A life of letters

Updated: 2013-02-05 11:05

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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A life of letters

Hualing Nieh is a world citizen with roots in China and the United States and she has helped push creative writing from developing countries to new heights. Now her work is captured on film, Kelly Chung Dawson reports in New York.

When novelist and poet Hualing Nieh arrived at the University of Iowa's prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1964, she was one of only a few international students in a predominantly American group of young writers.

She looked around at the other foreigners - from Ethiopia, Philippines, South Korea and elsewhere - and sensed that what they needed was so distinct that a separate program was warranted.

A life of letters

Above: The International Writing Program has hosted writers from all over the world including Chinese authors Mo Yan (top) and Yu Hua. Photos provided to China Daily

Many were older than their American counterparts, had already published works and were well established in their own countries. Nieh, for instance, had published seven books in Taiwan.

She turned to Paul Engle, director of the writers' workshop - who would become her husband - and suggested that, when his tenure ended, they launch a program especially for foreigners.

"What we needed was so different," Nieh tells China Daily. "Paul said to me, 'Are you crazy?' I said, 'Sometimes.' And so we tried. You never succeed if you don't try."

In 1967, the couple founded the International Writing Program, which has since hosted more than 1,000 writers from 120 countries and regions.

Among them were Nobel Literature Prize winners Mo Yan of China (Red Sorghum) and Orhan Pamuk of Turkey (My Name Is Red), and Chinese novelist Yu Hua (To Live).

Nieh and the IWP are the subject of One Tree: Three Lives, a new documentary by Angie Chen, whose 2008 film This Darling Life was nominated for Best Documentary at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards. One Tree: Three Lives premiered at the 2012 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

"I am a tree with roots in (the mainland) China, the trunk in Taiwan and leaves flourishing in Iowa," Nieh writes in a poem featured in Chen's film. "This is the Iowa River, and that is the Yangtze River. Where these two rivers meet is my home."

Nieh took over as IWP director for several years after Engle's 1977 retirement (he died in 1991) and now serves on the program's advisory board.

She is the author of more than two dozen books, including Mulberry and Peach, which won an American Book Award in 1990 and was named one of the 100 greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century by Asia Weekly magazine, published in China.

Chen met Nieh as a teenager in Taiwan while she was attending junior high school with Nieh's daughter. Later, the filmmaker studied at the University of Iowa and became involved in the IWP as its official musician for writers' recitals. She grew close to the Nieh family.

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