Photo courtesy of City of Asylum

Supporters packed City of Asylum’s Alphabet City Tent Saturday, Oct. 18 in celebration of non-profit’s 10th anniversary.

By Nick Buzzelli   

After attending a discussion led by British novelist Salman Rushdie regarding his reemergence into society because of the backlash that emerged from his novel, The Satanic Verses, Henry Reese and Diane Samuels were captivated by the ideology behind City of Asylum, an organization that provides sanctuary to writers who are under the threat of persecution because of their works of literature.

That was in 1997.

Seven years later, the two Northside residents were able to purchase six buildings along Sampsonia Way in Central Northside that now serve as a refuge for exiled authors and their families.

As a result of its continued efforts to help essayists and poets become self-sufficient over the previous decade, Oct. 18 was declared “City of Asylum Day” in Pittsburgh.

“The City of Pittsburgh Day proclamation describes Sampsonia Way as “a tiny Northside alley,” famous throughout the world as a haven for creative expression,” said Nick Courage, City of Asylum’s Marketing Manager. “This recognition really puts into perspective everything the organization has accomplished in just 10 years.”

As part of its recent 10th anniversary celebration, exiled writers Hung Xiang, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Khet Mar, Israel Centeno and Yaghoub Yadali each read passages from their novels in the Alphabet City Tent, a literary center that serves as a focal point for seminars, workshops and performances at the non-profit.

City of Asylum events that engage local residents are “central” to the local institution’s mission, according to Courage.

“During the celebration last Saturday, we announced that in 2015, City of Asylum’s publishing arm, Sampsonia Way, an online journal of free speech, literature, and justice, will continue its expansion into publishing banned books in translation and anthologies of contemporary writing from countries where free speech is under threat.,” Courage said. “Our hope is that these publishing events, like our events on the Northside, will help spread our message of freedom of creative expression, both within our community and internationally.”

Looking back 10 years, Reese could have never imagined that the initiative he co-founded would mean so much to Central Northside.

“We had no idea that a program providing sanctuary to endangered, exiled writers would resonate so deeply in the community. We only thought about the writers and making a new home for them, and then we discovered that our own neighborhood was being transformed in the process,” Reese said. “Looking forward to our next 10 years in the Northside, we would like to grow our writer sanctuary program, so it can support a half-dozen or more exiled writers concurrently. We also hope our neighborhood will be an inspiring community to live in, where art and the imagination are central.”