Be interested, not interesting. It’s one of those motherly sorts of advice I stumbled upon recently, and it really struck a chord after visiting the home of Diane Samuels and Henry Reese. From exploring the intricacies of cracks and histories of an alleyway, to completely converting that alleyway into a cultural hub for art, literature and political asylum, Diane and Henry are interested, and they are interesting — but they are also gracious and giving, attributes which shine through their work in founding the City of Asylum.
In 1997, controversial author Salman Rushdie lectured in Pittsburgh as part of his re-emergence into public life and referenced the International Cities of Refuge. Diane, a visual artist, and Henry, an entrepreneur, were both in the audience and both were inspired. It took several emails, over the course of several years, but in 2004, Henry and Diane opened the doors of City of Asylum, on their street, Sampsonia Way, in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. For many years, their home was the hub of programming.
The mission of COA is to provide sanctuary to literary writers who were exiled and under threat of persecution. The program offers longterm housing, insurance, legal assistance, and publishing opportunities, so authors can truly begin anew. Sampsonia Way was once a derelict row of houses and a hub for drug sales, but through their home, and through COA, Henry and Diane have transformed the street into a walking library.
When Chinese poet Huang Xiang arrived in 2004, he used the facade of his residence, neighboring Diane and Henry’s home, to showcase Chinese calligraphies of his poems — a bold display of his new freedom. This “House Poem” led to the development of a series of asylum houses, each with text-based murals. City of Asylum recently expanded to include Alphabet City. What was once an abandoned Masonic hall has been reborn as the permanent home for COA programming, as well as a bookstore featuring works in translation, and the Casellula Wine & Cheese Cafe.
One lecture led to an entire community of creativity, cultural exchange, activism and artistic expression. Being interested truly does go a long way. —Quelcy
Image Above: Henry Reese and Diane Samuels, founders of City of Asylum, a sanctuary for international literary writers in jeopardy, stand in front of the Pittsburgh Burma House, one of the writers-in-residence houses they created near their own home. Burmese writer, Khet Mar, wrote a story that blended her Burmese existence with her new Pittsburgh reality. Her husband, Than Htay Maung, illustrated the story on the walls of their residency as part of the City of Asylum program.