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This Is What It Looks Like to Support Free Speech

Violence against writers was the topic I was about to interview the novelist Salman Rushdie about at the Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 12. We were being introduced onstage 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.

It was a remarkable response. That rush of people leaping from their seats was the opposite of the so-called “bystander effect,” when individuals do nothing, relying on others to help. I would call it “the reader effect.” Reading creates empathy, and Chautauqua is an intentional community of readers. The intuitive response of an empathetic community is to help.

The “reader effect” was the reason I was onstage with Mr. Rushdie in the first place. He had given a talk in Pittsburgh in April of 1997, during which he said that the true fight “is not just about my right to write. It is also about your right to read.” My wife, Diane Samuels, and I, both avid readers, were in the audience that day, and his words moved us to action.

We were renting out a house in our neighborhood that we had bought and renovated. Mr. Rushdie’s words suggested a better way to use the house — as a temporary home for an exiled writer. When persecuted writers flee their homes, they often do so in a rush and can bring little with them. They need to start from scratch.

The novelist Russell Banks was working on bringing a program offering refuge to writers in cities across Europe to the United States. We decided to start our own chapter in Pittsburgh: City of Asylum, an organization that would provide safe haven for persecuted writers, artists and journalists from around the world. For our kickoff event we emailed everyone we knew and asked them to email others.

Just as the audience in Chautauqua did, our community of readers stepped up to help: a lawyer, a doctor, a dentist, a filmmaker 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 organization is almost entirely funded by the community, by readers. Our program offers a rent-free home for two years or more if necessary, a stipend, legal counsel, medical benefits and access to professional development opportunities.

The organization’s first exiled writer-in-residence, the Chinese poet and philosopher Huang Xiang, taught us how symbiotic the experiences of the reader and the writer are.Mr. Huang, who has been called the Walt Whitman of China, had not been allowed to publish or even perform his poetry there.

“In China I was like a fossil,” Huang Xiang wrote, “When I came to the United States and people discovered me, they dug me out of the earth and I became alive.”

Mr. Huang painted calligraphy of his poetry on the facade of his City of Asylum rowhouse, which has become a neighborhood icon. He performed his poetry impromptu to startled passers-by in Chinese. He did workshops at schools and universities with an interpreter. And the impact was electric. I recall the young daughter of a neighbor asked him, “What does it feel like to go to prison when you have done nothing wrong?” The teenage son of a policeman who had been killed in the line of duty found Mr. Huang’s life story inspiring and wrote a biographical essay on him for a class.And after Mr. Huang moved on from our City of Asylum an anonymous neighbor wrote in pebbles on his doorstep, “I want more poems.”

Our organization’s parent group, International Cities of Refuge Network, provides shelter and support in more than 80 cities. From 2020 to 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.

Those who manage to apply for sanctuary are only the tip of the iceberg, as many more persecuted writers aren’t able to do so. The annual international case list compiled by the writer advocacy organization PEN International details the censorship, imprisonment, torture and murders of hundreds of writers around the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps a grim searchable database of journalists imprisoned and killed. And Amnesty International tallies restrictions on freedom of speech worldwide.

There are 138 million adult readers of books in the United States. We, the American community of readers, must do more to protect writers facing persecution. Every city should offer refuge to writers and artists. It’s the least we can do. As Mr. Rushdie said in 1997, it’s not just about his right to write; it’s also about our right to read.

The audience in Chautauqua vividly demonstrated what it looks like for readers to stand up for writers. As we think about how best to honor and defend Salman Rushdie and all the other brave writers who put themselves on the line for us, I think of something else he said when we heard him speak in Pittsburgh.

“The best way of fighting and responding to the kind of threat that came my way is to show that it doesn’t work,” he said that day. “To show that the ordinary business of writing and reading and discussing and publishing and buying books just continues.”

Henry Reese is the co-founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh, which hosts persecuted and exiled writers.

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