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.



(page 3 of 4)

maung

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.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in May

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2017

Best Doctors in Pittsburgh 2017

Pittsburgh’s medical lifesavers rated by their peers, including anesthesiologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, pediatricians, psychiatrists, surgeons, urologists & many more.
Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Innovations in Postpartum Depression Treatment, First-Aid Training and Food Security.
Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

The builder of two stadiums, a billion-dollar football business, NFL labor harmony and racial sensitivity, and bridges between constituencies –– he was an everywhere man whose soft, steady hand was felt everywhere.
Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

With a little work, the Strip District restaurant could become a Pittsburgh classic.
Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive ailment to treat and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Pittsburgh has become a battleground in the fight against the devastating illness, thanks to the decade-long quest of two Pittsburgh researchers whose work is on track to change the face of medicine and affect millions worldwide.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

Pittsburgh ties with one other city for having the worst drivers in the nation.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Brandon Blumenfeld introduces an American gastropub menu at the Troy Hill bar.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Five Essential May Events

Five Essential May Events

Comics (the kind on paper), comics (the kind with microphones), cats and more upcoming delights.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
‘Use Him Like ‘Troy Polamalu’ – Steelers Should Jump on This Pick

‘Use Him Like ‘Troy Polamalu’ – Steelers Should Jump on This Pick

If Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is still available, the Pittsburgh Steelers would be wise to make him their first-round pick in the NFL draft.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Sink Into a Trippy High School at Row House Cinema

Sink Into a Trippy High School at Row House Cinema

The Pittsburgh premiere of offbeat cartoon "My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea" is the local film event of the week.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Beautiful Blooms: Twists on the Traditional Bouquet

Beautiful Blooms: Twists on the Traditional Bouquet

You’ll definitely want the story behind these stunning wedding flowers.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Hosted by the Penn State Master Gardeners, the free event, which includes the local daffodil society’s annual show, features exclusive and hard-to-find flowers, shrubs, fruit and vegetable plants and other garden accessories from a variety of vendors.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

Considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Alex Rodriguez also is one of the league's more controversial stars.

Comments