By Irene Enlow
Iowa City writers have taken their talents overseas this summer to capitalize on the city’s designation as a City of Literature.
The Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which is in its 31st year, expanded beyond Iowa City with the inclusion of two international writing retreats, thanks to a collaboration with Authors at Large, an organization that hosts writing workshops around the world. The retreats are a new addition to this year’s festival workshops.
Authors at Large is run by Robin Hemley and Xu Xi, both writers with connections to the University of Iowa. Hemley is a former University of Iowa professor who has previously worked with the Writing Festival.
“Amy Margolis, the director of the Writing Festival, has been wanting to internationalize for several years, so this is good timing,” he said.
The first retreat, in Iceland, took place from May 27 to June 1 with a group of about a dozen, Hemley said.
Hemley will lead a nonfiction workshop at the Thailand retreat, which occurs from Sunday through Saturday. Xi will lead a workshop in mixed genre prose writing, and Canadian author Madeleine Thien will lead a third workshop in fiction.
“We did a writing retreat and workshop [in Iceland], and it went very well,” Hemley said. “The second one is in a place, Hua Hin, in Thailand, and it’s the oldest resort town in Thailand — where the Thai royal family has its summer palace … I’ve taught in the Summer Writing Festival for several years, and this is a natural extension of my experience and expertise.”
The participants of the Thailand retreat come from diverse backgrounds, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the U.S. According to the organization’s website, Authors at Large hopes that by throwing participants into a new environment and culture, they will gain a fresh perspective on their writing.
“For all our Authors at Large retreats and workshops, we hope participants get time to write, engage with other writers, and have the opportunity to have their work read and discussed in a way that honors their efforts and provides feedback as they move forward in their writing lives,” said Xi, who is both a nonfiction and fiction writer and has taught low-residency M.F.A. programs in the U.S. and Asia.
Xi met Hemley when she was a visiting faculty writer at the UI Nonfiction Writing Program — Hemley directed the program at the time. Out of this friendship, Xi said, Authors at Large blossomed, offering a unique opportunity for those who love travel and writing to hone their craft.
For those who are excited by the idea of writing retreats abroad, there’s good news — the collaboration between the Iowa Writing Festival and Authors at Large will continue next year, and the destinations will expand to other nations, Hemley said.
“We haven’t finalized where we’re going, but we’re looking at places as different as Ecuador, and Australia, and Portugual,” he said. “We limit it to two trips a year, but we’re exploring different places.”
Hemley said that although he has been running the international workshops for a long time, his love for doing them has remained constant.
“I’ve been running international workshops for a long time and I love doing them,” Hemley said. “I think bringing writers outside of their familiar surroundings and giving them the space and permission to write and enjoy a landscape that’s different from their normal one liberates the imagination. And almost always, people come back energized and excited … Almost always, they go away feeling they have a renewed sense of their project, whatever it is.”