Making a world of difference
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When Hualing Nieh Engle first suggested bringing together a group of established writers from around the globe to nurture their artistic creativity on the University of Iowa campus, Paul Engle told her it was a crazy idea.
“But Paul thought it was an interesting one, and he always wanted to try new things,” says Engle of the exchange she had with the man who had led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to worldwide distinction and whom she later married. “Iowa City is such a wonderful place for writers, so I said, ‘Why not expand the workshop to focus on international writers?’ It was a natural thought.”
Everything’s coming up Engle
Not only is Hualing Nieh Engle, co-founder of the UI International Writing Program, being honored by the University of Iowa with the 2012 International Impact Award, she is the subject of a film that is part of the Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City. Read on to learn more about these events:
• One Tree, Three Lives is a feature-length documentary about Engle’s life. Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Angie Chen, it premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March 2012. The Landlocked Film Festival will present a free screening of the film at 7 p.m., Oct. 28, at the Bijou Cinema in the Iowa Memorial Union. For festival details, go to www.landlockedfilmfestival.org.
• The International Impact Award will be presented to Engle at 5 p.m., Friday Nov. 2, in the Senate Chamber of the Old Capitol Museum. Following the award presentation, Engle will talk about her life and love of writing with WorldCanvass TV and radio series host Joan Kjaer. For more information, click here.
• For additional information on Engle as well as on her late husband, Paul, visit an online gallery hosted by the IWP. It includes excerpts from their work; a trailer for the above-mentioned film; and many articles, memories, and even a play about the Engles.
Engle had been a published author living in Taiwan when she met Paul in 1963. He was traveling through Asia scouting literary talent and invited her to attend the Writers’ Workshop. Despite political turbulence in Taiwan, she was granted the necessary paperwork to come to the UI the following year, first as a writer-in-residence at the workshop and then as a student. After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1966, she saw an opportunity to reach out to similar writers who could benefit from Iowa City’s literary environment, and convinced Paul to make it happen.
And so began, in 1967, the UI International Writing Program (IWP). Unlike the Writers’ Workshop, the IWP is a nonacademic program, one that brings several dozen international writers to the UI campus each fall for a three-month residency. Over the past 45 years, it has hosted more than 1,400 writers from more than 140 countries in an exchange that allows participants the chance to immerse themselves in their writing, to learn about American culture, and to share ideas with each other and with their American counterparts.
“It took hard, constant work, and I didn’t expect it could be developed into what it is now. It’s beyond my imagination. It’s marvelous,” Engle says. “Paul Engle would be so happy.”
Honoring the impact
Engle ran the program with Paul until he retired in 1977, and then took over as sole director. (She retired in 1988 and now serves on the program’s advisory board. Paul died in 1991.) Together, the Engles worked tirelessly to assemble and fund each year’s cohort, often targeting regions of the world where personal liberties were restricted. It was an effort that earned the pair a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976, and one that helped cement Iowa City’s 2008 designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.
In November, the university will honor Engle with its International Impact Award. Established by UI International Programs in 2010, the award recognizes distinguished alumni and other individuals with significant ties to the UI who have made important contributions to promote global understanding [see sidebar for event details].
In a letter nominating Engle for the award, current IWP director Christopher Merrill explains the magnitude of the program: “The impact of this model continues to ripple through the increasingly globalized culture-scape, with masters-level creative programs established by IWP alumni, one literary residency modeled directly on the IWP now thriving in Hong Kong, another in the planning stage in Nigeria, while other international literary residencies yet use the IWP as a point of reference or a sounding board.”
Writers in the 2012 residency represent such diverse countries as Uruguay, Botswana, Slovakia, Burma, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the Philippines, among others.
Becoming a writer
One of the reasons for the program’s success, Engle notes, is that writers often thrive simply being together in a supportive environment. Iowa City already had established a reputation as a place where writers could flourish, and she and Paul frequently invited IWP participants to their home for further social networking.
“We’d be together drinking wine or drinking tea and singing and dancing,” says Engle, recalling the lively gatherings. “We’re just writers. We’re happy together.”
Though she says she cannot pinpoint when she decided to pursue writing as a career, Engle traces an interest back to her childhood in China. “As with any artist—writing is one kind of art—one isn’t aware when,” she says. “It’s kind of in your blood.”
Engle’s grandfather had been a classical poet who would chant classical poems at home, often gathering with others to do so. She remembers listening from another room when she was a little girl, peering through the keyhole of a closed door and soaking it in. “I found it enchanting.”
Praise and encouragement from a string of teachers in secondary school and in college further compelled Engle to write. She studied English literature at National Central University in China, but as the political climate grew more turbulent—her father had been executed in the Chinese civil war when she was 11—she fled with her family to Taiwan. There she took an editorial job at Free China Fortnightly, a liberal literary journal. In 1960, however, Chiang Kai-shek’s government shut down the publication for its democratic leanings and arrested several of her colleagues.
“I was lucky,” she explains. “They left me alone because I had nothing to do with the magazine’s political writing—I was the literary editor. But still they kept an eye on me, and no one would hire me. So I occupied myself with my writing and with translating the works of Henry James and Faulkner and Hemingway.”
By the time she arrived on the UI campus four years later, Engle had published seven books, including short stories, translations, and a novel.
Meeting Paul Engle
During her time in Taiwan, Engle was aware of the literary scene in Iowa City and of the Writers’ Workshop. A Taiwanese poet she knew had graduated from the Iowa program and hosted a dinner for Paul during his 1963 visit to Taiwan. Engle was invited to the event and, because she spoke English, was seated next to Paul.
“Paul was talking and joking around, and people were enjoying his company so much that I really didn’t say much,” she recalls. “But then he turned to me and asked if I wanted to come to the workshop. He said he wanted to see me again.”
The two had lunch the following day, and the wheels were set in motion—for both her marriage to Paul and her legacy at Iowa.
“It was professional,” she says, denying there was an immediate attraction between the two. “I had had some stories published in English, so he had an idea what my writing was like. Maybe he had a good impression of me. He wanted me to come, so I came.”
With two daughters from her first marriage in tow, Engle made it to Iowa and completed a degree. Though an exciting job opportunity awaited her at a new publishing house in Hong Kong, Engle was compelled to stay put. She and Paul married in 1971.
Living in Iowa City, but honoring her roots
Nearly half a century later, Engle lives in the house overlooking the Iowa River that she and Paul bought 40 years ago. Though her children and their families now live on the East Coast, the 87-year-old great-grandmother says she has no intention of leaving Iowa City—or a home filled with so many memories.
“I’ve had opportunities to go elsewhere, but I love being here and what I’ve accomplished here,” says Engle, who still writes daily out of an office in the lower level of the house.
Engle is continuing to accomplish things—and the global impact of her work is far from over. In addition to writing and publishing books in Chinese (“I didn’t want to stop publishing in my mother tongue,” she says), she will direct an anonymous donation made recently to the UI Foundation in her honor to endow two IWP fellowships, including one to fund a writer from China.