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.
Evolution of Our Mission
In 2004, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh opened its doors on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood with a specific mission: to provide sanctuary to literary writers who were exiled and under threat of persecution. For two years we provide an exiled writer (and family) with a house, a stipend, and medical benefits, as well as a variety of other assistance such as transportation to the U.S. and an immigration attorney. To assist a writer in becoming stable and self-supporting, assistance is tailored to each writer’s skills and needs, whether it be commissioning English translations or help in finding a publisher or securing employment for spouses. When writers remain in Pittsburgh after the conclusion of their residency, COA/P offers them continued use of a free house on Sampsonia Way until their income is sufficient to pay rent.
Placemaking through Art
City of Asylum’s programs have broadened considerably since 2004. They have evolved organically, in response to the way that the community and the writers have interacted.
When the poet Huang Xiang arrived in 2004, he covered his residence with Chinese calligraphies of his poems— a joyful and celebratory response to his freedom from censorship. The response from neighbors and visitors was overwhelming and unexpected: Poems were slipped through his mail slot; people came by to hear him read his house-poems. Support from the community for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh swelled.
Huang Xiang’s “House Poem” led to the development of a series of houses on Sampsonia Way for use by writers-in-exile, each with a text-based artwork on the façade. We call these house publications. These house publications have transformed Sampsonia Way itself into a “public library” you can read while walking.
Our annual free Jazz Poetry Concert began in 2005 as a one-time celebration of poetry and music, a way to introduce our writers-in-residence to the community. It was held outdoors on Sampsonia Way because we had no facility of our own and couldn’t afford to rent one. The experience of the concert and the setting together seemed to connect with people in a deep way, making the importance of our mission vivid and immediate. We had been warned that no one wanted to hear a poet read in Chinese, but we learned that people were eager to hear poets and writers, that they enjoyed new and challenging cultural experiences as long as access was easy and unpretentious.
Our monthly readings with international authors and translators similarly began in 2006 as a one-off book launch for the publication of Senselessness, the first novel of writer-in-residence Horacio Castellanos Moya to be translated into English. Demand was so high that we had to hold two nights of readings, and we could have held more. Writers in the Gardens followed in 2007. That same year, Visiting Writer Residencies were inaugurated, in partnership with the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa, and with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of State. These short-term residencies last from one to three months.
Writers remain at the center of COA’s world, but that world has expanded beyond the limits of Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh. In 2009, City of Asylum published the first issues of Sampsonia Way magazine. This online journal for literature, free speech and social justice extends COA/P’s mission and programs, enabling COA/P to engage with more writers. SampsoniaWay.org has had international impact: for example, after a reading a short article about a Burmese writer exiled in a Thai refugee camp, a member of the Australian Parliament sponsored a sanctuary application for him.
In 2011, COA/P began a “Sister City” exchange with Brussels, in which Pittsburgh writer Terrance Hayes was awarded a residency in Brussels and Belgian writer Paul Mennes came to Sampsonia Way. Exchanges with other cities are in development.
September 10, 2016, we opened City of Asylum @ Alphabet City with a lecture by Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate in Literature and herself a former exiled writer-in-residence in Gothenberg’s City of Refuge.
City of Asylum @Alphabet City is now a permanent home for City of Asylum programming and the arts. In addition, City of Asylum @ Alphabet City includes our offices, a the City of Asylum Bookstore featuring works in translation, and a new restaurant opening in 2018.
City of Asylum @ Alphabet City is a hub for Pittsburgh’s readers and writers, jazz and small-scale music and performance, and artistic experimentation. It is a home for diverse voices from around the globe—a place where Pittsburgh meets the world and the world meets Pittsburgh. And it is also a home for many partnering artists and organizations in our own community.
By establishing a safe haven for writers and artists who voice ideas that are new, different, or provocative in a diverse urban community, we encourage new lines of communication, cultural exchange, and collaboration. Sharing one another’s narratives can transform the lives of both residents and artists and combat intolerance and exclusion.
Exiled Writers in Residence
2004-2006: Huang Xiang (China)
2006-2009: Horacio Castellanos Moya (El Salvador)
2008- 2011: Khet Mar (Burma)
2011- present: Israel Centeno (Venezuela)
2013-2015: Yaghoub Yadali (Iran)
2016- present: Tuhin Das (Bangladesh)
2017- present: Osama Alomar (Syria)
Visiting International Writers in Residence
2007: Vijay Nair (India)
2008: Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda)
2009: Maxine Case (South Africa), Marius Ivaskevicius (Lithuania),
Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia)
2010: Billy Kahora (Kenya), Beverly Perez-Rego (Venezuela)
2011: Fabienne Kanor (France), Marvin Victor (Haiti)
2012: Vijay Nair (India, Fulbright Scholar), Barlen Pyamootoo (Mauritius)
“Sister City” Exchange Residencies
2011: Terrance Hayes (Pittsburgh), Paul Mennes (Belgium)
2013: Román Antopolsky (Pittsburgh), Jeroen Olyslaegers (Belgium)
2015: Lori Jakiela (Pittsburgh)
2017: Adriana E. Ramírez (Pittsburgh)