Yaghoub Yadali was a writer in Iran when he wrote The Rituals of Restlessness
in 2004. Three years later, he was sentenced to a year in prison due to the descriptions of an adulterous love affair in his debut novel.
All around the world, literary artists like Yadali are persecuted and even exiled for their writings. A fortunate few of these writers have found refuge in organizations like City of Asylum Pittsburgh
that provide them with the sanctuary and support they need to continue their craft and reestablish themselves in a new country.
This month, City of Asylum Pittsburgh is celebrating its 10th anniversary by honoring five exiled writers who have sought sanctuary through the organization: Huang Xiang, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Khet Mar, Israel Centeno and Yaghoub Yadali.
The five honored writers will be reading from their novels at a celebration event on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Alphabet City Tent on Sampsonia Way in the North Side.
The event is free to the public and tickets can be reserved online
. Prior to the free event City of Asylum will be holding a private reception
from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m with tickets available for $75 per person. Reception attendees will have their choice of one book and enjoy an international dinner buffet and drinks, as well as the opportunity to mingle with the night's honorees.
Since its inception, City of Asylum Pittsburgh has hosted more than 15 exiled, visiting and exchange writers and presented more than 250 authors and musicians from 42 countries in free readings and concerts. The organization provides an invaluable resource to these writers and also a learning opportunity for the Pittsburgh community.
"There is no more powerful way to be reminded of the importance of defending creative free expression in our own lives," says Henry Reese, founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh. "When we provide sanctuary to an exiled writer in our community, we also make space in ourselves for important human values."
In addition to providing housing to exiled writers, the organization also provides additional assistance like a stipend, medical benefits, transportation and even an immigration attorney. Services such as commissioning English translations, helping writers find a publisher or securing employment for spouses, are tailored to each writer’s skills and needs in an effort to help the writer become stable and self-supporting.
Among its most visible advancements since City of Asylum’s founding are a series of homes with writing on the exterior. It all started in 2004, when exiled writer Huang Xiang covered his City of Asylum residence with Chinese calligraphies of his poems. The overwhelming response from visitors and neighbors led to the development of additional houses on Sampsonia Way that feature text-based artwork on the facades. Since then, public awareness and community interest in the organization has grown beyond Reese's expectations.
"We had no idea that a program providing sanctuary to endangered, exiled writers would resonate so deeply in the community," says Reese. "We only thought about the writers and making a new home for them, and then we discovered that our own neighborhood was being transformed in the process."
The organization has also developed monthly readings with international authors and translators, an annual free Jazz Poetry Concert, the founding and continued publishing of Sampsonia Way magazine and a sister city exchange with Brussels, Belgium.
While the past 10 years have been a successful journey so far, Reese hopes that City of Asylum continues to grow and make an impact in Pittsburgh.
"We would like to grow our writer sanctuary program so it can support a half-dozen or more exiled writers concurrently," says Reese. "We also hope our neighborhood will be be an inspiring community to live in, where art and the imagination are central."
Next year, City of Asylum will open the Alphabet City literary center, which will feature flexible seating for up to 125 guests and serve as a home for readings, performances, seminars and cultural events, in addition to a bookstore and café.
"We would like to make Alphabet City a hub for Pittsburgh's creative cultural and social life, where you can always find interesting conversation, books, and performances along with good food and drink," says Reese.