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Writers in Danger Offered Safe Haven to Practice Craft in Pittsburgh

September 30, 2010 at 6:04 PM EDT
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In Pittsburgh, a special program offers foreign writers whose lives are endangered to get a new start and write freely.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a safe haven for writers in danger.

You don’t hear Burmese too much in Pittsburgh, and certainly not Burmese poetry. But, on a recent night, the writer Khet Mar read a poem about seeking shelter in this city, after being persecuted in her native country.

KHET MAR, poet (through translator): Life takes place amid blooming flowers. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Khet Mar was one of several writers who performed at an annual jazz and poetry celebration for an organization known as City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, which provides writers two years of free living here and a chance at a new life.

KHET MAR: I wrote some political poems with my friends, and we distributed those poems in the crowd. That made me in the jail.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: In jail.

KHET MAR: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Khet Mar was a writer, teacher and social worker in Burma in the late 1980s and ’90s, when university students, workers and monks first took to the streets to protest the country’s repressive military regime.

KHET MAR: Generals in my country don’t want people know the real situation. For example, they don’t want people know we are — Burmese people are poor and very, very bad conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of her writing told of the plight of poor villagers. In one instance, she wrote of an uncle who was forced to work in a labor camp because he couldn’t pay a government tax.

KHET MAR: He couldn’t pay money. So, he went there and working in the very hot weather, and he died.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you wrote a story about this?

KHET MAR: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, that becomes a political…

KHET MAR: Yes. Yes. I think I’m writing social issues, but, in Burma, social issues are political issues as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because of her work and writing, Khet Mar spent a year in prison and faced regular censorship.

When fellow writers were jailed during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, she sought help from human rights organizations which work with the Pittsburgh asylum program. She moved here with her family 18 months ago. In addition to rent-free housing, she’s provided with a $30,000 annual stipend and health insurance.

It’s not amnesty in the legal sense, but, for Khet Mar, it’s given her safety and freedom she didn’t have in Burma. Her artist husband, Than Htay Maung, captured that in a mural he painted on their home, life in Burma on one side, in Pittsburgh on the other.

HENRY REESE, city of Asylum/Pittsburgh: I feel we offer them to a safe place to do what they need to do unencumbered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next door to Khet Mar is the home of businessman Henry Reese. Thirteen years ago, he heard about the European-based City of Asylum program and decided to start a Pittsburgh branch. He used townhouses he already owned on his block and raised money from foundations and local donors.

HENRY REESE: This was a way that a small community could actually stand up and protect something that we all feel is important, bring that person into our community, and maintain that dialogue within our community in both directions.

We learn from the writers and benefit from it every bit as much as, I would say, initially they benefit from us just by being protected.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first writer in the program, six years ago, was Chinese poet Huang Xiang. Now living in New York City, he’s still warmly greeted by old neighbors when he returns for a visit.

As a young man in China, he spoke out against the cultural revolution in the 1960s and then participated in anti-government protests in the 1980s.

HUANG XIANG, writer (through translator): As a writer in China, my life was always underground. I produced thousands of works, but none of them were published.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not only were you not able to be published, but you also went to prison for your writing.

HUANG XIANG (through translator): That’s right. If I wrote, I had to pay the price. I was jailed six times in total because I wanted to write.

JEFFREY BROWN: He came to the United States in 1997 and was granted political asylum, as shown in the documentary “Well Founded Fear.”

WOMAN: The service is recommending that the case be approved, so congratulations to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Xiang got the legal status, but didn’t have a place to live or a way to support himself until he found the Pittsburgh program.

Here, he got his poems published, continued to work as a calligrapher, even painting several poems on the exterior of the house where he lived, and became a popular performance artist, reciting for us a poem called “Writing in 3D,” which begins: “The oldest way to write poetry is with a brush. The newest way to write poetry is with the body.”

Xiang says he feels he’s been given a new life in the United States.

HUANG XIANG (through translator): Coming to Pittsburgh, I found freedom to do what I want to do. From here, I made my first step into my spiritual and creative productivity.

JEFFREY BROWN: One door away lives Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, another who’s found a new life through the Pittsburgh program.

Beginning in the late 1970s in El Salvador, through that country’s violent civil war and uncertain aftermath, Castellanos Moya’s work as a journalist and novelist put him in danger. His 1997 novel, “Revulsion,” a satirical take on post-civil war politics, led to death threats.

HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA, writer: I didn’t say anything new. It was the tone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tone?

HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA: Yes, being sarcastic, being very corrosive, ironic about every — all this stuff, I think that’s — that was the point, not the information in it. So, literature still can bother.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the years that followed, Castellanos Moya moved from country to country, eventually settling here in 2006. Three of his novels have been translated into English. All his work continues to be about life in Central America.

Why is that? I mean, you’re here in Pittsburgh, but you’re not going to write a Pittsburgh novel? You’re still writing about El Salvador.

HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA: Well, it has to do with the process of how I get the stories that I write.

And I think it’s different if a writer is looking outside and around for stories to write novels. But I belong to another kind of writer, and this is the writer that is motivated by other things, by something that is inside, some memories, some remember, some things that were very heavy in some period of your life that I have something, some kind of, I don’t know, wounds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wounds?

HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA: Yes. And those wounds are there. And until I don’t get free of all that, the wound will be open, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Castellanos Moya says he hopes to stay in Pittsburgh and write. The Burmese poet Khet Mar is less sure about the future, even if she knows she can’t return home right now.

KHET MAR: I want to go back, because I think there are more responsibilities for me in Burma. so, here, I can just write. And if I were in Burma, I can help people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even though it’s dangerous.

KHET MAR: Yes. But I don’t want to go to the prison again. That’s why, you know, I’m here.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Henry Reese intends to keep the program going, and, with help from fund-raisers like this, expand it. He’s hoping to open a small bookstore and performance space just around the corner from the narrow alley that will continue to offer shelter to writers in need.