The University of Iowa, in Iowa City, is the home of the distinguished Writers' Workshop and the International Writers' Workshop, and it has always been a paradise for literature lovers.
I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature, and had a job as a program director at the local Hillel House. My goal was to make our Hillel a literary center. Thus I created a weekly series: "The Wednesday Night Café" where every week another writer (they were mostly Jewish or Israeli) gave a reading and talked about his/her work.
No doubt the most moving reader was Yehudah Amichai, the great Israeli poet, but there were many other inspiring nights. For me a memorable reading was given by a local Jewish American/Argentinian writer: Rocío Lasansky Weinstein.
As she read two of her short stories, we realized that Rocio was a very good writer. However, that was not unusual, most of the readers were excellent: after all they were either part of the Writers' Workshop or residents of the International Writers' Workshop.
But the fact that in spite of her great talent, Rocio was not accepted to the MFA program in creative writing, was most unusual. She applied to the Writers' Workshop several times, but each time her application was rejected.
Most of the students at the workshop were young, in their early to mid twenties. They were aspiring writers who came to Iowa City from all over the US to get an MFA in Creative Writing. Rocio was different, she grew up in Iowa City, a daughter of a well known artist who taught at the university -- Marurico Lasansky. She was older, a married woman, and a mother of four children.
Rocio has been writing for years, and was serious and honest in her work. At the reading she told the audience that she started writing when she was nine year old, after her father had given her a handsome notebook on a family trip to Europe.
I find it hard to believe that the decision makers at the Writers' Workshop could not recognize her exceptional gift. But probably they preferred to admit to the prestigious program students who "were in their own image."
At readings by members of the Writers' Workshop at Hillel I was often surprised how similar their stories were. The students’ texts were beautiful--polished and well crafted, but often lacked in real substance. Rocio in contrast, had a lot to say, after all in her forty some years she had accumulated some experience and insights.
Rocio was quite surprised when I called to schedule her reading at Hillel, no one had asked her to read before. And this was Iowa City where even the tiniest bookstore had regular readings. And speaking of the art of reading, at the time, in the late 80s, the readers from the Writers Workshop, all had the same style of reading --the same melody. Even in that aspect Rocio was different, she just read her stories in a straight forward way with no drama.
It happens all too often that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown:” Mark 6:4. But at least in Rocio's case she got recognition outside her own town. I was delighted to get, several years after I left Iowa City, a package in the mail, it was a book of short stories: No Peace at Versailles and Other Stories by Nina
Barragan (1996) which is the pen name of Rocio Lasansky Weinstein.
PS. A sample of Nina Barragan's writing: