How Did Iowa City Become the First UNESCO City of Literature in the United States?


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I have lived in Iowa City for the past nine years. When people who don’t live in Iowa City find out that I live in Iowa, they make some assumptions. For example, they assume that I live on a farm. They assume that every house on the block has a huge 45 backing banner. They also either say, “I’ve never been there!” or “I drove that way!” »

Then they inevitably ask me, “Do you… like there?” Of course, I couldn’t! Not me, who’s lived in Chicago, San Diego, and other big cities that apparently have nothing in common with Iowa City.

But I blow their minds by throwing two facts at them. First of all, I live only 40 minutes from the biggest Truckstop in the world! And then I give them a fact that is actually impressive: Iowa City was the third ever UNESCO City of Literature and the first in the Americas.

If you’ve heard of Iowa City, it’s probably due to the Iowa Writers Workshop. It is indeed considered the most prestigious writing workshop in the country by some. You might assume that is what it qualifies as a UNESCO City of Literature. While the studio is of course linked to everything literary in this city, it is far from the only literary draw.

So hang in there as I walk through the literateness that is Iowa City and how it earned its designation as a City of Literature.

Qualifications as a UNESCO City of Literature

Any city can ask to be a city of literature. They must demonstrate that they meet the criteria, which includes:

  • Quality, quantity and diversity of publication in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programs focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary and tertiary level
  • Literature, theater, and/or poetry plays an important role in the city
  • Hosting literary events and festivals, which promote national and foreign literature
  • Existence of libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centers, which preserve, promote and disseminate national and foreign literature
  • Participation of the publishing sector in the translation of literary works of various national languages ​​and foreign literature
  • The active participation of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products

A city that wants to be considered must submit a proposal. Ours was a “beautiful volume of handmade boxed paper and original calligraphy, designed and created by the Center for Book User Interface” which was packaged and sent to Paris for review.

You can read all 79 pages of the Iowa City app or you can get the highlights below.

The Iowa Writers Workshop

While the workshop isn’t the only reason we’ve earned this designation, it’s a big part of it.

The workshop is very difficult to take. What difficulty? According to one person calculations, it is more difficult to enter the workshop than to enter Harvard Law. Founded in 1936, it was the first degree-granting creative writing program in the country. For many years he was one of the few. As of 2021, there are more than 300 programs that offer MFA creative writing, but Iowa is still ranked at the top.

In the decades since its inception, the workshop has continued to attract top talent, with faculty and graduates winning nearly 30 Pulitzer Prizes. Eight American Poets were graduate workshop award winners.

alum workshop includes:

  • Yaa Gyasi
  • TC Boyle
  • Tracy Kidder
  • Raymond Carver
  • Lan Samantha Chang
  • Alexander Chee
  • Sander Cisneros
  • John D’Agata
  • Andre Dubus
  • John Irving
  • Leslie Jamison
  • Dennis Johnson
  • Carmen Maria Machado
  • Elizabeth McCracken
  • James Alan McPherson
  • Anne Patchett
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Robert PennWarren

When I say it’s a partial list, I mean it’s a very partial list! Just as this is a partial list of current or previous well-known professors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • James Alan McPherson
  • Robinson Marilynne
  • ZZ-Packer
  • jess walter
  • John Berryman
  • John Cheever
  • Philip Roth
  • Meg Wolitzer
  • Richard Yates

Just look at a few years of publications by workshop graduates and you will see for yourself – that’s a lot.

The International Writing Program

In addition to the workshop, the University of Iowa is also the International Writing Program. Founded in 1967, over 1500 writers from over 150 countries have been in residence here.

Unlike the Workshop, which is designed for writers at any point in their writing career, the IWP is designed for well-established writers. The goal is to provide these writers with the time and space to work on their writing. They are also an opportunity to present their work to the public, to participate in workshops, and to give interviews. However, they are free to spend their time as they like and not have to full classes.

Those hosted at the IWP have included Bessie Head, Bei Dao, Luisa Valenzuela, John Banville and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Iowa City Publishing

There are 11 literary presses in Iowa City. One is fully dedicated to translation and two emphasis on language and literary materials.

In addition to these presses, we’re also the Book Center, which teaches bookmaking, papermaking, conservation, lettering arts, and a host of other nerdy/fantasy related courses to undergraduate and graduate students.

Live From Prairie Lights

There are a few bookstores in Iowa City, but we’re most well known for Prairie Lights Books. Before Covid, they hosted at least three live readings each week. The Prairie Lights’ Live was a long-running series that aired live literary readings on radio, but now it’s entered a new phase as a podcast.

literary events

Iowa City and its various literary institutions sponsor more than 180 literary events a year (or at least we did pre-pandemic), including the Iowa City Book Festival and the Mission Creek Festival, a “celebration of music and literature.” »

Then there’s the Iowa Writing Festival, the events put on by the Iowa Youth Writing Program…it goes on and on.

Literary activities

The Iowa City Literary Tour includes stops at the home Kurt Vonnegut lived in while teaching at the Slaughterhouse-Five Workshop and Writing, Dave’s Fox Head Tavern (a student favorite at the Workshop), the English-Philosophy Building (better known here as EPB) the building that houses most English classes and was home to the studio from the mid-1960s to 1997, and the Iowa Avenue of Fame Literary Walk with brass plaques and quotes from authors like Flannery O’Connor and John Irving.

The tour will take you to the former homes of most people who lived and worked/studied here, the haunts they haunt, and the historic lawns they lay on.

A City of Creatives

In 2008, the year Iowa City was named a UNESCO City of Literature, 30% of people in the city worked in a creative field.

I’ve done my best to be thorough, but a true summary of what makes Iowa City worthy of the UNESCO designation would add well, 79 pages!

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