A Safe House of One’s Own

By Edith Mirante 1 May 2015

When I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an American city known for its universities and museums, a few months ago, I heard about a “Burma House” associated with a program for exiled writers called City of Asylum. I took a bus across one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges and walked a few blocks to a narrow, quiet street called Sampsonia Way. Chinese calligraphy in white paint adorning one house and colorful images of rice farmers, a monk and a soldier on another indicated that I had found the right location.

Inspired by a program founded in Europe by Salman Rushdie which offers safe havens for writers in danger, Diane Samuels and Henry Reese established City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COAP) on Sampsonia Way in 2004. The program’s first writer in residence was Huang Xiang, a Chinese poet who expressed his joy at finally evading censorship by covering the front of his house with his poems.

COAP now owns a series of houses on the street and presents outdoor jazz concerts, readings and other events, as well as publishing Sampsonia Way magazine. Exiled writers in residence live there for two years rent-free with their families and receive other support from the program, including medical benefits. The current writer in residence is Yaghoub Yadali, a novelist from Iran.

Khet Mar, a former political prisoner who is the author of fiction, nonfiction and poetry was COAP’s third writer in residence, from 2009 to 2011. Her husband, artist Than Htay, painted the exterior of their house (now the program’s headquarters, called Pittsburgh-Burma House) with a vivid mural based on her text about a dream of floating through a white light which symbolized the unity of all beings and transcendence of suffering.

“In the bright light of Pittsburgh, nothing was preventing me from experiencing the world unfiltered, uncensored. I felt freedom in Pittsburgh, and this feeling extended into my very dream,” she wrote. With reference to Picasso’s “Guernica” the side of the house depicts Burma and the front of the house, Pittsburgh. Major rivers of both places, the Irrawaddy and the Allegheny, join at the corner.

Khet Mar is currently a journalist with Radio Free Asia. Her literary works include the novel “Wild Snowy Night” and the limited edition artist-printed book “The Souls of Fallen Flowers.” In 2014 COAP published her novel “Night Birds” (which had been banned in Burma in 1993). Recently this contributor interviewed Khet Mar about her COAP experience.

How did you go from Burma to Pittsburgh?

I didn’t know about COAP when I applied for a residency at Scholars at Risk. They and COAP informed me that I was selected as a writer in residence at COAP. I went to Pittsburgh with my family directly from Burma in 2009.

What was it like to live in that house on that street?

It was like I was in a safe and warm place where I could also write many stories. I didn’t need to worry for my sons in that street as everybody knew who we were and as all of them took care of us with warm hearts. It was the most peaceful time in my life for my family although I still had to worry and feel sad for my friends and my people back home.

Did you produce written work while you lived there?

I wrote a lot while I was there, short stories, essays and poems. It was a good atmosphere for a writer. The difficulty of writing for me there was not because of the atmosphere, but because of my feeling for my country and people.

You’ve said that “being homesick can be a good thing for a writer.” How did such feelings affect your writing in exile?

I missed my country and people when I saw the similarities and differences in nature, culture and other things. When I saw these similarities and differences between my country and America, I wanted to write about what was similar or what was different between the two places where I have lived. Most of my writings in Pittsburgh were based on my homesickness. If I didn’t have homesickness, I couldn’t write that much.

How long did it take for the painting/story to be completed on the house?

I wrote that short essay soon after my arrival in Pittsburgh. I read it at the Jazz Poetry Concert in 2009 and after that, Henry Reese, founder of COAP asked my husband to illustrate it on the house where we lived. He started painting it in late summer of 2009 and had to stop due to the cold in winter. He painted it again in the spring of 2010. It took about four months in total. He painted it by himself with no help.

Did you meet other writers and artists when you lived there?

I met a lot of writers and artists when we lived there as COAP has reading series’ every month and I was invited for readings by universities in Pennsylvania and sometimes out of state.

What is your impression of the literary and arts scene in Burma these days?

Writers can do many literary talks, discussions, poetry readings and literature festivals that we couldn’t do in the past, but there is less space for them in magazines and journals. For the artists, they also have more opportunities to show their art works and they can express their [artistic] abilities.

Do you have advice for young writers from Burma, living in Burma or overseas?

I don’t think they need my advice as I am not a special writer. I have opened my eyes, ears and heart to receive and to write, it is enough for me. They would be the same if they do the same as me, I guess.

Edith Mirante is the author of “The Wind in the Bamboo” and founder of Project Maje.