Thursday on the NewsHour: City of Asylum/Pittsburgh

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh is a six-year-old program that provides shelter and aid to foreign literary writers whose work has put them in danger in their homeland. Jeffrey Brown reports:


After the jump, you can watch videos of the writers reading their work …

Chinese poet and calligrapher Huang Xiang was the first writer to participate in the Pittsburgh/City of Asylum program. He was arrested numerous times in China for his poetry and activism against the government. He came to the United States in 1997 and his story of political asylum was told in the documentary ‘Well Founded Fear.’

Huang Xiang performed his poems, “Writing in 3D” and “The Wisp of Light,” outside his house in Pittsburgh:

Writing in 3-D

The oldest way to write poetry
Is with a brush
The newest way to write poetry
Is with the body
The most wonderful way to write poetry
Is to stand right on your head
With mind and body as one
And dab ink
On the ground!
Writing in 3-D.


The Wisp of Light

There is a kind of space
that’s a different vastness

There is a heavenly body
that’s a different great arch

The cells that permeate my body
are unattainably distant

The unreachable constellations
find shelter in my flesh in my blood

Death, not to be denied
rises as it slowly falls

Life, not to be denied
advances as it rushes away from us

Under the lit sky of this world of dust
I grow old day after day

In the space beyond space
Alone, I blossom like a youngster
Khet Mar is a Burmese novelist, essayist and poet, and the current writer-in-exile with the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh program. As a teacher, social worker and writer in Burma, she often spoke out against her country’s military regime. As a result, she was frequently censored and spent one year in prison.

In 2007, after several of her friends and colleagues were imprisoned during the so-called Saffron Revolution, she sought help from humanitarian groups, who put her in contact with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

She moved to Pittsburgh 18 months ago with her husband, artist Than Htay Maung, and their two young sons. Here is an essay she wrote about her new hometown, performed at the 2010 Jazz Poetry Concert, an annual celebration of the asylum program, as well as a poem.


Early Spring
Translated by Sao Aung Myint

The moon and the stars over Pittsburgh were in full glory, graced by the flowers on Sampsonia Way. Are you all welcoming us to Pittsburgh? Yes, indeed, Pittsburgh was greeting us with the sign of early Spring. Although anxious, in Pittsburgh I look forward to a respite from fear and persecution. To add glory to glory, I planted flowers in my garden. However, unable to forget those still in danger and suffering, I also made an offering of cut flowers and prayed.

On the night that the flowers I had planted began to bloom—I will never forget the intense blazing red of the flower Salvia—I had a strange dream, all in white. In the bright lights of Pittsburgh, nothing was preventing me from experiencing the world unfiltered, uncensored. I felt freedom in Pittsburgh, and this feeling extended into my very dreams.

In my dream, the trees, the forests, the cars, the buildings, all living things, even the skies and the oceans, even myself, disappeared in the glow of a warm white light. The loss of self was mesmerizing, drawing us in further.

In the dream, everyone, including myself, was floating irresistibly toward an unknown place I was disoriented and upset, but at the same time curious and hopeful. I didnt want to resist yet I was sad.

While I drifted, I heard moaning and crying without a source and in languages I didnt understand. I became aware of a bright white light.

It had to have a source, but it was impossible to distinguish anyone or anything in this light. I floated in a luminous sameness. Peering intensely, I could feel people all around me, but I could see nothing.

All was one and the same, differences were obliterated in the bright white light.

Even awake, we cannot know when something will end. In my dream, I never stopped floating. I remained in the merge, endlessly, never reaching the source.

The first thing I heard on awakening was the chatter of birds. When I opened the window a breeze greeted me with a faint fragrance. Beneath the warmth of the sun, in the sanctuary of Pittsburgh where I take refuge, life takes place amidst blooming flowers.


Shining at Midnight

Girl: Crow black midnight-
thick and deep.
moonshine floods me with bliss.
No, it’s not the light of the moon
but your tender kiss.

Boy: Ah so it is!
Fragile bloom from fond lips
falls on your skin,
illuminating you, giving you
strength, quietness, and calm.
Now you can dance

Girl: Traveling beneath the moon
far from the fray,
bathed in cool light,
I won’t choose to go alone.

Boy: It’s abundant!
It’s plentiful!
You can go with so many friends!
I’ll be with you, dear,
walking right close to your steps.
I won’t be far behind.

Girl: Shall we travel through this life
gathering kind and dear friends
in the light of the clement moon.
Or shall we go
where we can hear the shrieking cries
of those aching with need?

Boy: I will kiss their foreheads,
my heart open, its glow
like the moonlight touching them
with a soft and gentle illumination.

Girl: If only our smiles, words, and kisses
could salve their pain, then
we would smile from dawn to dusk.

Boy: We will join our hands
and the strength from our bodies
will enter their bodies and carry
them forward.

Girl: We will feed them half our food
with our caring hearts.

Boy: Shall we bring some seeds
along with our love?
Shall we dig a well?
With plows and seeds
their food will swell!

Girl: While love is the beginning,
if we add our compassion,
it brings a greater meaning to life.

