In a quaint coffee shop in Madrid over 20 years ago, Ana Merino sat with a group of friends from university who were poets, debating whether or not to submit their manuscripts to various contests. Ana said she made the choice to submit hers on a whim.
In a moment of ‘serendipity’, Ana, who was 23 years old at the time, said she was shocked to discover she won the Premio Adonáis, the most prestigious poetry award in Spain.
Now a renowned writer whose poetry and novels span across the Atlantic in both the United States and Spain, Ana said her poetry is a reflection of being a woman, and the empowerment of women having something to say in the cultural world.
She said her journey to becoming a writer came in a natural way.
“Poetry was my way to express feelings, so I was writing because it was helping me to heal emotions, to think,” Ana said. “When I was with the group of friends and we decided to send our manuscripts, and I won the nice award, that’s when I said, ‘My poetry has something to offer to others’, and I didn’t realize that until I got the award.”
Twenty years after winning the Premio Adonáis, she won another important award: the Premio Nadal, the most prestigious award for fiction, for her novel El mapa de los afectos (Map of Affections). She is the only recipient in history to win both Spanish poetry and literature awards.
Her novel reflects her understanding and experience of the Midwest and Iowa City specifically, she noted. Although she loves both poetry and fiction equally, Ana said she is currently focusing on fiction.
“Fiction is giving me a lot of maturity,” she said. “It’s not that I love one from the other. Right now, I am finding a lot of answers that I need in my age, in this coming of age. Fiction is helping me put a lot of things in order.”
She added that poetry was vital for her when she was emotionally growing and thinking about femininity, society, and transformation – topics that she personally had experienced all too well while living in Madrid.
She described Madrid as a well-defined space where it is common to help each other and engage in dialogue among strangers and among family.
Her mother, one of the first women economics professors at the university in Madrid, and her father, a writer, raised a daughter during the time of Spain’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.
Ana said this change also allowed for women to participate more independently and actively in society.
“It was a very exciting time,” Ana recalled. “The freedom I was having, my mom didn’t have it, so for us, it was kind of ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ generation. We were a generation that knew we could do everything that we want, that we were not feeling the oppression of having to be married.”
However, Ana remembers the 1980s and 90s, she said, during a time when bombs were frequently exploding outside her home in Madrid, and society was very machista (male chauvinist).
“There was a very disturbing group of terrorists that were looking to destroy the new democracy,” she said. “Many of these terrorists were very young kids brainwashed to think that this right to put bombs and to kill citizens. At the same time, I can envision the freedom, the realization of being a woman and having opportunities, I also was like “now there is another bomb.’”
Themes of terrorism pop up in her novels, poetry, and plays at times. She said in the second play she wrote in 2012, Las decepciones, there is an instance of a terrorist attack.
“In some ways, there is a reflection of [terrorism] in my plays,” Ana said. “But also in my fiction, I have a lot of curiosity about good will, and the good in people, and also why things suddenly go wrong.”
Her curiosity drove her to new places, she said. After moving to the U.S. in 1995, Ana studied at Ohio State University, University of Pittsburgh, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and Dartmouth College.
In 2009, she left her former position at Dartmouth College to become a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Iowa.
However, her widely known contribution to the Hawkeye community was the creation of the Spanish Creative Writing Master’s in Fine Arts program.
The program already existed at Dartmouth, she said, and she believed it was necessary to incorporate into the University of Iowa’s curriculum.
“This kind of author [in the MFA program] was able to work in different aspects of creativity. And in some ways, I am proof of that,” she said with a laugh. “Our students in MFA are very interested in the matter of multi-worship, so you do worship of poetry, the worship of fiction, nonfiction, theater, and there the writer has this experience with creativity.”
Ivan Garcia, who is currently in the comparative literature Ph.D. research program at the University of Michigan, came to the University of Iowa in 2012 to join Ana’s MFA program.
He said what inspired him most about Ana when under her instruction was her effortless combination of creative writing and academic work.
“First of all, she’s an amazing writer, she writes poetry, she writes theater, she writes books for children, and novels,” Ivan said. “For a young writer like me, that’s amazing.”
He said it was inspiring to see her success in academics lead her towards creating the creative writing MFA program in Spanish. This was something challenging to do in Iowa City, where it holds the best English MFA program in the country for creative writing, he said.
Ana did not limit herself to creating programs in the academia community alone. In 2010, Ana created the Spanish Creative Literacy Project to help foster literary creativity in Hispanic students throughout the Iowa City community.
Ivan said Ana asked him to join the project, and there were two aspects the project focused on when working with students: cognitive development and emotional support.
“You really want to engage students, and she did that. From this point of view, she had the role of a teacher. She wanted to read, write, and think in Spanish,” he said. “For emotional development, in that way, you need good models. People who guide you…so that’s something she did really well, and in the long term, it changed lives.”
He said he dedicates his current research in academic and creative writing to Ana.
“Ana was always expanding the boundaries, crossing the boundaries, and breaking the boundaries,” he said. “I feel her influence every day.”
Ivan is not the only individual who saw first-hand Ana working extensively on multiple projects. Pilar Marcé, who is an associate professor of instruction within the University of Iowa Spanish and Portuguese Department, laughed when asked about her favorite quality of Ana’s.
“She works non-stop. She is teaching and then she’s collaborating with this publication. And now she’s editing articles,” Pilar said, ticking each hobby off on her fingers. “And at the same time, she’s writing a book, and oh, she’s a member of a community not related to the university. And at the same time, she’s like ‘Oh, let’s meet on Sunday for walks.’”
She said Ana’s ability to make the most of her time amazes her.
“She mentioned volunteering at Riverside Theatre, and said it was freezing, and it was funny the way she explained it. She said, “I had a great time, but oh, was it freezing’,” Pilar said. “She always said [with volunteering] ‘oh, but this is the last time!’”, but it wasn’t. She is with passion, she goes 100 percent, and she loves it.”
Pilar said what she loves most is the friendship she shares with Ana.
“She’s one of my best friends here,” she said. “We work very well together. If I ask her of something, I know she’s going to do it at the best of her ability. And not only that, but she will go the extra mile.”
Ana said her drive and influence as an author is dedicated to her family, which is why she creates programs and works with teachers to bring libraries, education, and affection to children and teenagers in the community.
Her heritage as a Hispanic woman impacts not only her writing, but her everyday life in Iowa. Over Zoom, she smiled at the thought of her father, sisters, aunts, and mother especially.
“I am [from] a culture of directness. I will speak out,” Ana said. “Some people can be like ‘whoa’, but as I am older, I am going to be direct like my mother. And that is a cultural element, because Iowa has more the “Iowa nice” but if I think it’s not nice, I cannot be nice.”
The charming, small communities in Iowa remind her of Spain and her Spanish heritage, she said. As Iowa is one of best writing communities in the Midwest, she said she could feel the “exoticism” the moment she set foot in Iowa City.
She added that when she came to Iowa, she realized she could do more things in the writing field than simply poetry.
“This relationship between the space and the reader, reality and writing, puts you in the mood for writing,” she said. “When I came from Spain, I was a poet. But Iowa made me a play writer and a fiction writer. There is something in the air that makes you in the mood.”