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Chinese and American Writers Explore Culture in the Desert
(Literary exchange takes writers from Dunhuang, China, to Iowa)

By Howard Cincotta
Special Correspondent

Washington — The city of Dunhuang in western China, desert gateway to the fabled Silk Road, drew a group of American and Chinese writers in May for a bold, two-week experiment in intercultural collaboration and literary exploration. In October, the second half of the pilot exchange project will gather participants in Iowa, Chicago and Washington to continue their creative collaboration.

The “Life of Discovery” program, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and sponsored by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and the Chinese Writers’ Association, seeks to stimulate the creative process for a select group of artists. But the program also has another dimension: participation by writers and artists from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The U.S. writers included Asian-American and African-American writers as well as a visual artist. For China, it meant writers and poets who are of Tibetan, Yi, Korean, Wa and Gelao backgrounds.

Since the participants were not bilingual, the program relied heavily on its hard-working interpreters.

Fiction writer Hu Xuewen served as senior artist for the seven-member Chinese delegation; novelist and playwright Edward Carey led the six-person American contingent.

“We’ve never done an exchange quite like this before, and we found ourselves exploring new ground,” said Hugh Ferrer, associate director of the Iowa writing program.


The foreseeable language difficulties were overcome by the “passion and energy” of everyone involved, according to essayist and editor Guo Wenbin.

“Despite the language barrier, I was able to have free and in-depth communication with the American writers,” commented Tibetan poet Cao Youyun. “What was most surprising for me is that for writers separated by the ocean, the internal conflicts that confront us are almost the same,” he said.

American poet Kiki Petrosino felt frustrated by her inability to read or speak Chinese, but still found the experience “so rich and multidimensional — and it made my sense of sight more acute than ever.”

In a May Facebook entry, Petrosino reported that she had “just finished a two-hour bike ride that began in the desert, floated past grape arbors fenced with sliced bamboo, and ended at an outdoor flea market where I saw whole roasted ducks glazed orange and gold.”


What proved more complicated and challenging for both the Americans and Chinese were their contrasting approaches to working in collaborative activities like Life of Discovery.

Although Americans still conceive of writing as a largely solitary act, Petrosino points out, they are increasingly exposed to the workshop process of intensive group critiques and a sharing of drafts and ideas. Such collaborative exercises are central to creative-writing instruction throughout the United States.

“What we discovered is that the creative-writing culture is very different in China,” said Ferrer. “If we have a more personal, spontaneous writing culture, the Chinese have more of an author culture, where they feel responsible for what they write and want to take time with it. Both approaches are valuable, but different.”

Many of the Chinese writers were struck by this distinction as well. “The American writers often focus on a specific ‘personal self,’ whereas many Chinese writers take the larger ‘national self’ as point of departure in writing,” said writer Li Hui, who is also known by his Yi name Mushasijia Eni.

“The American writers have an unrestrained and relaxed attitude about writing,” said Cao Youyun. “The Chinese writers seem more concerned with historical factors and moral responsibilities.”


After some deliberation, the group agreed to have structured classroom readings each day by two featured writers, along with more informal collaborations.

The program reached “a turning point” with presentations by American fiction writer David Chan and Chinese poet Nie Le, who is of Wa background, according to a report by Yan Liang, program coordinator.

“Nie Le’s poems and narration of his own life were fascinating. Edward Carey called his poems ‘deceptively simple,’” Liang wrote.

Eventually all the writers found opportunities for creative collaborations, such as a word game known as “Exquisite Corpse ( ),” invented by French surrealist artists in the early 20th century.

Although there are several variations, the Exquisite Corpse exercise typically begins with the first participant writing a line of poetry and giving it to the second person. By folding the paper as it is passed along to the others in the class or the game, each of the writers sees only the preceding line, but not the rest of the poem. (The name comes from one of the first times the game was played, which resulted in the sentence, “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”)

The object is to see the unexpected associations and beauty of seemingly random word play, along with fostering a greater sense of collaboration and friendship.

“It definitely broke the ice,” Petrosino said.

In the fiction group, the writers found themselves swapping desert and ghost stories. “One ghost story began inspiring another,” said Ferrer, delighted at the spontaneous nature of the discussion.


The participants agreed that, prior to gathering in Iowa, the poets would produce 50 lines of verse and the fiction writers 10 pages — all translated into the other language. There may also be an anthology entitled New Tales from the Silk Road.

For the Americans visiting China in May, there was certainly plenty to write about. The delegation explored the stunning Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, slid down sand dunes, rode camels, visited the ancient Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, and toured the hip, new 798 Art District in Beijing.

American sculptor Anne Wilson, inspired by the Mogao Caves, shaped a set of lotus leaf designs in the sand. The desert wind blew away the sand sculptures, but Wilson has saved the molds to reproduce in Iowa.

Many of the writers anticipate that the first phase of Life of Discovery will have an important effect on their work.

“This experience will probably become a point of transformation in my writing career,” said poet Nie Le.

“I see my work turning out to the world — and now I have a new sound of language, new colors, and desert scenes to work with,” said Petrosino.

“My experience of the journey can be compared to a chapter in a novel,” said writer Jin Renshun, of Korean background. “Its meaning is long-lasting and will be further enriched as the program progresses.”

For more information, see the Life of Discovery program Web site ( ) and photos of the China trip ( ).

Also see the International Writing Program Web site ( ), Facebook page ( ) and blog ( ).

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:

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