In Pittsburgh, a refuge for endangered writers

City of Asylum is a haven for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries

Iranian writer and TV director Yaghoub Yadali is the latest writer to stay at City of Asylum.
Carmen Gentile

PITTSBURGH — Writer Yaghoub Yadali first ran afoul of Iran’s hard-line leadership for the depiction of an adulterous affair in his first novel, “The Rituals of Restlessness,” an alleged affront that landed him behind bars. An accomplished TV director as well as writer, Yadali was sentenced to a year in prison on charges of publishing subversive material, even though it had been approved by state censors years earlier. 

Widespread protests by his colleagues and supporters following his 2007 detention prompted authorities to release him after 41 days. Freed, but still under constant harassment, he spent the next four years looking over his shoulder, wondering when he would be detained again. 

“I was waiting to be arrested every day,” he says, recalling those dark days from the comfort of his new home in Pittsburgh, a seemingly unlikely refuge for an Iranian dissident artist.  

But Yadali has made a comfortable home here as the latest writer to be harbored by City of Asylum, a nonprofit haven for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries. The program provides free housing and a stipend for writers and their families. 

“Since coming here I have been able to write without worrying about censorship or persecution,” says Yadali, who discovered the Pittsburgh-area program after first coming to the United States in 2012 for fellowships from Harvard and the University of Iowa. “At first it was strange to write without those limits.” 

An English translation of the book that prompted his troubles with Iranian authorities will be published in the fall with the help of his benefactors in Pittsburgh.

I respect those that stand up against authority to keep them open and honest.

Henry Reese

Pittsburgh City of Asylum founder

City of Asylum founder Henry Reese was inspired to create the artist refuge in his hometown following a lecture in the late 1990s by writer Salman Rushdie, who had faced deaths threats for his work “The Satanic Verses” a decade earlier. “I respect those that stand up against authority to keep them open and honest,” says Reese.

During a visit to Pittsburgh, Rushdie spoke of literary asylums that he and a group of world-renowned writers had prompted the governments of several European cities to create.

Today, nearly three dozen cities on several continents are home to asylum programs for artists. Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum differs, however, in that it was established by a private citizen without state sponsorship.

Following Rushdie’s lecture, Reese says, he decided that he too could provide artists with a community that would allow them the freedom to work without fear. A former telemarketer and coupon book printer, Reese was determined to emulate the model Rushdie had described. 

“I just felt that we could do something on the worldwide stage … at a local level,” he says, recalling the unusual rise of City of Asylum in a once-ruined section of the city known as the North Side.

Khet Mar, a Burmese writer, adorned the facade of "Pittsburgh-Burma House" with her words and the images of her husband, an artist.
Carmen Gentile

Reese decided to headquarter his own “asylum” on a rundown, potholed street suffering from decades of neglect and economic disparity. He bought from the city a onetime crack house long abandoned by its owner and made it the cornerstone of his project. After years of work on the house and fundraising from philanthropic groups and individual donors, City of Asylum was finally ready in 2004 to host its first artist in exile: Chinese writer and poet Huang Xiang. 

Soon after his arrival, Huang, known as the “Walt Whitman of China,” took it upon himself to customize his new residency by painting the house’s wooden exterior with Chinese poetry. The ornate calligraphy of “House Poem,” as it became known, immediately garnered the attention of locals who flocked to the house to hear Huang recite his work and put Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum on the international map. With more artists applying for residence with City of Asylum, Reese purchased additional houses along the street, known as Sampsonia. 

Would-be candidates can apply online, though many of the applicants are found via referrals through the international City of Asylum network, universities and human rights organizations. 

“Primarily it is just us saying, ‘Who is the best writer and who has the most trouble?’” says Reese, adding that City of Asylum works with immigration lawyers to obtain visas for the writers and those asylum seekers with families.

Currently the organization has an annual budget of $750,000, with hopes of reaching $1 million by the end of this year. It now counts the National Endowment for the Arts as well as foundations and private donors among its benefactors. 

City of Asylum in Pittsburgh works with similar programs in Las Vegas and Ithaca, New York, though these programs differ from the Pittsburgh “asylum” in that they are run with the help of institutions of higher learning such as Cornell University and the University of Las Vegas. 

Since its inception, four more artists have found a home in Pittsburgh. Among them is Khet Mar, a Burmese writer, journalist and activist whose outspoken attitudes on human rights landed her in prison several times before she and her family decided to leave their homeland and come to Pittsburgh. Like Huang, Mar and her family customized their new home by adorning the facade of the “Pittsburgh-Burma House” with her words and images by her husband Than Htay, a visual artist. She currently works for Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C.  

Mar and other City of Asylum alumni are regular contributors to its periodical, Sampsonia Way magazine, which publishes articles dedicated to promoting literary freedom of expression worldwide. 

Venezuelan writer Israel Centeno has been a City of Asylum resident for three years.
Carmen Gentile

Among the other contributors is Venezuelan writer Israel Centeno, who has been a City of Asylum resident for three years. 

Centeno was vilified by authorities in Venezuela following the publication of his novel “The Conspiracy,” a fictional story about an assassination attempt on the country’s president. The book was published just months after the failed 2002 coup against former President Hugo Chavez, and the president and his supporters didn’t take kindly to it. Centeno spent several years being harassed in state-controlled media and was the victim of several street crimes he alleges were politically motivated. 

By 2011, the award-winning novelist had had enough of the threats and fears for his family’s safety, and made the difficult decision to flee the country of his birth for a strange new home in unknown Pittsburgh. 

But Centeno says his hosts at City of Asylum have given him the time and resources he needs to resume his work and forge a new life. “These people [at City of Asylum] understand that the process of integration can take many years,” he says. 

Centeno hopes one day to resume teaching creative writing and thinks the recent publication of the English translation of “The Conspiracy,” financed with help from City of Asylum, will make that possible.

“Now I have material to present to the American public,” he says. 

Centeno is also working on a new novel. It takes places in both his home country of Venezuela and his new home, Pittsburgh.

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