Instep Today

City of Asylum in Pittsburgh provides refuge to abandoned writers

Instep Today
By Buraq Shabbir
Fri, 12, 19

A safe zone for writers, it is the largest writers’ sanctuary in the world, shares one of their resident writers Tuhin Das from Bangladesh, who was forced to leave his country.

There are certain restrictions when it comes to free speech and this remains a pertinent issue even in today’s globalised, interconnected and interracial world. Artists, particularly writers, who are an important section of any society, are deeply affected by this narrative and there are many of them who have risked it all for freedom of speech. Absolute freedom of expression comes to writers at a heavy price; their writings are prohibited from publication and/or are forced to leave their home countries for having a voice.

To foster creativity and encourage these writers to continue with their passion, there are multiple art spaces around the world that are facilitating such individuals.

In Pakistan, Vasl Artists’ Association, which is operational since 2001, offers residency programs for national and international artists including writers and hosts a magnitude of cultural and creative exchanges. Other organizations working to promote free speech include Heinrich Boll Stiftung in Islamabad, Murree Museum Artist Residency in Murree, and T2F and TDF Ghar in Karachi, among others.

However, the largest writers’ sanctuary in the world right now is the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is providing refuge to abandoned writers. I recently had a chance to visit the place during my trip to the United States. Such spaces are essential to encourage free thinking and to experiment and generate quality work.

“We PROTECT by providing sanctuary to endangered literature writers so they can continue to write. We CELEBRATE by presenting free, globally-focused literary and performing arts programs. We BUILD an inclusive community that is a model for the world,” states the official booklet released by the City of Asylum to celebrate ‘15 years of giving voice’.

Instep got hold of one of the resident writers, named Tuhin Das, who was born in Bangladesh but has now moved to Pittsburgh to follow his passion. He is a poet with seven Bengali poetry books and other works to his names while presently he is working to publish his own poetry book in English.

“I published and edited few magazines in Bangladesh that were focused on anti-religious activities, due to which I was attacked in 2006,” Tuhin began to share his story as we sat for an interview in the City of Asylum. “In 2013, there was a big protest in Bangladesh; I was one of the organizers in my hometown and for that I received threats. Later on, I somehow got enrolled for a course in Pittsburgh and moved here.

Since April 2016, I am staying at the City of Asylum where I work as a resident writer.”

Reflecting on the last three years he has spent at the place, Tuhin informed that he is doing a lot of writing including a novel in his native language and a diary/journal, surrounding his residency, that is yet to be translated.

He also mentioned that he has written a long essay around the subject of justice system in Bangladesh which, according to him, is somewhat similar to that of Pakistan.

“I was forced to leave my country and that means I lost my audience,” he furthered, adding, “Initially I felt it wasn’t working for me as I was out of my country but then I got a lot of support and everything that I needed being a writer. I mean, I could never think of writing a novel about a minority family in Bangladesh while I was there.”

City of Asylum served as a foundation of Tuhin’s life in the U.S. and it has given him a new life. He lives and works here, also as an assistant accountant, which is another way the platform provides support to him. He is pleased to be a part of the community of writers coming from different backgrounds and bringing in a variety of perspectives.

“It is very important to create more spaces like the City of Asylum; it is great for learning and exchanging ideas. American literature is very different from South Asian literature and hence it is a very useful experience for me,” he expressed.

City of Asylum offers around 180 programs to artists for free and it has certainly transformed many lives. Artists who were forced to abandon their home countries for varied reasons and/or were on the verge of giving up found a place that has served as a beacon of hope for them. We learnt this as we spoke to Ned Moore, Communications Manager at the City of Asylum, who shared instances of writers who have been affiliated with them for years.

“It is a hub for free thought and cultural exchange,” noted Ned, informing that presently they have four writers – from Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh – residing with them. “It is a centre for literary community that provides space for events and exchanges promoting art, literature, music, film, etc.”

Ned admitted that they often take this freedom of expression in the U.S. for granted. “Though that’s not always true but we realize that it is easy for Americans to take that freedom for granted but not so much for others and the City of Asylum is the celebration of that freedom.”

Founded by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, who started it out of their living room, the City of Asylum is a grass-root organization that works majorly on grants.

“The reason it exists and thrives is because of the organic growth and support of the community and the writers, who have contributed to the success and the fruitfulness of our work. We even extend the residency beyond two years until the writers find a job and/or house because we aren’t government funded,” concluded Ned, who is super proud to be associated with such a cause.