‘I came from Des Moines. Someone had to.” If Bill Bryson meant it as a put-down, Iowans are used to them. “They think we’re, like, all corn and pigs,” our driver grumbled about flaky Californians and pushy New Yorkers. “They have, like, this picture of someone obese in overalls, eating fried food.”
Thanks to Creative NZ, I spent three months in Iowa, and specifically in Iowa City, masquerading as a writer in residence while I gazed out my window at the pure metal cubes of Frank Gehry’s Advanced Technologies Laboratories. I can confirm the abundance of corn. And pigs. And overalls, as worn in university colours on home football days by girls with perfect teeth.
Iowa is also prairie contours, with huge skies across which thunderstorms stalk, the landscape painted over and over by Grant Wood of American Gothic. “The only good ideas I ever had came from milking a cow,” Wood said. “So I came back to Iowa.” His lyrical, melancholy images of tawny fields, red barns, blazing fall trees are in every Iowa public gallery. And he wore overalls.
Iowa City is in the state’s southeast quadrant. It’s four hours by Greyhound bus (the choice of travel for every tattooed, goateed American male) from Chicago. Two hours from the Fort Madison rodeo where brave cowboys drive off savage Indians to open the prairies for civilisation. One hour from Davenport, whose Figge Art Museum holds the Jackson Pollock mural – the one painted for Peggy Guggenheim in a 15-hour frenzy. Forty minutes from the Amish community of Kalona, and the world’s best bumbleberry pies.
It’s about the size of Hamilton, a flattish, fattish place bisected by the Iowa River, a university town of 30,000 students with glossy unwrinkled skin and matching brains. Big stone lecture halls abound. Fraternity and sorority houses are also ubiquitous, many of them like mock Greek temples. There’s something a tad silly about a porticoed parthenon with a “Sigma-Delta-Pi Welcomes Freshmen” banner, and a barbecue on the steps.
It’s a strolling city, with streets of tall 1880s frame houses, and a lot of successful old brick downtown.
The gilt-domed Old Capitol has become a museum where you may view senators’ spitoons. The Museum of Natural History dares to offer information rather than entertainment, and stars Rusty the elephant-sized ground sloth. The Medical Museum holds “a century of surgical instruments”; don’t miss the tonsil guillotine.
It’s friendly. “They say to me, ‘How y’all doin’?’” marvelled Anisul the Bangladeshi screenwriter. “Are they not counting me correctly?” It’s 89% white: Chehem the Djibouti novelist and Ismael the Nigerian poet got stared at.
It tries hard to be liberal. While I was there, a conservative congregation three counties away sought permission to trample on the American flag. Reason: the US had incurred God’s wrath by letting gays serve in the military. It would never happen in Iowa City, I was assured.
It’s safe: Pola the Argentinian essayist and Farangis the Iranian dramatist, both so gorgeous that men fell out of windows as they passed, had no worries about walking alone at night. A few locals had “homeless” signs, but they had the look of hobbyists.
While in Iowa City, you must drink a Fat Tire beer; stroll beside the roiling river and spot squirrels/chipmunks/blue jays/scarlet-backed blackbirds; learn to say “Yah’re welcome”, any time anyone thanks you; find Oakland Cemetery with its (in)famous Dark Angel statue, which is rumoured to bring death to anyone who kisses it. Certainly it’s been the kiss of death to the cemetery’s aesthetics.
And you must read. Because it’s a literary town: one of Unesco’s four Cities of Literature (Edinburgh, Dublin and Melbourne, since you asked). A Writers’ Walk quotes the most famous who have worked there. The bronze plaques suggest many specialised in the bleeding obvious, though you have to like Flannery O’Connor: “I’m often asked if the universities stifle writers. My answer is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
The writers I shared my time with started as a UN and ended as a whanau. I made friends with South Korean poet Sa-In, who spent three years in prison for opposing the 1980s dictatorship. With Ghada, whose novel on arranged marriages saw her branded Egypt’s most shameless woman. With Turusbek of Kyrgyzstan, a dead ringer for the James Bond villain Oddjob, who sent instalments of translation home to keep his family fed. I felt very sheltered.
And no, I didn’t get to Des Moines. Someone else has to.