By Joshua Balicki
Nearly a decade after being named a UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City continues to pride itself on the many talented writers that are born out of this city.
The 9th annual Iowa City Book Festival will bring many of these writers back to during the one-week event, which began Sunday and concludes on Oct. 15.
Iowa City is the first in the United States and the third in the world to receive the designation from UNESCO. This acknowledges the unprecedented literary history found in the city.
Director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature John Kenyon references the Writers’ Workshop, International Writing Program, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and Prairie Lights as a vital support network for aspiring and established writers.
“Iowa City did not need UNESCO to tell us that we were a City of Literature but having that designation allows us to share our story with the rest of the world,” Kenyon said. “This gives local people something to rally around.”
Originally held in the summer, the two-day festival got people thinking about what it meant to be a City of Literature.
“We moved it to the fall so that more people would be in town,” Kenyon said. “It would also coincide with the International Writing Program. We have steadily expanded the lineup. Last year, we had a six-day festival. Now we are up to an eight-day festival.”
This year is the IWP’s 50th anniversary, and the festival has scheduled readings at Prairie Lights, special panel discussions featuring alumni of the program, and a Gala at the IMU to celebrate the achievement.
“A big reason we are here is because of the Workshop,” Kenyon said. “So many of the writers we have featured over the years are graduates of the program. They want to come back and interact with their old teachers or the city. It is a great connection for us.”
Pulitzer Prize finalist and Workshop graduate Nathan Englander will read with Chris Adrian, a visiting professor at the Workshop.
The Iowa City Book Festival has awarded its prestigious Paul Engle Literary Prize to Alexander Chee, another Workshop graduate.
Usually literary prizes are awarded for particular bodies of work. However, the Book festival looks beyond the written word.
“In the spirit of Paul Engle, we wanted to recognize amazing writers for what they put on the page but also for what they do off the page,” Kenyon said. “They leverage the voice they have by being a published author to help other people. [They] go above and beyond to improve their communities.”
Engle was the long-time director of the Writers’ Workshop and founder of the IWP. He helped numerous writers find their voices, fostered better international relations through cultural efforts, and pursued funding for students who could not afford tuition.
The planning for the next festival starts before the current festival even begins. Each year, there are around 200 authors considered for the festival. Over the course of a few months, this diverse list is narrowed down.
“We look for authors, books, and events that we think will be of interest to our community,” Kenyon said. “Because we are in a city where so many people are published authors, friends with published authors, or both, we always keep a running list.”
From picture books to Marvel comics to memoirs to experimental poetry, acclaimed novels, and investigative journalists, the Book festival has something for everyone.
“Coming to events like the Iowa City Book Festival is such an energizing thing — to hear people talk about their work and give you insight into the decisions they made,” Kenyon said. “It is great place to build connections.”