UI Writers’ Workshop alum receives Paul Engle Prize

Award winning essayist, novelist, and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Dina Nayeri visited for the Iowa City Book Festival.


Katie Goodale

Dina Nayeri, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, addresses the audience as she accepts the 2018 Paul Engle Prize at the Coralville Public Library on Oct. 4, 2018. Nayeri receives this award for her novel Refuge, which details her experience as a refugee and the experiences of many others.

A Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum was celebrated this past week for her work in the literary community.

Dina Nayeri is an Iranian-American essayist and novelist who has graduated from Princeton, Harvard, and the Writers’ Workshop.

She originally went into business, graduating from Harvard with an M.B.A., and had a successful career when she suddenly realized she needed to be a writer instead. She felt like an outsider to the literary world because she had no previous education in the art of writing. However, that changed when she came to Iowa City and to the Workshop.

“I started writing on my own, but for several years, I just felt like I was treading water because it was a world I didn’t know,” she said. “I hadn’t had an education in it; all I could do was read many good books. For me, Iowa was a combination of things. It was a community, it was confidence, it was a chance to test out different voices and have people whom I trust as good readers to tell me whether or not that works. I felt like I could breathe and be me.”

Iowa City has given back to Nayeri, when the City of Literature board presented her with the Paul Engle Prize on the night of Oct. 4.

“I think there’s something special about this award in that it’s not just about writing, it’s about doing good for the world,” she said. “It was important to me to be recognized as someone who does some good.”

She was given this award not only for her excellence in writing but also her excellence as a member of the literary community and her impact on the world in general.

John Kenyon, the executive director of the local City of Literature, noted that Nayeri met the expectations for the Paul Engle Prize.

“We look at a writer who is not only doing good work on the page but — specifically with this prize — we’re looking for writers who are doing things beyond the page,” Kenyon said. “They’re doing things in their community to make things better.”

Funded by Iowa’s Youth Writing Project, Nayeri hosted a workshop for high-schoolers at the Iowa City Public Library before receiving her award. The workshop started with Nayeri presenting a creative essay she wrote, and the teens took turns reading it aloud.

Nayeri used her essay as an example of the potential creative writing has in the political world.

“How can you use a story to argue something that you believe in?” she asked.

After describing her reasoning behind her essay, she challenged the students to begin their own. She had them write down a strange or controversial political opinion that they held. She then asked them to write a short anecdote, fiction or nonfiction, that related to their opinion in order to build up to a final point.

“Simple ideas and simple stories is the way to make a statement now,” Nayeri said.

She didn’t tell them what to think; she taught them how to express opinions that they already may have. She encouraged students and taught them how to voice their opinions in a creative manner

Nayeri said she hopes children will write these essays that they have started in her workshop, no matter the topic.

“Writing isn’t just about writing,” she said. “Writing has always been about saying something that will change people’s minds and will make them feel.”