City of Asylum Pittsburgh began as a temporary refuge for persecuted international writers, and has gradually expanded to become a node of Pittsburgh’s growing literary community. The organization is in the planning stages for Alphabet City, a literary center for readings, classes, and literary social life — in a part of Pittsburgh’s Northside once best known for its crack houses and pornographic theater. Their online publication Sampsonia Way provides a forum for issues related to literature and free expression. Co-founder and president Henry Reese spoke with me by phone last week.
Tell me about how you and [co-founder] Diane Samuels decided to found City of Asylum, and what about Pittsburgh made it seem like the right city?
I first heard about the program in 1997 when Salman Rushdie was speaking in Pittsburgh. During the course of his talk, he mentioned this program and related it to his own experience. At the time we had a house we’d purchased on the Northside, and it [had been] a crack house. We were renting it, we had rehabbed it and thought it would be a great house for a writer. We began to contact the administrative arm in Europe of the Cities of Asylum there — it took about 7 years before someone wrote back. In 2003 I got an email saying they were going to expand the program to the US and that we should contact Russell Banks, who at the time had the International Parliament of Writers, the writer component of Cities of Refuge.
We thought Pittsburgh would be ideal for several reasons. One, we had a somewhat different model than European programs, for several reasons: in Europe, the programs were governmental; that didn’t exist here and wasn’t going to happen. The alternative was institutions like universities – and two universities did start programs. Looking at the goals of the program, we felt it was more important to be part of a city, a neighborhood, a community, where you would be creating a new life, as opposed to thinking about this as a way station. It wasn’t a writer residency, it was a writer’s residence. Making a new home was really the critical thing. The writer could go back to another country, and ultimately writers will land where it becomes most economically feasible for them in the long run, but they need the stability to begin to plan that, to make that transition, to not feel like it’s being imposed. Pittsburgh was ideal because the cost of housing is cheap here; the cost of living is cheap, there’s good infrastructure for education. And it’s needed in another way: there’s a really low percentage of people who are not native born here, among the lowest of any US city of size. So there’s a need for the presence of the writers here, to begin to speak to that experience.
Our particular neighborhood exaggerates all the things I told you in terms of affordability, and there’s the nature of the community: socioeconomic and racial differences, but everyone lives in the same community here. Having someone from the outside became a very good binding agent. Not understanding, as an audience member, the language being spoken puts everybody into the same category. It’s almost like your own native English is a disability. It turned out that there were many unexpected things that way: making a home for a writer in exile ended up a way for us to make a better home for ourselves. We’ve lived on that street since 1980 – I probably know more people because of the program than I knew in the first 25 years here.
How has the response you’ve received changed your idea of CoA’s audience, especially as you’re embarking on the Alphabet City project?
We really had no idea of doing more than creating the writer sanctuaries program. Little did we know, the program is more complex because you’re dealing with real people, and when you’re making a new home for people, it’s not like a residency, where there is planned obsolescence. When we saw early on that it probably takes longer than 2 years [for writers] to become independent, we changed the program, so the writer could effectively stay in the house indefinitely. [There were] real world barriers of language, all the things a normal refugee would find, and overlaying that, trying to make a living as a writer. So being able to balance those was a particularly complicated problem, and the goal of our program is that the writers continue to write something that they want to continue to write. Otherwise, the country that made the problem has effectively silenced them. So [as]people begin to settle in and make a home, the writers engage in a more ongoing sustainable way with their neighbors. The first writer we owe deep gratitude to, Huang Xiang, taught us so many lessons showing how he interacted with people. That engagement, the ability to draw in people, showing that art could begin to engage people in a way they hadn’t expected, went to a lot of our programs. We began to do more programming, kind of as an evolutionary, gradual kind of thing, and we began to pay attention to people who operated in our general field, the idea of community and the arts. We learned that there was a whole framework for that. That was very instructive both in thinking about art in communities and identifying funding sources.
Pittsburgh has always had a vibrant, somewhat underground literary community. How do you think this discovery of how your programming is attracting or building a community fits into literary Pittsburgh as a whole?
I guess I really should say communities. Because there’s a community that’s really just our neighborhood, which is not necessarily highly literary. We address the local community first, getting people to appreciate literature, and hopefully getting them to want to read more and broaden their taste. Parallel to that, there’s a serious literary community that comes out of the academic community and the professional writers and journalists. They gravitated to the program somewhat naturally, and engaged with it in a different way – not as peers and not as consumers, but opening up to the writers, giving invitations, trying to help them along. At the level of the core program, we began to do more events, to look into how we can engage the literary community and return value to that community. The writers were clearly going to readings, becoming part of the local literary community. We weren’t doing literary events until a couple years in. We started with the jazz poetry concerts we do, and started doing readings mainly when Horacio Castellanos Moya had a book translated into English, his first English translation, and we had a launch. We ended up having to do it over two nights, although we’d been warned that people would not come to translated lecture events, let alone readings. The more we did, the more people wanted to come.
We started inventing events that could make more use of regional talent. The goal with Alphabet City is to merge all these interests, to create something that can truly mobilize all components of the literary equation, international, national, and local. To say to some degree they’re all the same, that there’s not a prestige issue. From a writer perspective, a writer’s a writer. Being able to do all that in the same place with more frequency. That’s our goal: to create a place that is really the literary hub for the city, a center for that kind of dialogue. And also it will hopefully raise money for us to sustain the organization.
You mentioned translation as one of the ways you discovered how big your potential audience was, and you’ve published first English translations by some of your writers in residence. Did translation become part of your vision by accident, or was it always your goal to have first translations as part of writers’ residences?
Our mission is ultimately to give voice, among all communities. When you think about giving voice, translation is a really important need. Without it, writers coming here, in this part of the world, are voiceless. And English, now, is as close to a universal voice as you’re going to get. We didn’t have the resources to begin to do much with that too early. We did some things on Sampsonia Way, we thought we would always do it in several languages, but it wasn’t something we could financially manage. If someone writes something in a particular language, we will sometimes put it up in that language so that people from that country can read it in the original, but we’ll primarily focus on an English-speaking audience. It’s much more recently that we’ve started to think about longer texts. One of our writers had an idea for an anthology of Cuban writers who had never been translated, who were no longer thinking about consequences from the government. So we put some on the website. When we had a few of them, we thought we might as well do a print edition. Once we had that, we thought maybe we should be thinking about that more generally. That’s really a work in progress at this point. But we wanted to make sure all of our writers had something in print that represented their writing and ideally was fairly connected to the reason they’re in exile, that would help explain why they were here, and was a good piece of literature.