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Exiled Writers Reunite For Pittsburgh Anniversary

City of Asylum is one of Pittsburgh’s busiest arts presenters, offering free literary readings, live music and film screenings a few nights each week at its home base, North Side venue Alphabet City.

Exiled Voices: City of Asylum Exhile Writers Reunion: 3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 19. Alphabet City, 40 W. North Ave., North Side

All the activity makes it easy to overlook the group’s core mission: In 2004, it was founded to shelter writers persecuted in their home countries. It continues to do so, and Saturday, City of Asylum marks its 15th anniversary with a special event honoring former writers in residence.

The Exiled Voices: City of Asylum Exiled Writers Reunion features five of the eight writers from eight different countries the nonprofit has hosted. Included are its first writer in residence, Chinese dissident poet Huang Xiang, and writers from Iran, Syria, Myanmar and Venezuela.

The writers – all poets and fiction writers -- have been visible in the community through public readings, but also by way of the very houses they lived in, on nearby Sampsonia Way: Huang hand-painted his poems in Chinese characters on the wooden siding of the house he stayed in, for instance, and the façade of another “art house” features work by local sculptor Thad Mosely.

“We had no idea that a program providing sanctuary to endangered, exiled writers would resonate so deeply in the community,” said Henry Reese, who co-founded City of Asylum with his spouse, artist Diane Samuels. “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. Looking forward we hope our neighborhood will be an inspiring community to live in, where art and the imagination are central.”

Reese, a businessman, and Samuels first heard about the City of Asylum concept during a 1997 talk given in Pittsburgh by Salman Rushdie, the novelist then under a death sentence decreed by Muslim clerics. (City of Asylum is an international network offering such residencies, but Pittsburgh’s is the only one to operate independently of a university or other large institution.)

Huang’s work had been banned in China for decades, and he was imprisoned six times and tortured in detention. He and his wife, Zhang Ling, fled China and lived for several years in New Jersey and New York before coming to City of Asylum in October 2004.

City of Asylum provides not only housing but also medical care, a stipend, and other support for a period of two years or more. The group also runs Sampsonia Way, an online magazine devoted to freedom of expression.

Another former writer-in-residence is Khet Mar, of Myanmar. In 1991, at age 22, she was imprisoned for her political writings and tortured. She served one year of a 10-year sentence, but in 2008 was again arrested, this time for illegally aiding victims of a cyclone. She and her husband and two sons stayed at City of Asylum from 2009 to 2012.

“City of Asylum Pittsburgh let me write about [repression in Myanmar], about what I felt, and about [how] my people are still suffering … and that kind of human-rights abuse,” she said by phone. Living under a repressive regime, she had always written about politics using metaphors (for instance, using descriptions of weather to limn the political climate). She said that while in Pittsburgh she wrote exclusively about Myanmar, and published what she could in magazines there. (Internet, she said, was too closely monitored by the government.)

The three other writers returning for Saturday’s event are Horacio Castellanos Moya, of El Salvador; Israel Centeno, of Venezuela; and Yaghoub Yadali, of Iran. (The program, which for several years housed only one writer at a time, now simultaneously shelters three guests, from Bangladesh, Syria and Ethiopia.)

The former writers in residence all live outside of Pittsburgh, though some still contribute to Sampsonia Way. Huang lives in New York. Moya teaches at the University of Iowa. Mar lives in Maryland and works as a journalist and translator for Radio Free Asia, in Washington, D.C. But she's looking forward to visiting Pittsburgh.

“I am very happy to be there again, to meet the people from my second home,” she said.

Admission to the Oct. 19 event is free but reservations are requested at the venue's website.