered that calm and silent people use instinctively a lot of words which contain the A vowel, those trustful who inspire confidence are emitting more words with the E vowel, the joyful people, with an infectious laughter use a language imbued by the I vowel, the serious intellectuals with a rich inner life, haunted by perfection are unconsciously attracted by the words which contain especially the O vowel, and the solemn people, very concerned for their interior profoundness usually prefer the words dominated by the U vowel. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that magic incantations of the members of some isolated American or Pacific islands tribes contain a great number of vowels, like the old mantras belonging to the Sanskrit world, some of them used even today by the initiated masters. I may offer you now a single example, a famous Sanskrit mantra, OM NAMO NARAYANAYA, which may induce the unconditional love, is made of 10 vowels and only 5 consonants and from those 10 vowels the one which help you enter into a state of interior peace, calm and silence, the A vowel, is 6 times present.
I believe that any text has both an informational and emotional background, but probably the most important to the universe’s order is its invisible, esoteric charge, and this depends on the affective mood of the author, the same thing being applicable to the artworks. Almost identical texts are noxious if they are written by people dominated by negative feelings, and they are benefic if the authors are breathing love through their most intimate being.
My fellow librarian, Giuliano Roselli, who was in charge for this honorable job (the librarians became very frequently viceroy’s advisers) since the last 7 years, was the brother of the well-known publisher Giuseppe Roselli, and a much respected scholar, an expert in the maze of the old alchemical texts. At times, when I have the strong belief that my life goes on a wrong, too selfish path, it comes to my mind the short and sharp sentence that Giuseppe used to state firmly during our debates, trying to arrange the opened collar of his yellow or blue laced shirt: “It’s immoral to be free, liberty is an ontological fraud”. “Liberty is the fundamental catalyst of our inner life’’, I tried to retort one day. “Maybe it’s fitted for your imagination, but not for social action’’, he replied. All his existence was fully dedicated to the others, up to the point that he could be capable of neglecting his own desires and pleasures. Probably it’s true that your most intimate words, your core beliefs, proliferate and create the main traces of your destiny, appearing to inexorably attract the reality. Step by step, the soft-hearted Giuliano, with his wonderful blue eyes full of light and visionary dreams, was turned into a human being in mental chains and his wife, Larisa, became the greatest challenge on this illusive path of transforming other’s destinies. She was a former Russian prostitute, born in Sankt Petersburg, where my fellow has been invited twice to support the Imperial librarians to organize the huge collections. They met one evening in a roadside inn, in a room with some little tables with chairs and no other clients. The only stranger was a bee trying to enter Giuliano’s glass of red wine. Larisa was gazing at him openmouthed with an odd look on her face, and Giuliano’s his skin turned to goosebumps. “For a moment the physical universe came to a halt’’, he wrote in a diary I found one day on his desk. He fell in love with a sudden, wild abandonment and after two weeks they left together for Naples. His dedication to the mission of modifying Larisa’s behavior is still proverbial in Naples, now you may read in the same published diary such sentences: “Your life is a vivid manuscript full of errors, which could still be rectified’’. During the first five years of marriage, it seems that his task was successful, but after the born of the third child, a girl, Larisa became a sweet threatening for all his friends, including me. She was one of the most voluptuous women I ever met, even now my memory is filled with the images of her fine skin texture, the firm and round breasts, the dark eyes and the sound of her hypnotic voice, the best physical mark of her infinite sensuality. It was almost impossible to resist her gracefulness and charms, though she was ten years older than me. The library used to be in fire when the blonde nymph was stepping inside.
While captivated by my public function at the Royal Library in Naples, later I realized it was also an amazing opportunity to be guided on the path to my future destinations, Vienna and Ada Kaleh. And I experienced a strange feeling of both recognition, unknown and precognition, when I first found a reference about Ada Kaleh island, in a Latin manuscript dated from the XIIth century and signed by the Arab geographer and cartographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, who was for many years an adviser at the Palermo Court of King Roger II of Sicily. Though the name of the island was Saan in that period, when I studied the map “Tabula Rogeriana” (one of the most advanced ancient maps of Eurasia, made by the same Al-Idrisi), I became aware it was the same with Ada Kaleh.

After some months, during a dialogue in the library with the well-known publisher Antonio Bulifan, I found out that he visited Ada Kaleh in 1693. I had the idea to invite him one evening at Taverna Del Cerriglio, the favourite place of Caravaggio one hundred years before, in the middle of Borgo Orefici (Goldsmiths Burg) area, where you may find even today the best jewelers in the city. Suddenly I was very eager to know more details about this small island on the Danube, situated between the Sorbian and Wallachian borders and disputed by two major powers of the time, Austria and Turkey.

