A veritable UN delegation of writers visits New Orleans, participates in Rm220 LIVE PROSE

By Cate Czarnecki

“To write is maybe the biggest and most beautiful mutuality you can share,” writes German novelist Lucy Fricke. “It doesn’t matter in which country, in which culture you live, how old are you, which language you speak—if you are writer, you have a special view on life, on yourself, and a special way of living.”

Fricke is one of 14 residents in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) who have made a pilgrimage to New Orleans this fall—the program’s sixth annual visit—bringing writers from around the world to the Crescent City for a week of readings, tours, and classroom visits. On Thursday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. at Melvin’s (2112 St. Claude Ave.), Fricke and  fellow resident writer Khaled al-Berry will help launch the fall 2012 season of Room 220’s LIVE PROSE reading series along with New Orleans native and University of Iowa MFA graduate T. Geronimo Johnson.

“The inclusion of New Orleans for this mid-residency travel period was a no-brainer: a culturally foundational city for the U.S. with its food, music, and literature,” says Joe Tiefenthaler, the IWP’s Fall Residency Coordinator. “The writers are brought to the U.S., in part, to experience a range of American cultures and audiences, and New Orleans offers its own unique opportunity.”

Fricke and al-Berry are both distinguished writers of nonfiction as well as prose, and they have been the recipients of accolades and acknowledgements both here and abroad. Egyptian-born al-Berry, who currently works as a journalist in London, has written for numerous publications, including the BBC, and is a columnist for the Tahrir Newspaper. He is the author of the autobiography Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, and his 2010 novel An Oriental Dance was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize. Fricke is the author of two novels (in German). She has also worked as an organizer for such events as the Berlin International Poetry Festival and is the current director of the HAM.LIT festival in Hamburg.

“At the age of thirteen, I wrote poems about unlucky loves—my whole youth I wrote this stuff and stopped after becoming an adult, more or less.” Fricke says. “I started again at 27 with fiction, short stories in the beginning. I did it and still do it in very serious way. Being a writer was the childhood dream and I had forgotten this for many years. After this memory came back, I started immediately to walk this way.”

Commonly regarded as one of the premier writing institutions in the country, the University of Iowa has long served as both a creative incubator for young writers as well as a nexus for some of the country’s finest and most distinguished literary minds. As the university’s international writing residency, the IWP is the largest and longest-running program of its kind, hosting hundreds of writers from over 140 countries since its inception in 1967. Through the program’s esteemed Fall Residency, select writers are granted the unique opportunity to live, work, and experience the greater American literary community both in Iowa City as well as other national literary destinations.

“At its simplest, the IWP is a writing residency where authors are given the space and time to write, as well as an outlet for writers to travel, physically or digitally, to reach young creative writing students,” explains Tiefenthaler. “In larger scope, the IWP is a hub for cultural diplomacy. The residency has been referred to as a ‘United Nations for Writers,’ and that level of exchange and dialogue is at the core of the IWP, as well as the mission of the UI.”

As first time visitors to New Orleans, both Fricke and al-Berry have nevertheless been able to form distinct connections with city in their writing abroad. “I was working for BBC World Service in London when Hurricane Katrina happened,” explains al-Berry. “I used to call numbers that I got from ‘white pages’, random numbers of pubs and other businesses, in an attempt to get hold of people to interview for radio and let the world hear their experiences. So I was keen on visiting New Orleans when there was a chance.”

The writers’ participation in the LIVE PROSE reading is part of an ongoing relationship between Room 220 and the IWP that began last year. Residents from the 2011 program took part in a round-table discussion at the Community Book Center hosted by Room 220, which also acted as a liaison to have writers visit local high school classrooms. This year, IWP residents will make classroom appearances at the Bard Early College program as well as NOCCA, observing as well as sharing their writing experiences with a new generation of aspiring American writers.

“America is a different world for me,” says al-Berry. “There is something about the American character that I love, namely optimism, daring, and looking forward to tomorrow. As a foreigner, I appreciate it. For the IWP in particular, listening to the experiences of fellow writers and guests is invaluable. I learn at least one new thing every day, whether in a conversation over tea or in a lecture room. Can you imagine being in the same place with people from more than 30 countries? It’s a writer’s heaven.”

Fricke and al-Berry are joined on their trip by esteemed writers from Greece, New Zealand, Singapore, Burma, Mauritius, South Korea, Iraq, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines. All of these writers will be in attendance at the reading on Thursday, so anyone who wishes to make contact with this veritable UN delegation of writers will have the opportunity to buy them a drink (Melvin’s will be offering a drink special during the event) or simply engage in a cross-cultural exchange the likes of which most dive bars in New Orleans don’t generally offer.