In the 1980s, Salman Rushdie was subject to a fatwa, or death sentence, because of his novel The Satanic Verses. He was forced into exile. Although Rushdie had wealth and fame, his time in hiding taxed his resources. When Rushdie emerged, he and other writers formed the International Parliament of Writers. The IPW approached European parliaments about establishing sanctuary cities for writers who were subject to persecution. Several countries agreed to set up Asylum Cities where writers could go to live and receive a few years of funding.
The Asylum City movement spread to America. Pittsburgh, Ithaca and Las Vegas all welcome writers fleeing prosecution. The founders of the Pittsburgh motion have taken a different path. Rather than associating with a university, which is what other cities have done, Pittsburgh has a group of committed and active donors. This group funds two years of life in Pittsburgh, provides housing and even health care to writers who have fled their homelands.
Pittsburgh’s Asylum City is heavily centered around a house on Sampsonia Way where the residents go to live. The house is open to writers who decide to remain in the city after the two years. In this way, the Pittsburgh community continues to support the writers until they are financially secure enough to move forward safely.
The city of Pittsburgh became even more involved in the project when poet Huang Xiang moved to the house in 2004. Huang painted the residence with Chinese calligraphy of his poetry. Many people were inspired by Huang’s poetry and his celebration of freedom. Then response poured in, in both monetary and non-monetary forms. Many people sent Huang poetry, others ventured out to listen to his experiences and a movement was born. It enabled Asylum City to expand to several houses on the same street – each painted with a text from the exiled writer in residence. Jazz concerts, poetry readings and even temporary residences followed, indicating an incredible support for freedom of speech and literature.
Writer Yaghoub Yadali is an example of someone who was helped by Asylum City. Iran persecuted Yadali for his novel, The Rituals of Restlessness.” He wound up being imprisoned by the Iranian authorities. The material that state censors criticized had actually been approved many years earlier, but in a nation without free speech, writers are subjected to arbitrary enforcement of meaningless rules.
Protests forced the Iranian government to free Yadali,, but for four long years he was under surveillance. That’s when Yadali made his way to Asylum City in Pittsburgh, where he has been given a stipend to write and a free place to live. The results have been dramatic, as Yadali could write without fear and constraints for the first time in his life.
Sampsonia Way Magazine began in 2009. This online journal extended the group’s mission into the realm of social justice. Writers can now engage with the project and yet more goodwill has spread around the world. Its newest venture will open later this year. It is called Alphabet City and will turn a former Masonic Temple into a community center. In a financial transaction that took ten years to pull off, the $12 million renovation will transform an area of the city targeted for redevelopment. The first floor will feature a book store, restaurant, meeting space and broadcast studio. With support from the private sector, non-profit, and private citizens, Asylum City Pittsburgh is making a stand against censorship, saving the lives of writers, reinvesting in the community and improving the quality of life for everyone in Pittsburgh.