On the Dial | Small Towns in Iowa
On the heels of the Pygmalion Festival in Champaign, Illinois, we took Masande Ntshanga on what we jokingly referred to as the "Silicorn Valley" Tour throughout much of Iowa. This included pit stops in Fairfield, and events in East Davenport, and Iowa City.
I'd been to Iowa City, and knew what to expect. The town—with the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Prairie Lights Bookshop, and International Writers' Program—is something of a cultural oasis. Each fall they host the Witching Hour Festival, which this year includes appearances by Pussy Riot and Jessica Hopper. And each spring they host the Mission Creek Festival, a confluence of literature, music, film, comedy, and tech in eclectic venues such as bars and craft stores that sets the bar high for such events.
The other Iowa towns were a surprise. In Fairfield, we met with N.J. Campbell, whose book Found Audio we'll release next July 2017. When you exit the highway and turn toward town, there is nothing besides grain silos and farm pastures. After a couple miles, you reach downtown Fairfield, which is sprinkled with ethnic restaurants, quaint parks, coffee shops, and bookstores. Apparently with the Maharishi University in town, which focuses on learning centered on Transcendental Meditation, and has attracted the likes of Jim Carrey, David Lynch, and Moby, the town has become a hotbed for thought since it moved from California in the mid-70s. We walked with N.J. to the Fairfield Convention Center, which houses an unassuming Ethiopian restaurant called Addis, where I had some of the best food in recent memory.
From Fairfield, we traveled to East Davenport, in the Quad Cities region of Iowa-Illinois, tucked along the banks of the muddy Mississippi River. Downtown East Davenport was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting, with a softball game taking place on the ball diamond, across the street from which were quaint restaurants and bars, lined by decorative street lamps. We stopped in a bar called Grumpy's Thirst Parlour for a pre-show drink, and were invited to try some of the house chili. The venue itself was an old, mostly unused theater that sold canned beer from a counter perpendicular to the stage. Folding chairs were set up in the middle of the ballroom. It was small-town casual, for sure, a comfortable setting, accentuated by the enthusiastic attendance and support from local residents.
The event was hosted by Sean Moeller (dubbed "Moeller Night"), formerly one of the co-heads of the Daytrotter music series, and featured a reading by Masande and performances by Birdtalker and Rae Fitzgerald. In more ways than one, this was a highlight of the tour because of the audience—who came out on a Monday night to hear performances from artists they'd likely never heard of: a writer from South Africa and bands from Nashville and Columbia, Missouri—and seemed to genuinely engage with the offerings of the evening. After his reading, Masande signed books and talked to folks casually for the rest of the evening.
In introducing his reading, Masande said, "My book was published in South Africa in 2014, and came out in the U.S. this summer... I never imagined it would take me this far."
After hoots and applause, someone from the crowd called out, "Thanks for coming!"