IWP participant encouraged three of her students to seek degrees at UI
Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bernice Chauly holds a widely shared opinion that the University of Iowa is the place to go in North America to study writing, referring specifically to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as “the Holy Grail” of MFA programs.

Chauly, a diverse artist who has taught creative writing for three years in the American Degree Program at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shared this opinion with three of her students, prompting them to travel to Iowa City to pursue their undergraduate degrees in creative writing at the UI.

“I’m really glad they’re here,” Chauly says. “Their lives will change so much from being at Iowa; they will have time to work on their craft and they will be exposed to so much to enrich their lives.”

You might notice that Chauly said “here.” That’s because this fall Chauly realized her own dream of participating in the UI International Writing Program, joining her former students—Andrea Chan, Wei Lim Chua, and Kelvin Ang—on the UI campus during her fall residency.

Chauly’s body of work is impressive. She is the author of the poetry collections going there and coming back (1997), The Book of Sins (2008), and Onkalo (2013), the short-fiction book Lost in KL (2008), and the memoir Growing Up With Ghosts (2011), winner of the 2012 Reader's Choice Awards for non-fiction. Her award-winning films have screened at international film festivals. Chauly is a co-founder of Rhino Press and of Malaysia’s longest-running literary platform, Readings, and the curator of the George Town Literary Festival. She’s taught for more than a decade in areas that include creative writing, film studies, script writing, women’s studies and literature, and documentary production, all aspects of her own artistic endeavors.

What do Chauly’s former students hope to do after getting a UI degree?

Andrea: I hope to be able to work at an independent literary press after I graduate. At some point in the future, I would also like to introduce affordable youth writing programs back in Malaysia, focusing less on the academic use of writing, and more on the creative aspect of it. Cultivating one's voice shouldn't depend on the depth of your wallet.

Kelvin: I’ll be graduating in December; hopefully I’ll land a job in the USA. I’ll keep working on lining up something. While I’m doing that, I’ll keep writing and aim to publish something.

Wei Lim: Hopefully I can publish something before I graduate. I'll probably return to Malaysia and write there but I do plan to pursue an MFA. It's hard to get into the Writers’ Workshop, but then again, I never expected to be on the dean's list. I’m very encouraged and motivated at the moment—this is saying a lot, since I’m really my worst critic!

Her presence on campus has provided her former students with a familiar face and continued inspiration and support. “It's always exciting to see anyone from home, particularly when said person has had such a huge influence on your craft,” says Chan. “Our conversations do naturally revolve around writing, but we also talk about more personal things as well as events going on back home.”

Chan cites Chauly’s class at Taylor’s as a transformative moment. “Her class was the first formal lesson I'd ever had in creative writing. I came out of that class having fallen in love with poetry—so much so that poetry is now my primary genre,” Chan says. “She has a very no-nonsense style of teaching and conducting workshops; her policy is that everything can always be improved upon, and we scrutinize our work down to every word. I still adopt the same calculating eye in editing my work that was cultivated in that class.”

Ang expressed similar sentiments: “I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I took Bernice’s class back in the summer of 2012. I liked to read, and I didn’t find writing the chore many of my fellow students made it out to be. But I didn’t think about doing creative writing, much less to pursue it academically, until Bernice gave my writing the old Frankenstein zap—animated it, gave it life.

“I still remember the first poem I wrote where it clicked,” he continues. “A spark went off in my head, and I said to myself, ‘If I had to do one thing for my entire life, I wouldn’t mind this.’”

Chua says that Chauly’s encouragement pointed him toward an academic track involving creative writing, and put him in a good frame of mind for his artistic pursuits. “Like all people who are passionate about art, one has to treat it as more than a hobby,” he says. “She showed me that writing has to be a habit, even in those times when stories and ideas aren’t always apparent.”

The students appreciate Chauly’s recommendation to transfer to the University of Iowa. “I chose to transfer to Iowa because of the prestige surrounding the writing program, and in many ways the university has met my expectations academically,” Chan says. “I have greater access to fantastic writers, both teachers and those who pass through Iowa City for readings.”

Chua found himself enjoying the intrastate rivalry with Iowa State University, learning more about American football in the process. And he was pleasantly surprised to find a passionate fan base for the sport the world calls football: “Watching the World Cup during the summer was amazing. I was shocked by Americans’ passion; it’s quite contrary to what the rest of the world thinks.”

Mark your calendar

Bernice Chauly, fellow IWP resident Sabah Sanhouri (Sudan), and MFA candidate Beatrice Smigasiewicz will give a free reading at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from Iowa,” Ang says. “I just said OK, let’s try everything, let’s really try and do this whole writing business and try to do it well. Two years later, everything turned out so much better than I expected: the classes, the people, the city, the readings, the writers, Prairie Lights…everything.”

(If they missed anything about Malaysia, it was the weather. Chan remarked that one of her favorite moments in Iowa involved a day of “proper warmth” spent reading on the Pentacrest.)

Iowa has been good for Chauly too, getting to know the other IWP participants from around the globe while also working on her next novel. “Iowa City is smaller than what I expected but it has a lot to give to writers,” she says. “I have written so much during my first few weeks—it’s working!”

Chauly reiterates the importance of the University of Iowa’s nurturing of new generations of writers with its undergraduate writing and literature programs. “You never know,” she says, “we could be looking at the next Booker Prize winner.”