September 3, 2014

Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum offers refuge to embattled authors


Four Pittsburgh houses being rehabilitated by City of Asylum, to be used as refuge for authors. Image via

Four Pittsburgh houses being rehabilitated by City of Asylum, to be used as refuge for authors. Image via

In 2004, Henry Reese opened the doors to his City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, offering a home to Chinese writer and poet Huang Xiang. In the 10 years since, 4 more writers have found refuge in this unlikely literary safe haven.

City of Asylum founder Henry Reese was inspired to create the artist refuge in his hometown following a lecture in the late 1990s by writer Salman Rushdie, who had faced deaths threats for his work “The Satanic Verses” a decade earlier. “I respect those that stand up against authority to keep them open and honest,” says Reese.

During a visit to Pittsburgh, Rushdie spoke of literary asylums that he and a group of world-renowned writers had prompted the governments of several European cities to create.

Carmen Gentile writes at Al Jazeera America that Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum is one of over 30 around the world, but what makes this one different is Reese; Pittsburgh’s is the only City of Asylum established by a private citizen. No state money or sponsorship has been provided. 

Reese decided to headquarter his own “asylum” on a rundown, potholed street suffering from decades of neglect and economic disparity. He bought from the city a onetime crack house long abandoned by its owner and made it the cornerstone of his project. After years of work on the house and fundraising from philanthropic groups and individual donors, City of Asylum was finally ready in 2004 to host its first artist in exile: Chinese writer and poet Huang Xiang.  

The popularity of Huang’s poetry readings spread the word about City of Asylum, and enabled Reese to buy more houses on the same street. Other writers who have made their home in Pittsburgh include Burmese activist Khet Mar, who had been imprisoned repeatedly before leaving her home to join the City of Asylum, Venezeluan writer Israel Centeno, and Iranian author Yaghoub Yadali, who was arrested and jailed for publishing “subversive material.”

Decisions as to who is accepted into the program are informal. Gentile quotes Reese, “Primarily it is just us saying, ‘Who is the best writer and who has the most trouble?’” Immigration lawyer helps writers and their families obtain the necessary visas.  

Gentile quotes Yadali on the impact City of Asylum has made on his life:

“I was waiting to be arrested every day,” he says, recalling those dark days from the comfort of his new home in Pittsburgh, a seemingly unlikely refuge for an Iranian dissident artist.

“Since coming here I have been able to write without worrying about censorship or persecution,” says Yadali, who discovered the Pittsburgh-area program after first coming to the United States in 2012 for fellowships from Harvard and the University of Iowa. “At first it was strange to write without those limits.”


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.