Every year the International Writing Program (IWP) of Iowa University conducts a study tour, usually for American writers visiting other countries. In April 2011, however, IWP organized its first tour within the United States, inviting eight international writers* to learn more about some historic upheavals the United States has experienced. I was honored enough to document this experience. The participants studied the American Civil War (1861-65), the civil rights movement (1950s and 1960s), urban renewal (post-1980s), and the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans, 2005) and the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum oil spill (2010) in the Gulf of Mexico.
As an American who has lived abroad and traveled quite a bit, I found myself anticipating a very normal and unassuming experience. I thought I knew enough about recent American history, and I knew full well that other countries have faced (and continue to deal with) many more traumatic temblors.
My expectations were shattered.
What I first observed was the interconnectedness of all of these particular social and political earthquakes. I was also surprised to realize that there was a lot that I didn't know about my own country. It took an examination of these events with eight writers from Australia, Bosnia, Burma, Canada, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kenya, and the Philippines to even begin to try to grasp America's pattern of self-recovery.
Over the course of the trip, I became close to the writers and I spent a much time listening, documenting, and discussing their opinions of the journey through some of the U.S.’s ugliest moments. In return, I received eight distinct views of these historic events. So much so that every time we dove into a topic, I found my opinion changing moment-to-moment as I spoke to each writer individually. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster portion of the trip, for example, all eight writers had a unique take on the fateful events. And all of their points of view seemed very valid. You can see snippets of our conversations in the documentary below.
As Americans, we are so used to looking at the outside world from a singular point of view—an American one—but my documentary, Writing in Motion: A Nation Divided, is about looking inward from eight disparate international vantage points. Moreover, their takes are from a writing perspective; these authors already maintain unique views of the world—how interesting to hear their writerly positions on my own country’s history!
I valued the experience of the tour greatly, not only because I made eight new friends or because I was able to learn more about all the falls we've experienced in the United States, but also because I was able to look at these events in eight new ways. Even though I was greatly confused by the end of the trip, it gave me a much more open-minded perspective of my own country. And to this day, whenever I learn something new about American history and culture, I wonder, "How would Adisa, Alice, Billy, Eduardo, Kei, Khet, Madeleine, and Vicente digest this piece of information?"
Writing in Motion: A Nation Divided
by Sahar Sarshar
Filmed in April 2011, published on The Mantle February 28, 2012
* Editor's note: One of the featured writers in this documentary, Vicente Garcia Groyon, blogs for The Mantle about his reading and writing experiences. You can read Viceente's blog, Reader, Writer, here.