My American Experience

I wish to thank organisers of the International Writing Program (IWP) for the opportunity I had to participate in the 2022 IWP, Fall Residency, at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.

I must confess that I felt a kind of peace that shall occupy a space in my memory forever. I am enamored of Iowa City; its calm, its systems, its sheer natural elements blended with bewildering modernity are truly endearing.

A city as bewitching as Iowa will surely captivate your soul and make you believe there is no heaven elsewhere, unless you’ve been living there since your creation. The Iowa River adds more colour to the beauty of the city. Being a UNESCO City of Literature makes it spiritually sewed to my soul as a writer. Iowa and my experience at the IWP mark an epoch of revelation in my life.

I want to believe that most of the inhabitants of Iowa read and write. In fact, even for non writers, I suspect, they would write at least a line of poetry or a scene of drama or a paragraph of prose to be read to friends or family because they just cannot resist the sheer influence of writing on their lives in Iowa City.

In conversations with Natasa and Hugh (staffers of the IWP), I got to learn that gaining admission into the MFA program, especially the Playwrights Workshop which usually admits 3 or 4 people a year at the University of Iowa, is more difficult than getting into the Harvard Medical School.

This reflects the prestige of the university in the annals of academic spaces that amplify creative writing. No wonder then that Iowa University was the first university to introduce creative writing despite the over 400 universities in America.

When I first got there, I suffered anxiety, depression and what many call trauma because of the things I knew were happening back home– Ghana, West Africa, where I come from. I was compelled to re-evaluate the expectations and experiences of myself and my people.

Nothing, truly, was new to me there but the confirmation of all these things I had  already read in books and seen in movies or heard in songs were extraordinary and overwhelming, but then, more soberly, depressing.

Because I couldn’t hide my excitement of how well of a country America or Iowa City is, I took to social media, especially Facebook, where I posted daily with the hope of engineering a rethink by myself and kith and kin of the lag we are wallowing in, which promises to get worse should we allow this rot to fester.

On board a plane from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids, and being the only black man in the flight got me thinking for a while because that was my first time being in the midst of a all-white space. I’ve not really experienced any culture shock though, perhaps because I was already somewhat socialized into the American culture through the books I read, movies, music videos, and TV shows I watch, and what others have told me about the US.

I got excited when I finally arrived in Iowa City because of its beauty, calmness, and orderliness. Fortunately, my daily routine enabled me to live more intimately with the city: I would usually walk to the “I Love Fufu Restaurant” to get my African food as it was difficult for me to adjust to American food.

The 30 or more minutes’ walk to and fro the Iowa House Hotel, where I lived, gave me a chance to explore this beautiful city and to meet other African brothers and sisters living there. If I’m not exaggerating, what I’ve spent on African food so far in America should afford a car in Ghana considering the sharp depreciation of the Ghanaian cedi. African food is so expensive in America, and even worse in Iowa.

From what I saw in Iowa City, I told some American friends of mine, Deidre, particularly, that America is heaven, but she begged to differ. We traveled to the state of Illinois, Chicago, for some other writing engagements, and visited New York too for similar programs; these are also beautiful but bustling cities.

Despite the staggering differences I saw in other states, I would, on any day, celebrate Iowa City as one of the best places in the world to live and have peace of mind, especially if you’re a writer like me who enjoys peace and tranquility.

I had the rare luck of engaging in a few private activities. So there was an exciting visit to my close friend, Richmond Ampiah-Bonney, who lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Richmond has taken me to many of the places I wished to see like Mark Twain’s House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Then came Hudson in New Hampshire where I was pleased to meet another great friend, Harriet and her family. She treated me to delectable homemade Ghanaian food I had missed for three months and over. Always so kind Harriet made it a point to package some more for me to take home, as in, dishes she had also prepared for me.

And yes, I was supposed to be a host, Gifty, a college mate of mine, who also lives in Minnesota with her family planned to visit, with her family, apparently, when I was in Iowa City. It turned out that the day we had scheduled the visit was the day I was diagnosed of COVID 19 and had to isolate.

I missed the opportunity to meet Gifty after more than a decade and the salad of Ghanaian dishes she had prepared for me.

My movements around these few states revealed to me that unlike New York or Chicago in Illinois where skyscrapers beautify the skyline, Minnesota, Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire are the opposite. Another observation that I made was that the staffers of the IWP are so serviceable. They were prompt with support or guidance whenever I was challenged. So affable and considerate I had fun sharing their space. Shelly, Aidan, Caitlin and all the others were truly helpful.

Many of my fellow writers like Prof. Kang Byoung Yoong, Dr. Endalegeta Kebede, Ainur Karim, Cherie Jones, Tunay Onder, Mohammad Khair, Edson Incopte, Marcel Okoe, Krysia Dabrowska and others were so kind and generous to me, and I can say this confidently because they were there for me when I contracted COVID.

It was my first time contracting the virus, so I was a bit scared as the symptoms were showing on me, but the love they showed me reduced the panic. They brought me food and almost everything else I needed while in isolation. The love they showed me broke the barriers of race and religion.

The selection process of the IWP was highly competitive. I learnt that 115 nominations were made from 64 countries around the world and just 32 were finally selected for the 2022 residency program which saw the US Department of State covering all our expenses throughout the period.

Overall, this visit to America gave me a huge platform to share my experience with other established international fellows. I’ve learned so much here, and I strongly believe this experience will reflect in my subsequent works, enhance my career, and allow me to access similar opportunities in the future in order to impact even more on the youth of Ghana and Africa. I’ve also made quite a number of connections and have joined a network of international writers in the world.

I’ve had the benefit of traversing a few states in the US and this has given me a better understanding of what the US is like; the good, the bad and the ugly. There is no flagrant disregard for laws or basic rules which is the major reason why the system works for the comfort of everyone. Everyone’s rights are protected, the environment is clean and tidy, the security is good, and government has favorable policies to elevate the living standards of their citizens.

I observed that many Africans or Ghanaians in America suffer to make money as they must work hours for every dollar; sometimes in the wicked cold weather. It is not easy for many of them but their families back home do not know this and even if they’re told they sometimes rebuff them as misers.

Those back home must appreciate every dollar their relatives here remit them. In as much as jobs are available and wages are good in America, life is still very expensive and exacerbated by numerous taxes.

Be that as it may, I agree that the situation in America is still better than what pertains in Ghana where youth unemployment is a security threat coupled with our worsening forex woes.

I like America but I love Ghana because it is where I hail from, and if we don’t make our home better, who will make it better for us? Some of us may travel abroad to make money but we should return home to help make our country a better place.

We have serious leadership crisis because of greed and selfishness, but we can work on it and manage our resources judiciously to uplift our people and country.

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