As I write this, it is a late Tuesday in the waning days of October, and I am hating the chatter of this couple on a study date in this crowded café. They are in the next table behind me, and try as I might, I become an unwilling eavesdropper into their conversation–something the music piped right into my ears with my earphones cannot even remedy. Sigur Ros, James Morrison, the Hans Zimmer soundtrack from Inception are powerless. The girl is Asian and seems inappropriately giggly; the guy is blonde and strikes a macho pose in his probing questions and corny jokes. The guy says something bland or inane, and the girl giggles and provides chatty fodder for their conversation’s twists and turns, including strange detours into the Oedipus Complex and living in Canada. They have gone on with this getting-to-know-you game for a while now, and I am on my second cup of café latte. I am hungry and loaded with caffeine, and I cannot write the story I have sworn to finish today, or else. I can feel a headache coming. It is 7.27 in the evening in The Java House along East Washington Street, a football pigskin’s throw from the pedestrian mall in the center of town. I think about the grocery I have to buy in Bread Garden Market after I finish this cup of coffee. The café’s wifi is down, and I miss the occasional Facebook breaks I take from my writing, where the “occasional” is considerably longer than the actual work at hand. The couple behind me now talks about the “rules” of friending people in Facebook, and I roll my eyes. I think hazily about procrastination, and decide to do something about this habit later. I think about missing gym for four days now. I think about the stories and articles I have yet to finish. I think about the books I have to read, and the films I have to screen. I think about my remaining days in America. I think about time slipping fast.
I think about time a lot these days.
I think about the past weekend in Chicago, and think about how I had spent Monday in a pursuit of cocooning rest. This meant movies and books and general avoidance of the outside world. Outside, Iowa City is getting cold. The cold snap of autumn has gone towards its most extreme. The TV news tells me there is a storm brewing all over the Midwest. There are tornado warnings for Mississippi and Wisconsin. I find myself dressing in a flannel shirt and a sweatshirt and a coat and a pair of canvas skate shoes. I look at myself in the mirror and think about how, with such a simple sartorial act, I have gone suddenly “native.”
This is not a usual day for me here in Iowa City. Often, each day is sunny and free of irritating moments–when it does become chilly, the beauty of trees turning gold in the fall offsets it. This is why I am recounting all this in detail, because it is unusual. My stay here has been beautiful, and all that is coming to an end soon, in a few weeks. I think about time a lot these days. And how it slips away so fast.
Here’s what a normal day here is for me. There’s waking up late in the morning, then gym at the nearby Fitness First, then lunch at A Taste of China along Linn Street (or some other place when rice does not do it for you anymore), then coffee-aided writing at The Java House or T-Spoon, then the library till midnight, then home. On weekends, there’s music at The Mill or beer at Fox Head or Donnelly’s. The bibliophiles among us, who are most of us, go to Prairie Lights or The Haunted Bookstore or Murphy-Brookfield for a relief of their book addiction. We are kept busy some days attending to lectures and readings and film screenings and parties and excursions, most of which are optional. We are told that our primary duty in this writing residency is to write. And so we do. I sleep late at night to catch up on work and reading, aided for the most part by Red Bull in cans, something that is treated almost like water here. I have learned to hate the television a month before; the remote control is hidden behind the set, in an attempt to make turning the TV on a little harder, a mile shy of temptation.
In the rooms around mine in The Iowa House Hotel where we are billeted, the writers are battling with words and turns of phrases–and so must I. It is the best kind of writerly pressure. Compatriot Edgar Calabia Samar is finishing the introduction to his dissertation, an anti-detective novel in Filipino. Hong Kong’s Lai Chu Hon is finished with her novella about girls jumping off buildings, and Russia’s Alan Cherchesov is finished with his novel as well. Indonesia’s bestselling author Andrea Hirata began his fifth novel in the beginning of the residency, and is now finished with it. Singapore’s Thiam Chin O has finished four chapters of his first novel about two couples in an unnamed Asian island after the tsunami. Egypt’s Ghada Abdel Aal is biding her time, having decided not to write at all (except her columns back home!), occupied as she is with pressing interviews and readings and classroom visits. She has so far appeared in The Washington Post, which has done a feature on her as the author of a widely popular television show back in Cairo based on her book I Want to Get Married! She tells me that as a Muslim woman, “sometimes I am treated here more as a symbol than as a person.” Argentina’s lovely (and uncomplicated! she would love that word) Pola Oloixarac, one of Granta’s choices for best young Spanish novelists, makes the conference circuit in Spanish language literature from Boston to Barcelona. India’s Chandrahas Choudhury gives readings of his first novel everywhere. Others are finishing screenplays and poetry collections. We–all 38 of us from far-flung places in the world–are all busy writing, when we are not partying or doing readings or visiting places or meeting authors like James Tate, Samantha Chang, Marilynne Robinson, Mona Simpson, Bo Caldwell, Yiyun Li, Jane Smiley, Xu Xi, among others. We get to travel, too, to get the breadth of America, which is part of the pursuits of this program. So far, there has been San Francisco for me (and Cody in Wyoming, Portland, and New Orleans for the others), as well as Chicago, and soon Washington, D.C. and New York. In those places, the touristy stuff prevail: in Chicago, there’re the architectural boat tour, the art overload in the Institute of Art, the plays in the theater district, the dancing in Boystown, the restaurant-hopping in Wicker Park, the skyline from Museum Campus, the view of the world from atop Willis Tower, the shopping along Michigan Avenue, among others; in San Francisco, there’re Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, the winding descent of Lombard Street, the bohemian air of Haight-Ashbury and The Mission, the nightlife in the Castro and Valencia Drive; in Washington, D.C. and New York, there will be more of the same. The goal is immersion in the culture, as well as to write. I came here to write my second novel, but somehow ended up writing short stories instead. I am almost halfway finished with that new collection Where You Are is Not Here, all set in places not in the Philippines. When IWP writers greet each other in the morning, our hellos are often followed by this phrase: “How’s your word count?”
You can say that Iowa City is a writer’s dream. When Teng Mangansakan III, who was a fellow two years ago, told me earlier that this experience would be life-altering, I didn’t know if I could believe him, but now I know for sure. Remember those fantasies you keep about spending your days not preoccupied with such trifling concerns like a day job, spending only time chasing words and inspiration? The residency in the International Writing Program is the fulfillment of that fantasy–but after its expiration date comes the thought about having to go back to the ordinary world, where you have to take in again all those nagging everyday concerns, which compete with the fact of being a writer. Alas.
But nevertheless. To get a taste of this life, to be given this opportunity, that is enough.