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Home away from home: Yi Ping, his wife and Russell Banks.

This Side of Paradise
Writers persecuted in their home countries find safe and nurturing havens in designated “Cities of Asylum” such as Ithaca—and soon, perhaps, Saratoga Springs
By Kathryn Mora

It may be the first time Ithaca has been described in such Edenic imagery, but Yi Ping has reason to say such glowing things about his adoptive city.

“Being in Ithaca reminds me of a famous Chinese story from 2000 years ago: In it, there is a beautiful garden, a paradise far away from real life. People live in this gorgeous natural surrounding. They live their life and are never involved in economic or political competitions,” says the exiled Chinese poet and essayist, who recently completed his two-year residency in the Ithaca City of Asylum program (ICOA).

The writer, who was repeatedly subjected to political interrogations and investigations in Beijing after contributing to pro-democracy journals and participating in civil resistance, found political asylum in the United States in January 1997. In September 2001, the International Network of Cities of Asylum helped him obtain a residency in Ithaca, where he taught Chinese part-time at Cornell University, continued to work on his own writing and translated poems by Ithaca writers into Chinese.

“The City of Asylum is very important because the writer with different opinions is persecuted in his own country,” says Yi Ping. “But in a City of Asylum, he or she can find protection and be free to write. Because of aid, I have had a chance to use this two-year residency to quietly think, write and work. This is why it is so important for me and my family. I feel very lucky. Without the help, it would be impossible for me to write.”

The suppression of creative material thought to be disruptive to the powers-that-be is a worldwide phenomenon. Fortunately, organizations such as INOCA are striving to combat the problem, creating niches in which writers and thinkers can work without fear of retribution—though it is often an uphill battle. Sadly, it may be some time before an Ithaca crops up in Yi Ping’s homeland, but the network of asylum- providing cities is expanding: While it may be currently impossible to create that beautiful garden in Beijing, the odds may be better in Saratoga Springs.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and part-time Saratoga Springs resident Russell Banks has been the president of INOCA since March 2001, and he hopes that the Spa City can provide more for foreign authors than a pleasant day at the track. He believes that Saratoga Springs is very well suited to become this nation’s third city of asylum (Ithaca and Las Vegas being the other two).

According to Banks, the Saratoga Springs program will be modeled on Ithaca’s, which has been quite successful. And, as the two towns are similar in composition, he believes the program to be a good fit: Both communities are cosmopolitan and relatively affluent, with robust arts councils and lots of people interested in the arts; and both are college towns. An added plus for Saratoga Springs is the easy trip to New York City.

Like the Ithaca City of Asylum, the Saratoga Springs City of Asylum will be set up as a not-for-profit program and most likely will partner with Skidmore College, as INOCA has with Cornell University. This partnership enables the writer to have a stipend between $30,000 and $50,000 (depending upon the cost of living in the specific area), health insurance, visa sponsorship and a part-time job at the college or university.

Although the Saratoga Springs City of Asylum is still in its initial planning stages, Banks plans to explore financial support for the project. He plans to meet with the mayor of Saratoga Springs and the Skidmore College staff, including Robert Boyers, director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute, editor of Salmagundi magazine and professor of English. Also, he will meet with the staff of the University at Albany, including William Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, as well as founder of the New York State Writers Institute. Banks also plans to speak with heads of corporations, organizations and private individuals to discuss funding.

Even with the support of such figures, Banks notes that setting up Cities of Asylum in the United States is more difficult than in Europe. “Europe has more autonomy when it comes to creating a City of Asylum. If the mayor or minister of culture feels this is a useful thing to do, they do it,” says Banks. “Cities [of asylum] in Europe already have housing, insurance, etc. However, in the United States you have to put together a coalition, an arts organization on a local level, and find an ideal energetic person who makes it happen, much like [project manager] Bridget Meeds in the Ithaca City of Asylum program. Also, the living stipend venue must be on a continuous basis, not just a one-time thing. In some cases, writers teach at the university or college, but for some people in residency that isn’t right for them.”

Project to protect: ICOA’s Bridget Meens.

To some, this zealous attention to the needs of a handful of underknown foreign writers may seem excessive. In the United States, it seems, the worst fate that can befall an author is to have his book remaindered, a damning indifference. In too many other countries, however, reaction to an author’s work can truly be a matter of life and death. It is exactly this matter that the International Network of Cities of Asylum was created to address.