Boy: I will join together
the moon of my kisses
and the Great Luna above.
Before it scatters its brightest beams,
before we set out on our journey,
may I, darling dear,
give you a little sweet kiss,
a sweet little flower of bliss.
Horacio Castellanos Moya is a leading Salvadoran novelist and short story writer. In 1997, following a brutal 12-year civil war, Castellanos Moya published a satirical novel called “El Asco,” which prompted death threats against him and his mother. He left the country and lived in Mexico and Germany, eventually accepting a residency with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in 2006. He has since published three novels in English, including the highly acclaimed “Senselessness.” He has a forthcoming novel next year. Here, Castellanos Moya reads a passage from his book “Dance with Snakes.”


Excerpt from Dance With Snakes

And off we went, at full speed, the yellow Chevrolet, the snakes and I, happy and anxious to get to other parts of the city, where we would begin the adventures of our new lives.

I made my way to the largest shopping mall in the city, where I hoped the yellow Chevrolet wouldn’t be noticed in the vast parking lot. I parked right in the middle of the lot, surrounded by other cars, so the security guards would have no reason to bother us. I covered the windshield with the cardboard again, turned on the flashlight, and took a bundle of papers out of the glove compartment. I wanted to uncover all the details of Don Jacinto’s life. I found his licence (sic), his registration, some old receipts, a beat-up address book, a pile of letters and a couple of newspaper clippings. He was barely forty-two years old, his wife’s house was located in a well-off suburb, and the letters had been sent by someone called Aurora, who seemed to have been his lover. I got ready to study these missives with inquisitive delight, when I noticed some movement in the corner of the car. They all appeared at the same time, slithering towards me. They didn’t move aggressively. In fact, I’d say it was with caution. There were only four of them, not half a dozen, as I’d thought the night before. Now that I could see the way they each looked more clearly, I was able to name them once and for all. The plump one with the cunning eyes would be Beti; the slender one who moved timidly, almost delicately, would be Loli; Valentina exuded sexuality with her iridescent skin; and little Carmela had an air of mystery about her.

“Good morning, ladies,’ I said. I lay down on a blanket to keep reading the letters and, to my great delight, I found Don Jacinto’s supply of rum next to me. I drank from a bottle, lit another cigarette and started to read. It was a typical tale of romance between a chief accountant and his secretary, both married, he, middle-aged, and she, in the prime of her youth. “It couldn’t have been just a soap opera story. Something more profound, more devastating must have happened to poor Don Jacinto,” I said to Beti.

She raised her flat head, narrowed her eyes even further, and wagged her forked tongue. “They killed her.”

“What!” I exclaimed, surprised that they already knew the whole story.

“Her husband killer her when he found out she was cheating on him with Don Jacinto,” she explained.

I took another long swig from the bottle. I put the letters and the other documents back in the glove compartment. It would be better if the ladies told me Don Jacinto’s story.

“He had her killed,” Valentina clarified, without moving. She was stretched out from under the steering wheel all the way to the back of the car.

Suddenly I realized that I was covered in sweat. Judging by the sweltering heat, it might have been noon already.

“He never told us the details,” Beti said “He’d only say that the husband had her killed in a staged robbery.”

So that was the burden that Don Jacinto had been carrying, I thought.

“But that wasn’t all,” Loli murmured indignantly, without uncurling herself. “The husband told Don Jacinto’s wife and daughter the whole story, including the murder, to make sure he really destroyed him.”

That was when I heard the sound of someone circling the car, banging on the body, asking where the old heap had come from. I slipped a piece of cardboard back from the driver’s side window. It was a pair of security guards from the mall. What a nuisance. The best thing would be to wait until they got tired of being out in the sun and went to eat. Carmela tensed. She was upright and started to hiss.

“Relax,” I whispered, “they’re going to leave.”

But they weren’t leaving. They were talking about calling a tow truck to take the car out of the parking lot. A piece of junk like this went against the shopping mall’s regulations, and if one of the bosses caught them doing nothing about it, they’d be reprimanded.

I got out of the car.

Surprised, they looked at me with a distrust that quickly turned to hostility. They ordered me to leave the parking lot immediately- this was private property, not a homeless shelter. I told them that I was just going to the supermarket to buy a bottle of water, but they said I was in no condition to walk down the aisled. What would decent people say? Hadn’t I noticed what I looked like? Couldn’t I smell the stink? They stood in front of me with their hands on their clubs, determined not to let me pass, to force me to leave. But I’d carelessly left the car door open. Ad the ladies couldn’t stand it. That was why Don Jacinto had always closed it so quickly when he got out of the car.

The security guards weren’t so composed once they saw that Beti had got out and was slithering towards them, hissing, her flat head raised, her eyes deadlier than ever. Terrified, they took off like a shot. But Carmela had a different nature; she was barely out of the car when she threw herself in the air and wrapped her body around one of the guards’ neck. He couldn’t even defend himself. The impact and the pressure on his windpipe killed him instantly.

“That’s enough,” I said, so they’d get back in the car.