How did Iowa City become the first UNESCO Literary City in the United States?

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I have lived in Iowa City for the last nine years. When people who don’t live in Iowa City find out that I live in Iowa, they make some assumptions. For example, they assume that I live on a farm. They assume that every house on the block has a huge banner supporting 45. They also say, “I’ve never been there!” or “I’ve driven by there!”

Then they inevitably ask me, “Do you… like it there?” I sure couldn’t! Not me, I’ve lived in Chicago, San Diego, and several other big cities that apparently have nothing in common with Iowa City.

But then I blow their minds by throwing two facts at them. First of all, I live only 40 minutes from the largest truck stop in the world! And then I’ll give you a fact that’s really impressive: Iowa City was the third UNESCO City of Literature and the first in the Americas.

If you’ve heard of Iowa City, chances are it’s because of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In fact, it’s considered by some to be the most prestigious writing workshop in the country. It could be assumed that this is what qualified it as a UNESCO City of Literature. Although the Workshop, of course, is linked to everything literary in this city, it is far from being the only literary attraction.

So hold on tight as I explain the literature that is Iowa City and how it earned its designation as a City of Literature.

Requirements as a UNESCO City of Literature

Any city can apply to be City of Literature. They must show that they meet the criteria, which include:

  • Quality, quantity and diversity of publications in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programs focused on national or foreign literature at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels
  • Literature, theater and/or poetry play an important role in the city
  • Organize events and literary festivals that promote national and foreign literature.
  • Existence of public or private libraries, bookstores and cultural centers that preserve, promote and disseminate national and foreign literature
  • Involvement of the publishing sector in the translation of literary works from various national languages ​​and foreign literature
  • Active participation of the traditional and new media in the promotion of literature and the strengthening of the market for literary products.

A city that wants to be considered must submit a proposal. Ours was a “beautiful boxed volume of handmade paper and original calligraphy, designed and created by the UI Center for the Book,” which was packaged and shipped to Paris for consideration.

You can read all 79 pages of the Iowa City application or you can get the highlights below.

Iowa Writers Workshop

While the Workshop isn’t the only reason we’ve earned this designation, it’s a big part of it.

The workshop is very difficult to enter. How hard? By one person’s calculations, it’s harder to get into the Workshop than it is to get into Harvard Law. Founded in 1936, it was the first degree-granting creative writing program in the country. For many years he was one of the few. As of 2021, there are more than 300 programs offering MFAs in creative writing, but Iowa still ranks among the top.

In the decades since its founding, Workshop has continued to attract top talent, with faculty and graduates winning nearly 30 Pulitzer Prizes. Eight US Poet Laureates have graduated from the workshop.

Workshop alum includes:

  • yaa gyasi
  • ct boyle
  • tracy kidder
  • raymond carpenter
  • and samantha chang
  • alexander chee
  • Sander Cisneros
  • John De Agatha
  • Andre Dubus
  • John Irving
  • Leslie Jamison
  • Dennis Johnson
  • Carmen Maria Machado
  • elizabeth macracken
  • James Alan McPherson
  • Ann Patchett
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Robert Penn Warren

When I say it’s a partial list, I mean it’s an extremely partial list! As well as this is a partial list of known current or former faculty at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • James Alan McPherson
  • marilynne robinson
  • ZZ Packer
  • jess walter
  • John Berryman
  • John Cheever
  • Philip Roth
  • meg wolitzer
  • richard yachts

Just look at a few years of posts from Workshop graduates and you’ll see for yourself: it’s a lot.

The International Writing Program

In addition to the Workshop, the University of Iowa also hosts the International Writing Program. Founded in 1967, more than 1,500 writers from more than 150 countries have resided here.

Unlike the Workshop, which is designed for writers at any stage of their writing career, the IWP is designed for well-established writers. The goal is to provide those writers with the time and space to work on their writing. They are also given the opportunity to present their work publicly, participate in workshops and give interviews. However, they are free to spend their time as they wish and do not have to complete courses.

Among those welcomed to the IWP are Bessie Head, Bei Dao, Luisa Valenzuela, John Banville, and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

Iowa City Post

There are 11 literary presses in Iowa City. One is dedicated entirely to translation and two focus on language and literary materials.

In addition to these print shops, we also house the Center for the Book, which teaches bookmaking, papermaking, preservation, lettering, and a host of other nerd/fantasy related courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

Live from the prairie lights

There are a few bookstores in Iowa City, but we are best known for Prairie Lights Books. Before COVID, they hosted at least three live readings each week. The ‘Live from Prairie Lights’ was for a long time the only ongoing series of literary readings broadcast live on radio, though it has now entered a new phase as a podcast.

literary events

Iowa City and its various literary institutions sponsor more than 180 literary events annually (or at least we did before the pandemic), including the Iowa City Festival of the Book and the Mission Creek Festival, a “celebration of music and literature” .

Then there’s the Iowa Writing Festival, events put on by the Iowa Youth Writing Program…and it goes on and on.

Literary Attractions

The Iowa City Literary Tour includes stops at the house Kurt Vonnegut lived in while teaching the Workshop and writing Slaughterhouse-Five, Dave’s Fox Head Tavern (a favorite of Workshop students), the English-Philosophy Building (better known here as the EPB) the building that houses most of the English classes and hosted the Workshop from the mid-1960s to 1997, and the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk of Fame with bronze plaques and citations by authors such as Flannery O’Connor and John Irving.

The tour will take you past the former homes of many of the people who lived and worked or studied here, the places they frequented, and the historic gardens they reclined in.

A city of creatives

As of 2008, the year Iowa City was named a UNESCO City of Literature, 30% of the city’s population worked in a creative field.

I did my best to be thorough, but a true summary of what makes Iowa City worthy of UNESCO designation would require, well, 79 pages!

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