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Pittsburgh's City of Asylum festival gives voice to stifled writers

| Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer
Jimmy Katz
Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer

Writing is not typically a stress-free job.

Yet, there are places in the world where the stresses are far more serious than deadlines.

In places like Bangladesh, Honduras, Mexico, China and Russia, it's frighteningly common for journalists, novelists, even poets, to be persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and/or assassinated for what they've written.

A few of them end up at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, a refuge for persecuted writers. And every year, a free concert is put on to honor and showcase persecuted writers around the world, celebrated with a night of live poetry and jazz that's utterly unlike any other event in Pittsburgh (or maybe anywhere).

Silvia Duarte was one of those writers. Now she's the program manager for City of Asylum, helping to assemble the Jazz Poetry Concert.

“I was a journalist in Guatemala for seven years,” she says. “I was an editor for a Sunday magazine of the best known newspaper in the country. We did what we called literary journalism — political, social, economic issues embedded in stories. I came to Pittsburgh with the second (refugee) writer of City of Asylum (Salvadorean novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya). We were a couple at the time. ... I was a beneficiary of the program. Because I loved the organization, I got involved.

“I started Sampsonia Way (online) magazine. Here, I tried to do the same thing for persecuted writers in exile, writers facing issues in their own country.”

This year, on Sept. 12, the 11th Jazz Poetry Concert will take place in West Park on the North Side, behind the National Aviary.

For years, it was simply held in the alley on Sampsonia Way, a narrow thoroughfare in the historic Mexican War Streets. That's also where the most visible manifestation of City of Asylum is — the homes for exiled artists, which have become very visible art projects of their own: “House Poem,” “Winged House,” “Pittsburgh-Burma House,” “Jazz House.”

Jazz and poetry might not be the most obvious way to publicize the plight of persecuted writers, but it's worked so far.

It began, Duarte notes, because the first writer they hosted, Huang Xiang, was a natural performer. When some young girls asked why he was covering his rowhouse in strange markings (“House Poem”), City of Asylum founder Henry Reese asked Xiang to read it aloud.

“The girls were so moved by that,” Duarte says. “Henry saw a great opportunity. We can understand each other, even with the language barrier. He wanted to take it to the community and thought the best way to do it was with music.

“He started to look for collaborators and found (legendary saxophonist) Oliver Lake, (asking) ‘We have this Chinese poet, who doesn't speak English and is deaf from being tortured. We don't have money. Do you want to come and play at this festival?”

Lake agreed. He's usually the music director and uses his jazz-world connections to draw in fellow musicians of some stature. This year, Lake is stepping back a bit to feature special guest Vijay Iyer, whose improvisational brilliance is showcased in straight-ahead jazz and with the incorporation of Indian classical music forms.

This concert is dubbed “MacArthur in the Park,” because it features three MacArthur “Genius” fellows — jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and poets Heather McHugh and Pittsburgh's Terrance Hayes. According to the MacArthur Foundation, this is the first time three “Genius” fellows have performed at the same event.

Audience participation is a tradition — each attendee gets a placard with the name of a persecuted, imprisoned or murdered writer from somewhere in the world, which are used at various points in the show.

The show is still free, with costs covered by grants and donations. “We want to make sure it's for everybody,” Duarte says.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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