City of Asylum
The City of Asylum program provides safe haven for writers whose voices are muffled by censorship, or who are living with the threat of imprisonment or assassination. In 2001, City of Asylum Las Vegas was founded, the first such program in the United States. Groups in Ithaca, New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have since formed similar programs.
Originally, asylum cities operated under the auspices of the International Parliament of Writers in Paris, which oversaw the greater worldwide asylum network of some 35 cities, most of which are in Europe. Upon the dissolution in 2004 of the IPW, the International Cities of Refuge Network was formed in order to serve as an umbrella organization and information clearinghouse for local asylum programs worldwide.
A City of Asylum is a free space, unfettered by censorship or political repression, in which writers who have undergone such hardship may safely practice their craft. Writers are hosted by a city or region for a period of one to two years. The writer receives a $45,000 annual stipend.
Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He was also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine, and frequently contributed to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm. Naji has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Hossein M. Abkenar, Iran
Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar is an Iranian fiction writer and screenwriter. His 2006 novel, A Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Railroad Station, received numerous awards and has been translated into multiple languages. His screenplays include No One Knows About Persian Cats, which earned a prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Abkenar’s work often explores violence, revolution, politics, and the role of women in society. His books are banned in Iran, where they have been stripped from bookstores and libraries.
Moniro Ravanipour, Iran
Novelist and short story writer Moniro Ravanipour was born in Booshehr in 1952. She has had eight books published in Iran, and translations of some of her work have also appeared in the West. Her story "Satan's Stones" was selected for the groundbreaking anthology of Iranian literature, Strange Times, My Dear (Arcade, 2005). Among her novels in Farsi are The Drowned, Heart of Steel, and Gypsy by Fire. Ravanipour is a member of the Association of Iranian Writers and has been invited to give readings in Austria, France (Iranian Artists Festival), Germany (Berlin Conference and the Goethe Institute), Sweden, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. From January to June 2007, she was a visiting fellow in the International Writers Program at Brown University's Watson Institute. Ravanipour's work, considered nonconformist and honest in its portrayal of Iranians, has elicited government scrutiny in recent years. In late 2006, all copies of her current work were stripped from bookstore shelves in Iran in a countrywide police swoop. Prior to this episode, "Satan‘s Stones" had been banned. Two other novels are currently under review by Iran‘s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Er Tai Gao, China
Writer, critic, and painter Er Tai Gao was born in 1935 near Nanjing. A former member of the Council of the National Association of Art and Literary Theory, he is widely known in China for his contributions to aesthetic theory. In 1957, he published an essay, "On Beauty," that challenged the prevailing Communist stance on aesthetics and objectivity. Gao was quickly branded a "rightist" and sentenced to three years of hard labor in the Gobi desert, where nearly three-quarters of his fellow prisoners died. Over the next forty years, as the Cultural Revolution overtook China and ensuing campaigns toward "eradicating spiritual pollution" rose in its wake, Gao's strong humanist views, which he expressed through his writing and teaching, made him a target of the Chinese government. He was sentenced again to hard labor from 1966 to 1972, and later dismissed from his duties at Lanzhou University and prohibited from writing and publishing. He was arrested in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square protests, and, after spending nearly a year in prison, was again prohibited from teaching and publishing. In 1992, he and his wife, the painter Maya Gao, escaped to Hong Kong and eventually settled in the United States. Gao's published works include The Struggle of Beauty and Beauty, The Symbol of Freedom. His memoir, In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp was published by HarperCollins in 2009.
Syl Cheney-Coker, Sierra Leone
Poet and novelist Syl Cheney-Coker was born in Freetown in 1945 and educated at the Universities of Oregon and Wisconsin. He has written extensively about the condition of exile and the view of Africa from an African abroad, and his work has been translated into ten languages. Among his novels is The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar, which was a finalist for the coveted British Commonwealth Prize. Formerly a fellow at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, from 2005 to 2006 he was the Lion Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa-Aurora Foundation for European-American Relations in California. In the early 1990s, after living abroad for over a decade, Cheney-Coker returned to Freetown to become editor of The Vanguard, a progressive newspaper. After the military coup of 1997, he was targeted as a dissident and barely escaped with his life. Cheney-Coker decided to return to a somewhat more stable Sierra Leone in 2003, noting that, "after a while, exile is neither justifiable nor tolerable.