away from home: Yi Ping, his wife and Russell Banks.
Side of Paradise
persecuted in their home countries find safe and nurturing
havens in designated Cities of Asylum such as
Ithacaand soon, perhaps, Saratoga Springs
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
part-time at Cornell University, continued to work on his
own writing and translated poems by Ithaca writers into Chinese.
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
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
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.”
to protect: ICOAs Bridget Meens.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.”