‘Violence against writers was the topic I was about to interview the novelist Salman Rushdie about at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12th. We were being introduced on stage when out of nowhere, like a scene from Mr Rushdie’s novel ‘Shalimar the Clown’, a knife-wielding man rushed onto the stage and began to stab him. Immediately audience members ran to the stage to defend him’.
Reflecting on the Chautauqua community for their remarkably quick and courageous response to the on-stage attack, Henry Reese reflected on the inspiration with which Salman Rushdie provided him and his wife Diane Samuels back in 1997. As a result of this, the pair decided to open City of Asylum Pittsburgh, a ground-breaking project to protect and promote persecuted writers:
‘Just as the audience in Chautauqua did, our community of readers stepped up to help: a lawyer, a doctor, a dentist, a film maker, and countless others offered their pro bono services to the persecuted writers. It became clear that there was a community of readers who would help sustain City of Asylum. We have now hosted 16 writers, and the organisation is almost entirely funded by the community, by the readers.’
In 2015, Henry Reece signed the ICORN membership agreement on behalf of City of Asylum Pittsburgh, enabling the organisation to join a global freedom of expression network as well as mobilise more safe havens for persecuted writers across the USA. Having been an ICORN Board Member since 2016, in his NYT essay Henry Reese also highlighted some of the challenges faced by ICORN:
‘Our organization’s parent group, the International Cities of Refuge Network, provides shelter and support in more than 80 cities. From 2020 and 2021, the number of applications to the organization for protection more than doubled to over 400. And in the last year, the group got thousands of emergency requests and applications from writers in Afghanistan.’
Towards the end of the NYT essay, Reese stressed that: ‘Every city should offer refuge to writers and artists. It’s the least we can do’ and concluded with words from Rushdie’s inspirational speech in Pittsburgh in 1997:
‘The best way of fighting and responding to the kind of threat that came my way is to show that it doesn’t work. To show that the ordinary business of writing and reading and discussing and publishing and buying books just continues’.
You can read the full version of Henry Reese’s essay for the NYT here.
To find out more about City of Asylum Pittsburgh, follow this link.