City of Asylum: Pittsburgh

There are pockets of unusual dignity, distinction, and ambition in Pittsburgh, if not necessarily pockets of weirdness. I'll call them mysteries of Pittsburgh, with a nod to Pittsburgh's most celebrated writing son. Last night, I had the good fortune to experience one of them: I attended a reading by and reception for the writer George Packer, often known for his work in The New Yorker and currently the author of a new collection of his journalism, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade, at Pittsburgh's City of Asylum venue in the Mexican War Streets.

I am a huge admirer of George's work; we have been acquainted since we were teenagers, and I have read and enjoyed almost everything he has ever published. It was an enormous privilege to see him here in Pittsburgh, even if it was only for a brief visit.

The real joy of the evening, however, was getting acquainted with City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. The City of Asylum network is a worldwide movement to provide safe haven for writers who are threatened in and therefore exiled from their own countries. Pittsburgh's CoA was the fourth founded in the US, and it is led by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels. Henry is a Homestead native and made his mark in the business world with the Reese Brothers telemarketing firm. Diane is a sculptor.

Their collection of houses on Sampsonia Way is home to an impressive and inspiring small group of writers, as well as to readings, concerts, and now an online magazine called, appropriately, Sampsonia Way. On the drive over to the North Side, the radio carried the signal of the weekly radio program that features the Steelers' Santonio Holmes, who spoke with brightness about the challenges that the team faces after four disheartening defeats in a row. Santonio soon faded into nothingness, literally and metaphorically. On Sampsonia Way, I met Henry and Diane and listened with several dozen other Pittsburghers and the CoA residents (including the writer known in George's work by the pseudonym Hnin Se) as George Packer read from his long August 2008 piece on the brutal regime in Burma.

The Steelers bring hope and joy (and this week, sadness and anger) to millions of people in Western Pennsylvania and around the world. Henry Reese and Diane Samuels and their colleagues in the City of Asylum network touch, directly, far fewer people. Yet their dignity, distinction, and ambition, and that of the writers they help, at least matches and in many respects exceeds that of the players and coaches who appear on the Heinz Field gridiron. Sharing a tiny bit of their work made me feel as if I were part of a city filled with true nobility, which is a feeling that I don't get even from Super Bowl and Stanley Cup victories. As George Packer wrote on his blog:
[T]he City of Asylum headquarters, which is his home ... [is] one of the mysteries of Pittsburgh, a house covered over in Chinese poetry, another in Burmese prose, on a street where a telemarketer devotes his life to giving a few of the world’s many Huang Xiangs [the Chinese poet] and Hnin Ses [the Burmese writer] a safe place to work.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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