Toplessness and Literature: Mainland Meets the Midwest

Fan Dai
Jan 17th, 2014

“Mom, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” My son, who came from New York City to help me settle in Iowa City, asked as we drove out of the airport. The freezing December cold was made all the more undesirable by the empty fields that greeted the eye.

This didn’t stop my enthusiasm for sharing a four-bedroom apartment with three students my son’s age. Over thirty years ago, I chose not to share a dormitory with 9 classmates in 5 bunk beds, then missing a huge component of undergraduate life in China. I saw Iowa City as the place to make up for those regrets.

But it wasn’t fun to get all excited about cooking only to find that my shrimps have been used by one of the girls. She did ask me whether I would mind sharing food. I didn’t, but I wasn’t prepared that she would use up an item, and worse, I couldn’t persuade myself to use her food because if I wanted the food, I’d have bought it myself! Then there was her boyfriend. Not that I minded his presence, but his toplessness, and her random toplessness in the sitting room was not only puzzlement but also an inconvenience.

The other two girls soon ran out of tolerance, quarreled with her, and moved out altogether. I prevailed with the hard-earned maturity of many years, and congratulated myself on an immersion experience that I wouldn’t have had without permission.

My attitude to immersion amused my new-found friends at the nonfiction workshop. They welcomed me into the intimacy of like-minded people, sharing thoughts on each other’s work attending to the minutest details such as the connectivity of events, the use of a verb... There was always something special about being in such workshops in Iowa City, where books are featured as artwork on the roadside, quotes from writers are carved on the Literary Walk in Iowa Avenue, and pianos are placed downtown for anyone to have a fun play.

The literary scene picked up momentum as spring arrived. While readings at Prairie Lights attracted crowds of a more general kind, those held in cafés welcomed more specialized audiences. I don’t remember how many times I was moved at the sight of the audience at such events. It was as if we were all on a keen, collective quest for what it means to be human. Sitting among well-established writers, would-be writers, and lovers of literature in the city of literature simply felt right.        

When the three-month International Writing Program, the brainchild of Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle, opens in late summer, it is almost surreal to see writers from different cultures mingle with future writers, mostly the students of the Writers’ Workshop, Nonfiction Writing Program, Playwrights Workshop and Translation Workshop, to talk about all aspects of literature. Iowa City simmers literature in fall.

In the meantime, the country ached to see the change of foliage best exemplified in New England. The writer in me craved for first-hand experience and went to Vermont, which boasts one of the most spectacular leaf shows. But the rainy day largely discounted the beauty. My next foliage chase to a national park in Virginia encountered the government shutdown as well as largely green leaves. The effects of global warming was the unofficial explanation for the latter.

As my time in Iowa City came to an end in early November, the leaves turned to a chorus of all colors and shades. Isn’t this Nature’s way of showing the drama of life?

On my way to the JFK airport, a sports journalist struck up a conversation and asked where I came from.

“Are you a writer?” he asked, when I said I'd come from Iowa City.

I beamed.



Fan Dai
Last blog date: Mar 18th, 2014


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