The Icelandic immigrants called it Ameríka. It wasn’t a place. It was a direction. It was a dream. It was hope for the future.
Immigrants came from all over the world. They flooded into American cities, spread into the wilderness, broke sod on the plains. Times were hard but the immigrants were used to hard lives. The difference in America was that there was opportunity.
America has always welcomed Icelandic immigrants. In 1855, the first Icelandic immigrants formed an Icelandic community in Spanish Fork, Utah. In 1870 four Icelanders left for Milwaukee, but setted on Washington Island in Lake Michigan. Later, other Icelanders settled in Minnesota. New Iceland was settled in 1875 but by 1878, because of severe weather conditions, a smallpox epidemic and a bitter religious dispute, over a hundred Icelanders from the colony relocated to the Dakotas.
In 1965, nearly a hundred years after Icelandic settlers moved to the Dakotas, I moved to the United States. I wasn’t an immigrant but America gave me an opportunity to get an education, to lead the life I wanted as a writer and professor.
As a high school English teacher in Pinawa, Manitoba, an entire town recently built on an island in a forest reserve on the East side of Lake Winnipeg, it was my job to order books for the library. As I was reading descriptions of various books, I read about Paul Engel. I´d never heard of him before but the blurb described how he was the head of the famous writer´s workshop at the University of Iowa, how much he’d published. I’d been writing ever since second year university, struggling to teach myself the basic skills of writing. I’d had articles published, a couple of short stories, some poetry. I desperately wanted to go someplace where I could learn craft, could meet other writers, connect to the writing world. I wanted a graduate degree so that I could teach at the college level, maybe even, university.
I took a chance. Like the immigrants. I took a chance. I risked something. I bundled up my best poems, put them in an envelope and mailed them to Paul Engel. I asked him that impossible question that beginning writers nearly always ask: Am I a writer?
After I’d mailed the letter, I felt embarrassed, even a bit ashamed. The national motto of Canada echoed in my head, “Who do you think you are?” Who do you think you are to have sent your sheaf of poems to someone so important. I’d lie awake at night and think about it. I checked the mail every day. After awhile, I quit thinking about it. I quit checking the mail. A month had passed, then another month. I said to myself, why would anyone like Paul Engel reply to me, this unknown poet living on an island in the bush? I put it behind me and, in the evenings and weekends, I worked on my poems and stories.
More time passed. Then one day when I went to the mail there were a number of envelopes. They were all advertising of one kind or other. One after another, without opening them, I threw them into the post office waste basket. I left the post office but just outside the door, something made me stop. The post mark on one of the brown envelopes said Iowa. I hesitated, then went back in and retrieved the envelope. I opened it and inside was a letter, not from Paul Engel, but from George Starbuck, the new head of the Writer’s Workshop.
It said, we’ve enrolled you in the master’s program and we’ve found a part-time teaching position for you at the university. When will you arrive?
Just like that. All I asked was can I write. But standing there, stunned, unmoving, my hand shaking as I read the letter over and over, I couldn’t quite accept what I was reading. This was the best of the best, the place where writers came from over the world, where writers like Flannery O’Conner had been students, where the instructors were famous. Me. Me, standing alone outside the post office in the sunlight, with a letter in my hand that would change my life forever.
When I read her the letter, my wife cried. We have to go, she said, but she cried because we had just moved into the nicest house we’d ever lived in, had just bought a new washer and dryer. We’d thought we were settled for the rest of our lives. Pinawa, recently built by Atomic Energy of Canada, was as nice a town as you could ever hope to live in.
We packed the kids and our few belongings into our station wagon and drove through Minnesota to the corn fields of Iowa. We rented a place just outside of Iowa City. My first class was with Kurt Vonnagut. We were poor for the next two years, living, once again, as students but, this time, with two small children. But, because I was teaching, I only had to pay the same tuition as an Iowa resident. In my second year, I was given an international scholarship. We joined the foreign student society and were treated to bus trips to places like the Amana colonies. Our neighbours shared holiday celebrations with us and taught us to BBQ.
After I graduated, my degree and my writing got me a job at a private women’s college in southern Missouri. After four years that led to a professorship at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Americans are generous. They find it easy to say, “Can I help you?”
I was in America during the Vietnam war. I saw America’s pain. I saw her loss. There were regular demonstrations against the war. The campus, like the country, was divided and, sometimes, that division led to violence. Local families were losing sons and fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins. The pictures of the dead were in every issue of the local paper.
America isn’t perfect. There are times that it is downright strange. There are times I don’t understand it. There are times I disagree strongly with its government policies but no more so than with those of my own government. It makes no matter. I was a foreigner in a foreign country and America welcomed me, as it did to those early Icelandic settlers, and changed my life for the better.