City of Asylum: Meet the New Neighbors

Creative, quirky and caring, Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way is also the international Main Street for the City of Asylum program for writers, making sure the pen stays mightier than the sword.

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Than Htay Maung completes a painting that depicts a scene near his new home.

Photo by Martha Rial


The House Poet

The first COA/P writer to arrive on Sampsonia Way later that year set the tone by picking up a thick paintbrush. Huang Xiang, 70, spent 12 years in Chinese prisons for his literary writings in support of the Democracy Wall movement. After sequestering himself in his rehabbed home, the energetic, long-haired poet emerged, reinvigorated.

Undeterred by the fact that few of his new neighbors spoke Mandarin, he began giving impromptu shouted performances along his new street. Mounting a ladder, he brushed the bold characters of a new poem (translated by Andrew Emerson) on the front of his house: “I think you stayed in the colorful clouds behind me, my hometown crane; wherever I go, I meet you; from the sky over other parts of the world, your sharp, clear call comes down.”

“When I first walked up to the house, it was kind of spectacular,” recalls Banks. He attended Huang Xiang’s first public performance in Pittsburgh on the steps of his new home, which attracted 100 shivering fans. Their roars of approval echoed down the alley. The “House Poem” became a visible symbol of the neighborhood’s new identity. “We were blown away by the community response,” laughs Reese.

The poet found a new source of income, performing his poetry for live audiences. Now living in New York, Huang Xiang is fondly remembered.

“He was the most musical writer with his movements and sense of theater, even though I had no idea what he was saying,” chuckles Oliver Lake, a visiting artist at Sampsonia. The jazz saxophonist and artist, who specializes in adventurous collaborations, performed at the 2005 Jazz Poetry Festival held on Sampsonia Way with Huang Xiang.
Lake has been the musical curator and has headlined at the COA/P Jazz Poetry Festival each year since.

Last year, Lake, who resides in New Jersey, began to improvise on a different canvas, creating blue and yellow murals inside and out at his part-time residence in the alley. He will return to the Jazz House this spring to finish the painting and gain inspiration from the neighbors.

Voices in the Alley

“Aside from being unique as a sanctuary, Sampsonia Way is a place of a lot of creativity,” says the 68-year-old musician. “It’s valuable for me for expressing creativity in concerts, and it’s interesting to hear the stories of the different writers as they get their bearings and start over.”

In 2006, Lake performed at the Jazz Poetry Concert with Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, a human-rights activist and poet. Soyinka also left an imprint on the alley. An excerpt from The Man Died, his memoir of imprisonment during the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, has been inscribed on the glass door of a second COA/P guest house.

Generous neighbors assist with the writers’ transition, particularly the Reese and Samuels, who help connect the COA/P writers with tasks from children’s school enrollment to medical care.

“The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council has been a godsend,” says Reese. “Bob Whitehill, an immigration attorney, has been very helpful. And Owen Cantor, a Pittsburgh dentist, has donated a great deal of time to our writers and their families.”

In fact, Cantor repaired the extensive damage to Huang Xiang’s mouth suffered during torture in prison. Thanks to Cantor, he recovered the ability to speak clearly.

Most important, work that COA/P writers have produced in Pittsburgh is being published, both in the U.S. and in their countries of exile. Horacio Castellanos Moya, a novelist from El Salvador who lives here, will publish his third novel, Tyrant Memory, through New Directions Press this year.

His partner, Silvia Duarte, has translated a career as a magazine editor for El Periódico, a daily Guatemalan newpaper, into directing an online literary magazine for COA/P.

Named for the street, Sampsonia Way features creative work and interviews with outspoken authors from around the world, including the Asylum writers and other local voices. Its 5,000 readers are “those that care about freedom of speech,” Duarte says, relaxing in the front room of the House Poem, the magazine’s current headquarters.

“The magazine extends the physical world to the digital world,” says Reese. “It protects creative free speech without endangering the writers.” Shielding the COA/P writers even after their arrival in the United States is important, he says. “Their pasts have repercussions, both for them and for their families and friends back home.”

Duarte is encouraged that Australian and English readers have taken action on behalf of a recent Burmese dissident interviewed in the magazine, giving him the possibility of asylum in the West. And she is enjoying a newfound sense of community after three years in Pittsburgh. Following a recent visit to her family, Duarte says, she returned to Pittsburgh to find three e-mails. “All said the same thing: ‘Welcome home,’” she remembers.

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