If you are silent you are dead,
And if you speak you are dead,
So speak and die.”Assassinated Algerian writer Tahar Djaout
In 1989, after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, a fatwa was issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran that ordered the killing of its author, Salman Rushdie. As a result, Rushdie was forced into hiding. Because of Rushdie’s fame and his resources, he was able to do this securely, though as his memoir Joseph Anton reveals, even his resources were stretched to the limit. Most endangered writers, however, come from circumstances where they have neither fame nor resources.
In 1993, in response to a growing incidence of attacks on writers and specifically writer assassinations in Algeria, a group of writers led by Rushdie formed the International Parliament of Writers. At the behest of the IPW, governments in several European cities agreed to provide one to two years of support for endangered writers in exile. These were called “Cities of Asylum,” and they aimed to protect not only freedom of speech and freedom of publication but also the physical safety of writers.
In 1997, Salman Rushdie gave a talk in Pittsburgh as part of his re-emergence into public life, during which he briefly mentioned the Cities of Asylum network. Diane Samuels and Henry Reese happened to be in the audience, and they were immediately drawn to this mission. Following the talk, they wrote to Cities of Asylum in Europe about starting a chapter in Pittsburgh. Getting no response, they regularly e-mailed their inquiry, until in 2003 they were put in contact with author Russell Banks, who was charged with expanding the Cities of Asylum movement to the U.S.
City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, along with two other U.S. cities — Las Vegas and Ithaca — quickly joined the network. Las Vegas and Ithaca were sponsored by universities; Pittsburgh, however, began and continues to operate with a different model than all other Cities of Asylum. Rather than being institutionally sponsored, it is a grassroots organization, supported by the generosity of individuals and foundations. Rather than focusing on emergency relief and providing a temporary way-station for an exiled writer, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s commitment was to help the writer build a new home and a new life as part of a community.