In Pittsburgh there's a narrow, very unique, city block that writers from all over the world call home.
City of Asylum/Pittsburgh is part of an organization with branches in Europe that provides a safe haven for writers to freely practice their craft. Many come from countries where they face possible persecution as a result of their work. During a two-year span, writers are offered free housing and a chance at a new life.
"I wrote some political poems with my friends, and we distributed those poems in the crowd. That made me go to jail," said Khet Mar, a writer from Burma whose work portrayed the plight of the country's poor villagers and landed her a year-long sentence in jail.
Mar moved to Pittsburgh 18-months ago with her family. Her husband, an artist, painted a mural on their row house that depicts the danger of life in Burma contrasted with the creative freedom of their present life in this Rust Belt city.
Some of Mar's neighbors include Horacio Castellanos Moya, a writer from Ecuador who also found a new life in the city. His novels about the country's post-civil war politics made him the target of death threats. Escaping El Salvador, Moya traveled to a number of countries before settling into the City of Asylum program in 2006. He has lived in the city ever since and continues to write about his native country--only now he doesn't have to live in fear.
"I feel we offer them to a safe place to do what they need to do unencumbered." --Henry Reese, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh
"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." --Huang Xiang, a Chinese writer who was the first member of the program six years ago.
"If I wrote, I had to pay the price. I was jailed six times in total because I wanted to write." --Huang Xiang
1. What is freedom of the press? What is freedom of expression?
2. Why do some governments imprison and persecute artists?
3. What do you think of when you hear the word "asylum?"
1. Suppose you were a writer and faced possible jail time or harassment for writing about something you felt strongly about, would you write it anyway? Why or why not?
2. Why do you think some writers, like Khet Mar, wish to return to their native countries? Do you think this is wise?
3. What would happen if China and Burma suddenly allowed artists to write and paint freely? What keeps them from allowing such freedom?
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