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Q&A with City of Asylum’s Silvia Duarte

A conversation with the assistant director of City of Asylum, an organization based in Pittsburgh that offers residencies to writers in exile.

From Khet Mar to Yaghoub Yadali, City of Asylum has given refuge to talented authors from around the world who have been persecuted for their writing.

After attending a talk by Salmon Rushdie in 1997, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels were inspired to bring Europe’s “Cities of Asylum” network to the United States—more specifically to Pittsburgh—and together they co-founded the organization in 2004, setting up shop along Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. In the years since, City of Asylum has expanded to include a publishing house, an online literary magazine, and, their latest project, Alphabet City, a literary community center that houses a bookstore of international literature, venues for their robust event series, and more.

I spoke with Silvia Duarte, assistant director of City of Asylum, to learn more about their mission and the important work they are doing.

—Sarah Coolidge

Sarah Coolidge: How long have you worked for City of Asylum? What drew you to the organization?

Silvia Duarte: I’ve been working at City of Asylum for eight years. I came to the organization in 2007 with my partner at the time, Horacio Castellanos Moya, the second writer-in-residence of City of Asylum. I have been involved in every part of the organization, as a beneficiary and as part of the staff.

Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, I already had a career in journalism as a magazine editor for El Periódico, a daily Guatemalan newspaper. When I came to Pittsburgh, I used that experience to edit and run Sampsonia Way, our online literary magazine. I also began to produce certain programs and events for the organization, eventually becoming the program manager. Now I’m the assistant director.

The mission of City of Asylum fit with my own principles. Throughout my life I’ve had friends, colleagues, and a husband threatened or persecuted for their writing. Since the beginning of my career as a reporter in Guatemala, I have defended freedom of speech both directly and indirectly. City of Asylum’s commitment to promoting freedom of speech resonates both personally and professionally for me.

SC: I think some people are surprised to learn that City of Asylum is in Pittsburgh, as opposed to, say, New York City or Los Angeles. What do you think it is about Pittsburgh in particular that has allowed this organization to grow and thrive?

SD: Well, I think there are many reasons. When writers move to New York or Los Angeles to make a living, it’s harder for them to really root themselves in their community.

Pittsburgh is a welcoming city, in general. There’s also a public thirst for knowledge on international issues. I think as human beings we tend to assume that people aren’t interested in what’s happening beyond their personal world, but Pittsburgh is proof that people are interested when they have access.

All of our events are free, and City of Asylum attracts crowds from many different backgrounds. Our audience is more than just an audience. It’s a community of people who throw themselves into the organization in a lot of ways: they volunteer at events and in the bookstore, many are donors, many are neighbors. They are part of the organization, limbs of the grass roots operation, along with the board of directors and the staff.

The welcoming neighborhood in which the writers-in-residence live, just blocks away from Alphabet City, has also been essential to the success of the organization. Northside residents, eager to learn about the home countries of their new neighbors, personally invest in educating themselves.

I’d like to give an example: when the third writer-in-residence, Khet Mar from Myanmar, arrived in 2009, many neighbors and friends of City of Asylum were unfamiliar with her home country, which was suffering its worst period under the rule of a dictatorship. Her presence here opened other possibilities, such as a group of exiled Burmese monks—participants in the Saffron Revolution—traveling to Pittsburgh to march during the G-20 summit. They came to Sampsonia Way and took a stance in front of the world. Many of our neighbors participated in solidarity with Khet. This interaction gave the community an incentive to learn about and open their eyes to that country. Many members of our audience still follow current events in Myanmar, as well as the countries of our other writers-in-residence.

SC: City of Asylum has provided residencies to several impressive writers living in exile over the years. How does the application process work? And on what criteria are the writers judged?

SD: Now, writers connect with us through the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). We work directly with ICORN, an independent organization of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, based in Norway. This organization provides us with the names of writers who have applied for sanctuary through ICORN. In 2015 City of Asylum became the national headquarters for ICORN in the United States.

Writers are also encouraged to apply online through our website.

SC: During their time at City of Asylum, the writers-in-residence produce a piece of work. Could you give us a couple of memorable examples of projects that have resulted from a residency?

SD: Huang Xiang was the first writer to be provided sanctuary at City of Asylum, during which time he created “House Poem” on the façade of his Pittsburgh residence on Sampsonia Way. He also published Pittsburgh Dream Nest Jotting, a book of Chinese-language essays on his experiences in Pittsburgh, in addition to writing poetry and collaborating with American painter William Rock on their “Century Mountain Project.” City of Asylum also commissioned a translation of Huang Xiang’s poetry by Michelle Yeh. A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep: Poems of Huang Xiang was published by the University of California Press in 2008.

The second writer-in-residence, Horacio Castellanos Moya, finished his novel Tyrant Memory (Tirana memoria) during his time here. He also wrote a good part of La Sirvienta y el Luchador and The Dream of My Return (El sueño del retorno). All of his works have been praised by the Latin American press and intellectual circles, as well as by publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker.

Syrian writer Osama Alomar, our most recent writer-in-residence, arrived in February from Chicago, where he’d been driving a cab for eight years. Lydia Davis lauded the “heartfelt urgency” of the stories published in his last collection, Fullblood Arabian. His newest book of short stories, The Teeth of the Comb, was released by New Directions at the end of April. Now that Osama is here at City of Asylum, he has the time and financial security to focus on rewriting his novel. The original manuscript of this work was lost in Syria when he left.

