Freedom of the Pen
A cross-campus partnership brings exiled writers to Ithaca through the City of Asylum program.
by Kimberlyn David '06
What could Las Vegas, that emblem of spectacle, possibly have in common with homespun Ithaca? While you won't find Elvis impersonators, casinos, and wedding chapels dotting every block in downtown Ithaca, the "gorges" city nonetheless has at least two things in common with the "glitter gulch": an appreciation of the written word and a desire to protect freedom of expression.
Writers in exile Reza Daneshvar and Yi Ping
Through Cities of Asylum, an international network of 34 cities around the world, Las Vegas and Ithaca shelter writers who have been persecuted and who are living in exile. In 2000 Las Vegas became the first U.S. city to join the network, with Ithaca signing on as number two a year later. Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) transpired from the efforts of poet Bridget Meeds '91 -- a frequent contributor to ICQ -- and Anne Berger, a French literature professor at Cornell.
Before they met, Meeds and Berger had each been working on her own to establish Ithaca as a City of Asylum. Meeds found inspiration in a newspaper story about exiled poets showcasing their work in a Vegas casino. Why not Ithaca, she wondered. "Ithaca has a long tradition of providing refuge," she says, noting that the city was a hub on the Underground Railroad and that it also welcomed European scientists fleeing Nazism during World War II. After inquiring with the International Parliament of Writers, the Paris-based organization that founded Cities of Asylum in 1994, Meeds was referred to Berger, an IPW member who wanted to start a branch of the organization at Cornell.
Meeds and Berger worked with Cornell's Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy to establish a board of directors -- composed mostly of students, faculty, and staff from CU and IC -- and created a plan. Both campuses were to serve as forums for ICOA's resident writers, who would teach courses and give public readings during the two-year residency program. Cornell would be the primary financier, paying for the writers' travel expenses, visa sponsorships, and part-time teaching salaries; Ithaca College would provide additional annual funding from the provost's office. Individual and corporate donors help ICOA meet its budgetary needs, as do Hobart and William Smith Colleges. With the money it raises, ICOA is able to help writers find apartments and provides yearly housing stipends.
In 2001 ICOA welcomed its first writer, Yi Ping (ICQ 2003/3, "China Connection"). A poet, playwright, essayist, fiction writer, and activist with the Students' Democracy Movement in Beijing, Yi Ping was persecuted following the Tiananmen Square uprising in China. He lost his university teaching job, and the government censored and destroyed his published work. Yi Ping left China in 1991. He and his wife and young son lived in Poland for six years before moving to New York City when they received political asylum from the United States
Reza Daneshvar is finishing his term as ICOA's second writer. A pro-democracy Iranian playwright, novelist, and theater educator, Daneshvarhad been subject to continual intimidation by the fundamentalist government of Ayatollah Khomeini and fled Iran when the threat of imprisonment or execution became dire. In 1982 he obtained refugee status in France, where he had lived until Ithaca.
For the first time in their careers Yi Ping and Daneshvar have seen their work published in English. IC students who took a 2003 writing class with Jerry Mirskin translated Yi Ping's latest book of poetry, The Speech of Pebbles. It was published in March 2004 by Ithaca's Vista Periodista, which also published the English version of Daneshvar's Mahboobeh and Ahl, the story of an Iranian woman and the demon who haunts her.
Meeting in Ithaca: Barb Adams, Yi Ping, Salman Rushdie, Lin Zhou, and Paul Hamill
Yi Ping's ICOA tenure ended in 2003, but he and his family are now permanent U.S. residents and call Ithaca home. Daneshvar teaches Persian (Farsi) in Cornell's Department of Near East Studies, which is working with ICOA volunteers to help him extend his visa. If it can't be extended, he may return to Paris.
Paul Hamill, IC's director of academic funding and sponsored programs -- who also served as ICOA's first chair -- says resident writers such as Yi Ping and Daneshvar are important the broader community as well as to students, because they encourage dialogue about human rights and freedom of expression. Cornell's Berger agrees. "ICOA fosters communication at the global and the local levels," she says. "It brings the world into Ithaca."