Art Works Blog

Finding Literary Asylum in Pittsburgh

R. Henry Reese likes to tell the story of Queequeg, Ishmael’s heavily tattooed, tomahawk-wielding bedmate in Moby Dick. Although Ishmael is initially terrified to discover he is sharing quarters at the Spouter Inn with what he determines to be a cannibal, Queequeg quickly reveals his gentle soul and dignified spirit. And as Ishmael tells us, “I have never slept better in all my life.”

“That, to me, was always this model of the fear of the other,” said Reese. “But when you actually inhabit the imagination of people who are different from yourself, you begin to relate in a whole different way.”

Reese has seen this process occur time and again through his organization City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, an NEA grantee that provides sanctuary to exiled writers from around the world. Reese founded the organization in 2004 with his wife Diane Samuels, after hearing exiled author Salman Rushdie speak about his own experience with the City of Asylum network (now the International Cities of Refuge Network, or ICORN).

The first step was to convert Reese and Samuel’s rental property on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s Northside into something that felt like more than just a way station. “If a writer is in exile, their need is really to make a new home, not just to find a temporary residency,” he said. “The residency is helpful, but when you're in it, the only thing you think about is where do I go next. Our goal was to stabilize the writer so the writer could find a way to becoming independent.” He noted that this was especially difficult for writers as opposed to visual artists or musicians, whose art contains no language barrier. “Your language, in many ways, is your home when you're a writer,” said Reese. “When you're estranged from your readership, you're estranged from who you are.”

People sitting in audience holding up signs with names on them

During the 2014 Jazz Poetry Concert, audience members hold up placards bearing the names of exiled writers. This tradition, accompanied by a moment of silence, takes place every year. Photo by Renee Rosensteel

Although he said he and Samuels had no initial vision beyond using their property as a safe haven, Reese began to see that sharing a street, a neighborhood, and a community was no less enlightening than sharing a room had been for Ishmael and Queequeg.

For example, their first resident writer was the Chinese poet Huang Xiang. To celebrate his freedom, he painted one of his poems on the façade of his new home on Sampsonia Way in Chinese calligraphy. He began to give performances of the house poem out on the street, naturally attracting the attention of passerby. Reese remembered one group of kids who had paused to check out the situation. They were skeptical, he said, of these strange characters that were purportedly another language, and of this man who didn’t speak English. But there was a shift when Xiang began to perform.

“He gets up real close to one kid, almost nose-to-nose, lets out a blood-curdling scream, dives on the ground, and recites a poem called ‘Wild Beasts’,” Reese remembered. Afterward, Xiang brushed off the dirt from the street and gave the children a bow. “And the kids say, ‘Can you do another one?’” said Reese, still with a sense of wonder. “What it said to me was that the art actually closed the gap. They said they wanted more, and began to understand. We hadn't set out to change lives or anything like that, but all of a sudden, there's suddenly possibility in this project we were doing that we hadn't understood.”

In the past ten years, City of Asylum has explored and expanded this sense of possibility, frequently using the writers themselves as a roadmap. Unlike most organizations in the ICORN network, City of Asylum in Pittsburgh is not affiliated with a university or institution, and is governed instead by a grassroots, community-driven approach. Interest in Xiang’s impromptu performances, for example, led to a formal, ongoing reading series, and the original house with Chinese calligraphy has inspired other art-encased homes on Sampsonia Way, all of which have been created by writers in exile. City of Asylum calls these homes “house publications,” and envisions the transformation of Sampsonia Way “into a public library of published houses that can be read while walking down the street.”

Tightrope walkers perform while a jazz band plays below

At the 2011 Jazz Poetry Concert, the Flying Wallendas circus act perform on the tightrope to a recording of Salman Rushdie reading from his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, accompanied by Tarbaby with saxophonist Oliver Lake. Photo by Renee Rosensteel 

There is also the City of Asylum Jazz Poetry Concert, which features collaborations between jazz musicians and international or exiled writers. Although the concert was originally supposed to be a one-off event, response was so strong that it now occurs annually. “I didn't expect people to say this was one of the most moving events, it got to the core of their humanity, they'd never been to anything like this,” said Reese. Noting Pittsburgh’s small international population—only three percent of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area is foreign-born—the concert helped him realize that “people were really hungry to embrace the world out there.”

However, the concert has also helped people embrace their own world as well. “When an artist is reading a poem, playing music, doing it together—all of a sudden it is visceral,” Reese said. He said that this “thrill of art as a social experience” serves as yet another bridge between “the other,” including those that lurk within the Northside’s diverse incomes, races, and ages. The concert has featured Nobel Prize winners, filmed videos of authors currently on house arrest or in hiding, a variety of jazz musicians, and even circus performers. The next concert will take place later this autumn.

The organization’s next major chapter will come later this summer, when its new center Alphabet City opens. Located in a more heavily trafficked part of the neighborhood, Alphabet City will have space for readings, performances, writing workshops, a restaurant, and naturally, a bookstore. As with every City of Asylum initiative, Reese hopes the center will help the community "begin to understand how to value other people's values,” and will serve as yet another bridge between the Queequegs and the Ishmaels of the world.

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