In 2015 Sampsonia Way, City of Asylum’s publishing arm, released the books that led to the writers’ persecution: Night Birds and Other stories by Khet Mar (Myanmar), Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali (Iran), and The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno (Venezuela). Other works by City of Asylum residents are now being published through a partnership with Phoneme Media.

Huang Xiang working on “House Poem” on Sampsonia Way

SC: What are typically the next steps for the writers after the residency? Have any stayed in Pittsburgh?

SD: City of Asylum tries to provide all the tools and resources for the writers to continue the lives they’ve created for themselves after the program finishes. We also allow the writers to stay for free in the houses if necessary.

Khet Mar now works for Radio Free Asia; Horacio Castellanos Moya teaches at the Spanish Creative Writing Program at the University of Iowa; and Yaghoub Yadali and Huang Xiang continue to write and pursue their art here in the United States.

SC: How has this organization affected the city of Pittsburgh and its literary community?

SD: As I mentioned, City of Asylum offers a broad range of programming, bringing in national, international, and local writers to participate in our reading series. This has maintained a well-known literary hub in the city.

Examples of international fiction writers we have presented in the past include Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Svetlana Alexievich, Gary Shteyngart, Ismet Prcic, Shahriar Mandanipour, Helena María Viramontes, Mia Alvar, Jennifer Clement, and David Bezmozgis.

We also have invited writers who focus on human rights issues in different parts of the world. Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese civil rights activist and human rights lawyer, came to present his memoir The Barefoot Lawyer. We have also had Larry Siems, an American writer who edited Guantánamo Diary, written by Mohamedou Slahi, a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay. Laura Secor presented her book Children of Paradise, which examines the forces shaping post-revolutionary Iran.

In total, we have presented 397 artists from seventy countries. You can imagine how many great names I am neglecting to mention in these examples!

Sometimes we collaborate with other organizations in Pittsburgh to really introduce the writer to the city and vice versa. As all of our events are free and open to the public, Alphabet City programming incites a different demographic of attendance.

And now we have our bookstore. Lesley Rains, City of Asylum Books’ manager, has created a wide range of inventory to introduce new readers to international and translated literature. The bookstore’s shelves are dedicated to different publishing houses. For example, New Directions and New York Review of Books are two of the publishers that have featured shelves. That way we can easily direct customers who aren’t familiar with translated literature to some of the more prominent, contemporary titles. The bookstore also has a display dedicated to translated new releases. They are hosting a regular story hour for children, which will feature international literature.

We’ve also had an internship program at Sampsonia Way magazine since 2010. In that time we have mentored more than sixty interns from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities in the area. Through our internship a next generation of writers has become more connected with international events and freedom of expression issues. It’s great to see how their own projects contribute to enrich the city’s cultural life and their personal careers continue to grow after interning at the magazine.

SC: As you mention, over the years City of Asylum has expanded beyond a writing residency to include other projects, including the Sampsonia Way magazine, Alphabet City, and City of Asylum Books. What was the inspiration behind these projects and how have they impacted the organization as a whole?

SD: The writers and the community are the ones that inspire our programs. Huang Xiang is a great performer and wrote his poetry on the façade of his house. He inspired our annual Jazz Poetry Festival and what we call our “house publications”—the murals and designs on the outside of each of our residency houses.

When New Directions launched Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness a few months after he arrived, Henry and Diane invited people from the community for a reading. That’s how our Salon Style Series started.

When City of Asylum programming first started taking shape, the jazz-poetry concerts were held in the alley (Sampsonia Way), and the readings were held in the founders’ loft, which could fit about one hundred people. Over the years, the audience grew and we had an increasing need for a larger venue. With help from individual donors and foundation grants, we renovated a vacant historic building, an old Masonic hall, just a few blocks away from where the writers live on Sampsonia Way.

The space houses a restaurant, the City of Asylum bookstore, and the performance space on the first floor, our offices in the basement, and income-generating apartments in the two floors above.

SC: Have the recent events barring people from seven (then six) majority Muslim countries affected your work at all? If so, how? And what role does your organization hope to play in the ongoing national debate over our borders?

SD: City of Asylum is frequently asked to comment on specific remarks or actions of the Trump administration. We do not have the resources or the staff to respond on a regular basis to the frequent insults and injuries to our values and mission. We will, instead, continue to work positively by providing a safe place for writers and artists to create and engage with audiences in programs where all can expect mutuality, dignity, and hospitality, the right to difference without fear.

SC: Are there concrete things that writers, readers, publishers, and other arts and literary organizations across the U.S. can do to better support persecuted writers of the world?

SD: Many of these organizations are working around parallel missions, and I think something embracing this sense of solidarity, as well as a curiosity for what the other does, ensures that we aren’t islands. We can connect and work together.

Considering that the U.S. publishes a very small fraction of translated literature, it’s also helpful to recognize and support many initiatives—publishing houses, bookstores, magazines, and so on—that specialize in translation, like yours.

As for the persecuted writers, we all need to make an effort to read about them and read their works.