‘One of us is David Shields,’ said the chair of the panel, smiling broadly. ‘We’re not telling you which one.’
Most people in the audience at this panel session, on the first morning of the 2010 NonfictioNow Conference in Iowa City, knew which one was David Shields, of course (the guy with the shaved head). But the point was that in Shields’s (then) new book, Reality Hunger, you could never quite be sure who was talking: was it Shields himself or one of the many other writers and artists whose words he wilfully, playfully appropriates, in what he calls a collage form? Was this theft? Or remix? Or both?
Shields writes nonfiction, but not, perhaps, as we once knew it. But wait on, says the guy with the shaved head, it was always thus. Montaigne in his tower in the sixteenth century was a master of cut and paste. And let me tell you about the Romans …
The debate rippled back and forth along the panel, with Dinty Moore, the chair, adopting the dual roles of umpire and provocateur. From the end of the table, a writer hitherto unknown to me named Ander Monson made a wonderfully witty and somewhat tangential contribution relating the labyrinthine paths of the essayist to those of the regulations of the US Postal Service. This was heaven.
The Reality Hunger panel came directly after a keynote address by San Francisco writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, in which Solnit argued passionately that nonfiction writers, essayists and memoirists alike need to take on not only the personal but the great and pressing public issues of the day. In effect, she might have been saying: the political is personal. By way of contrast, the next day another keynoter, the brilliant graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, reminded us of the political power of the personal, taking us inside the subtle workings of her mind and creative processes with a presentation that can best be described, improbably enough, by combining the words ‘moving’,’hilarious’ and ‘PowerPoint’. And so it went on for three full days of stimulation, discussion and coffee, shared with four hundred writers, artists and students.
I came to be at NonfictioNow 2010 because the Iowa River had flooded to historic heights two years earlier, drowning English and Philosophy and the Memorial Union Building of the University of Iowa in mud and corn fertiliser. So the biennial conference had to be delayed a year, by which time my nonfiction book (Our father who wasn’t there) had been published. I formed part of a small invited Australian contingent (along with Julianne Schultz, Peter Bishop and Catherine Therese).
Iowa City is one of those places where the town is the limpet and the university is the rock. Since the city lost its status as the Iowa state capital to Des Moines way back in 1857, the old civic buildings such as the Capitol have been swallowed by the campus, and surrounded with neat lawns. Like any university town, every second shop is a bookshop, a bar, a cafe or selling secondhand vinyl. The CBD runs for about four blocks and then you are straight into long wide streets of double story weatherboards and trees fading orange in the late November sun.
For reasons historical, this place in the middle of nowhere is an epicentre of contemporary American literature. The Nonfiction Program, the International Writers Program and the Iowa Writers Workshop – all at the University of Iowa – are internationally renowned. It feels like every second person is a writer, and possibly a famous one. I suppose distractions are limited, particularly when people bunker down through the long cold winter.
The first NonfictioNow was held in 2005, an initiative of the then-incoming director of the Nonfiction Program, Robin Hemley. As I understand it, it was envisioned in part as an antidote to those traditionally massive American academic events such as the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Bookfair, which attracts 10 000 delegates and is held in a huge hotel/convention centre.
This November NonfictioNow is being held outside the US for the first time, in Melbourne. Following a discussion with Robin on the heady final night of the 2010 Conference (and many more since), we have forged a partnership between RMIT University and the University of Iowa. This time around, David Shields is one of the keynote speakers, alongside Helen Garner, Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson and leading Filipino writer José Dalisay. But once again, just as in Iowa City in 2010, any number of the other panellists in the Melbourne program could equally be keynoters next time: think Cheryl Strayed, Mira Bartok, Ross Gibson, Margaret Simons, Benjamin Law just for starters (I’m sure there’s twenty more) … But that’s what’s interesting about NonfictioNow: it’s not about intellectual hierarchies so much as forum for ideas and inspiration.