In Response to Stephen Bloom's Atlantic Article

Posted by maria nazod on Sunday, January 8, 2012
When I initially saw the consternation on Facebook regarding Stephen Bloom's Atlantic article, "Observations From Twenty Years Of Iowa Life", I wasn't sure what to think. My peers from The University Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communications all had strong opinions and none of them positive. So, naturally I had to read the article myself. Bloom's article features an extremist's opinion of Iowa, ranging from  describing Iowans as "wasteoids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth," to the native demographic sanctifying the smell of pigshit. 

I began reading this article with an open mind. I had Bloom as a professor at The University of Iowa. I will say this much: although he did not reflect much of the warm, fuzzy, cockeyed optimism that many of my professors displayed, he was one of the more encouraging instructors that I'd encountered. This bit of information is essential, if only because, throughout my erratic and wild journey since graduating, from living in New York City's East Village as a struggling poet-come-cocktail waitress, to working as a deck dork at a whale watch boat, to finally becoming a newly-published author, I shall never forget those people who believed that I, Maria Nazos, could write. So, I owe him that.  

I am going somewhere with this, so stay with me. 

My purpose of this blog is neither to defend Bloom nor to disparage him. I am not from Iowa, I was born and partially raised in Athens, Greece, then in Joliet, Illinois. Nonetheless, I think I myself am an unlikely (and therefore qualified) candidate for someone who has spent four years (and some of the best years) of her life in Iowa. Thus, I consider myself an impartial observer. During my time spent in Iowa City, attending The University, I've seen a little bit of everything that the state has to offer. 

What astounds me is Bloom's overall neglect to touch upon Iowa City at all. And this is indeed a city, according to a 2010 census that has a population of almost 70,000. Bloom describes his initial reaction to the University as having been "Where are all the people?" Come on, Bloom. Maybe the campus was more mellow twenty years ago, but you know damn well that during most months excepting the December before Christmas, that Iowa City has an ample, flourishing student body. 

Iowa City is also largely liberal, too, again a fact that he has elected to leave out, saying that he has visited all 99 of the Iowan counties. OK, well, aren't you leaving some crucial details out? Also, for someone who claims to have wrangled in his statistics, claiming that Iowa will soon prove to make gay marriages defunct, here's an interesting fact: Iowa City is the third gayest city in the US, according to The Daily Iowan. 

On the other hand, I don't entirely disagree with Bloom, either. Yes, economic depression is a very real thing. Yes, I *do* recall living in Iowa, being a dark-haired woman, with skin a shade darker than a paper bag. I do also recall virtually every conversation at The University starting out with the instigator squinting at me, cocking his or her head and not so much asking as stating, "Where are you from?" as if there weren't a hundred different implications hidden within this statement  they would quickly be unearthed. 

I had heard every assessment about my ethnicity from, "You just look foreign for some reason," to a million different erroneous guesses from Venezuelan to Arabic to American Indian. I recall being furious because at one of the local Iowa City bars, a group of men called me, "Hot Tamale." I got "compliments" such as "exotic." When I was last in Iowa City for one night two weeks ago, my boyfriend was appalled to see at a local bar, that a guy flippantly called an Asian-American woman, "Mexican."

As you can imagine, by the end of my undergraduate career, I was one angry young woman. Well, these statements are indeed reflective of what is Iowa's predominately white population. I've not heard such a plethora of culturally-ignored statements in any other place I've lived. So, yes, I did encounter some covert xenophobia while living in Iowa, and I feel that is well worth mentioning. So, when Bloom (albeit mistakenly) says that Iowa is 91% white (whereas it is actually 96%), he is not wrong to imply that this and any homogeneous culture proves problematic. 

On the other hand, I had never encountered any students having to endure "Come to Jesus" lectures with their hyper-religious parents. And sorry Bloom, you fucked up when you admitted to Willie Geist that you've only seen photo essays of men drinking before their hunting expedition as opposed to bearing eyewitness. Also, there are a number of other basic statistical/geographical facts in the article, from his inaccurate analogy of Iowa's size, to his misconstrued details of how turkeys are hunted. These are basic facts right out of writing 101, and one of the reasons why I make a terrible fiction writer: you've got to cover your tracks. I know you aren't a hunter, Bloom, but that doesn't make you exempt from this practice. These inaccuracies cause his opinion to lose newsworthy traction.

However, at the same time, I am shocked to see The University of Iowa's donors writing to the President, telling her that they will revoke their funding. In my experience as a college professor, I can tell you that colleges are the biggest corporation of all, and one of the most repressive venues that I've ever encountered. In my experience as an adjunct professor, I loved and students and loathed the administration. So far as I was concerned, the higher you travel up the college hierarchical rung, the less you will find people who are passionate about the students' education. How dare these people hold their money over The University's head, threatening to withdraw funds unless Bloom abandons his teaching position. That last time I checked, we were living in North America, not living under a Fascist regime. Since when did it become such a liability for a writer to get into some trouble? 

 As a writer, I firmly believe that is what we are here for: to get into trouble. And every day I ask myself, "Where did all of the badly-behaved writers go?" We're all so goddamned cautious, if only because academia gives us no reason to feel safe. So, why Bloom has been receiving anti-Semitic emails and threats to his job feels preposterous. 

We should get into trouble. We should stir up the muck. We should be pissing people off. We live in a world where Snooky from The Jersey Shore has just written a bestselling book. We do inhabit an America not unlike the Iowa that Bloom described, but one that lies that a virus of ignorance waiting to engulf the minds of those who think freely. In order to think freely, we require an onslaught of ideas. For the donors of The University of Iowa, a college town to revoke this right is an unpatriotic act. 

To quote the poet Tony Hoagland: "Until we speak the truth, there can be no tenderness." 

 And there is more than one truth, however as a writer, I feel that Bloom was speaking truths that aligned with his own personal beliefs. It seems to be hypocritical for those in power to retaliate and say, "We're not like that!" Then abuse their power by exacting a narrow-minded punishment. I hope that this country's academic system can eventually be as expansive as the heartland land itself, in all of its beauty and ugliness. 


Tags: stephen bloom  atlantic  iowa  maria  nazos  the university of iowa 


About Me

Maria Nazos I'm a poet, I just wrote my first book, and I believe in destiny but I sure as hell don't wait for it. Check out my blog for my random thoughts, events, and upcoming workshops.