I’m drinking a glass of Capri red wine with my friend Agostino Fiori, a student at the Faculty of Law, and the atmosphere in the tavern is already hot, there are a lot of people speaking loudly in Italian, Spanish, French or German, some young women among them, three musicians are playing mandolin, caccavella (this Neapolitan instrument consists of a membrane stretched across a resonating chamber, like a drum) and tammorra (our name for tambourine), almost all the bulky wooden tables and chairs are full. I notice some oak ladders suspended by the ceiling above us, with ropes loaded with garlands of onion and garlic, now my sight is stolen by some gracious old mandolins and guitars displayed into the niches of the white walls, the wizards of sound are singing a “canzone napoletana”, I admire the beautiful archways of Romanic type and Antonio Bulifan is already with us, he came through the same narrow passage close to the crowded street. Even now, after some centuries, when I remember Antonio, the first thing which pokes my memory is his velvet voice. When you are born in Naples, sound and music are the genuine food for your soul.

– Our fiesta may start now, says Agostino Fiori. He is one of the few blond guys in the city, his mother was born in Ukraine. A very passionate reader of poetry and philosophy, my friend is now in love with Larisa Roselli and he doesn’t allow me to say one little word against her.
– How did you come to the idea of visiting Ada Kaleh? My abrupt question brought a large smile on Antonio’s face.
– It was not my idea, in that period I met an interesting poet from Pisa, Maria Selvaggia Borghini, and I decided in 1693 to publish one of her books. She is a profound, beautiful woman and an ardent catholic, her beauty has something solemn, of an old Roman effigy, with a perfect profile and an adorable long and curly brown hair. I was also captivated by the perfume of her voice, and I felt that around her even my voice became more tuneful and bright, with a solar grain in it. I fell in love with her, but she tried subtlety to keep me away from a possible love affair. But my salvation was the word Ada Kaleh, pronounced by her during one of our long and vivid discussions, since that moment I used it as an anchor to fulfill my goal. When she began to tell me the story of Ada Kaleh, I made her the promise of a journey to the small island. It was a wonderful day of May when we left Naples by diligence and after one week we found a boat on the Sorbian border to take us to our small Paradise, the place of my lifelong dream. And I found there, in that Oriental and patriarchal settlement, in the house of a Sephardic Jewish family, the pure love as a gift of light and sound.

An old Turkish tea samovar was the central piece in our room and it seemed to us a tuning fork for both the range of light and sound. Our feverish fingers began to cross and vibrate together for the first time on its shiny silver cover. One of our daily rituals was to discharge the multiple hidden streams of our skin by touching the large urn-shaped container with a copper pipe running vertically through the middle. Probably you know, the skin of the lover is strained like the strings of a mandolin. The silver Cupidon reflected almost every embrace from our small bed with red clothes in the yellow trembling light of the Spanish chandelier. At times, in the morning, I could admire in the mirror of the samovar the shadow of a dove on my left shoulder, our white companion waiting for some fresh-baked bread, in the gothic window.

But the climax of our singular experience with this amazing samovar, having the inscription of K.P. Adapazari 1658 on the green garnet base, was the moment when we filled the pipe with solid fuel, such as pine cones, charcoals and wood chips and set them on fire, in order to boil the water inside it. Then the samovar was singing. We heard different sounds, from the lowest to the highest scale, and we tried to unravel possible meanings for our destiny. The sweet tonality of my mother’s voice. The rustle of the pages of an old book. The overtones of a baby cry. The crunch of an old door. The steps of a robber. The zephyr of my childhood landscape. The noise of a crane nozzle. The bubble of a mountain spring. I will never understand why love transformed me in a humble amanuensis of sounds in this exotic island. I can assure you, this was the first and the last time in my life when I entered such a game, when I tried with my beloved Maria to understand the soul of a samovar and its reflection in our souls, to be most enfolded by the sound.
Ada Kaleh is currently in my memories a sonorous sway and a map of transfigured voices, as if all the other senses melted in the Empire of Hearing: Danube’s rumble overlapping the fluttering of the numberless swallows, the lute songs played by some old Turkish men, the whispers of the samovar, the stammering of the prayers, the hum of merchants specialized in Oriental sweets or the children’s chatters. Our presence in that magic place looked like a sonorous wedding of two magnetic voices in love, fascinated by the perfection of sounds.

About Constantin Severin

Constantin Severin (constantinseverin.ro) is a Romanian writer and, as a visual artist, the founder and promoter of the award-winning concept known as archetypal expressionism. He is the author of eight books of poetry, essays, and novels, and his poems have been published by major Romanian and international literary magazines. He is one of the editors of the French cultural magazine Levure littéraire.
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