In 1991, an informal group of writers and intellectuals, who called themselves Carrefour des Littératures, invited 60 additional writers and intellectuals from five continents to meet each November in Strasbourg, France. They wanted to discuss how to deal with the increased intolerance toward writers after the threat to Salman Rushdie’s life by Islamic fundamentalists who believed that the author had defamed Islam in his 1989 work The Satanic Verses. (Writers attending the first meeting included Beryl Bainbridge, Toni Morrison, Jacques Derrida and Christopher Hitchens.)

After the assassination of writer Tahar Djaout in Algeria in July 1993, the Carrefour des Littératures published a petition to create an organization to assist persecuted writers. More than 300 writers, including Banks, signed the petition. And in 1994, the International Parliament of Writers was founded; its name was changed this year to International Network of Cities of Asylum.

The network is based in Paris, and its mission is to protect writers from being persecuted for expressing unpopular views, to act against censorship and to save lives threatened by authoritarian governments, warlords or religious extremists.

Presently, there are 30 Cities of Asylum worldwide, including Amsterdam, Berlin, Caen, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Venice, Vienna, Mexico City and the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Granada, Malaga and Seville, along with the two cities in the United States.

The headquarters in Paris maintains the worldwide network. Everything is centralized, including the selection process of the candidates. Writers make applications to the headquarters stating the censorship they have experienced; the staff then verifies the information and tries to match the right person with the right country.

“We rely on the worldwide community of writers to contribute to the selection process, a group that is both big and small. We all know who the writers and intellectuals are and who they aren’t,” says inocA board member Anne Berger, a professor of French literature at Cornell University. “They are the people who fight for the freedom of expression as human-rights activists. You can read their words. You know who they are. Even so, anyone in the network has a right to say ‘no’ to a prospective City of Asylum candidate.”

In other words, network members know when a writer just wants a green card: “The International Network of Cities of Asylum guarantees the writer,” says Banks.

Berger elaborates: “We come to the aid of writers and intellectuals with established and available records, who are being persecuted, censored, imprisoned or exiled because of their human rights and pro-democracy stance, or simply because they upset the dominant discourse in areas and countries which are inimical to them for structural or conjunctural reason. And, as you know, there are plenty.”

The network also has a link with Amnesty International in order to learn about writers who are in prison and unable to write. In addition, the 80-year-old PEN [Poets, Essayists and Novelists] American Center, located in New York City, refers writers to the International Network of the Cities of Asylum. PEN works to protect the written word whenever it is endangered and defend writers and journalists worldwide who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. Protests against book- banning in schools in the United States are also handled through PEN.

“Many of the displaced writers are members of PEN,” says Larry Siems, director of PEN’s Freedom to Write and International programs. “There are times when I have notified Russell Banks about a person who is having his or her human rights impeded and needs a safe haven to live. They sometimes end up becoming part of the network. City of Asylum takes over where PEN leaves off.”

Though the network is an interconnected and growing one, it is one in constant need of supervision—and, like the authors it serves, it is in need of protection itself. As president, Banks says he meets with writers throughout the world to develop and maintain Cities of Asylum.

“In Mexico, when the government changed their presidents, the politicians who were pro-City of Asylum changed too,” Banks says. “I needed to resurrect the City of Asylum, make sure it didn’t fall apart because new politicians were in power. I needed to renegotiate—keep it alive.”

That ongoing administrative challenge is not exclusive to other nations; it must be met here in the United States, as well. Fears that funds would dry up in a fit of post-Sept. 11 xenophobia proved unfounded, but there still are great concerns about the political fallout of the attacks.

“Our main area of concern—and it is indeed one that could jeopardize our operations, both locally and internationally—is the new immigration and visa policy put in place by the U.S. in the wake of 9/11,” says Berger. “Obtaining a visa for a foreign writer has become a long, tricky and hazardous process.”

Despite these day-to-day frustrations and concerns, despite the amount of hustling, negotiating and politicking involved in establishing and maintaining these stateside cities of asylum, participants claim the result is well worth the effort, and the rewards well worth the struggle. So, people like Russell Banks will continue to advance the cause and expand the network, in hopes that people will say of Saratoga Springs, as Bridget Meens says of Ithaca, “It’s very nice to have a project about global connection instead of global disconnection,” and in hopes that a liberated writer will soon say of Saratoga Springs what Yi Ping says of his new city:

“Ithaca seems just like this paradise to me. It is a very beautiful place. I hope that a place like Ithaca can exist in China’s future, and that Chinese people can live someday like people in Ithaca live.”

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