The Origins of City of Asylum in the United States

by Desiree Cooper    /  August 3, 2011  / No comments

Xiang Ling, Huang Xiang, Wole Soyinka, Richard Wiley, Carol Hareter

Wole Soyinka told Richard Wiley about his hope for an American City of Asylum at dinner one night. In this photo: Huang Xiang, Wole Soyinka and Richard Wiley in front of Huang Xiang's House Poem on Sampsonia Way.

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh and at almost every meeting, conference or event that members of this publication are invited to participate in, people have a common question: How did City of Asylum start in the United States? More the one year ago Desire Cooper wrote the story of Richard Wiley, the man who created the program in this country. Today we have decided to share it with you again.

When Richard Wiley was in his 20s, he left his home in Tacoma, Washington to join the Peace Corps. “I didn’t want to get drafted to serve in Vietnam,” said Wiley. “When the Peace Corps asked me whether I wanted to go to Korea, Samoa or Chile, I told them, ‘Whichever one starts first.’”

Wiley’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea transformed his understanding of the “otherness” of Asian culture and inspired him to write books that would challenge his readers to take on the perspective of people who—at first glance—seem completely foreign. He’s the author of six books; his first novel Soldiers in Hiding received a Pen/Faulkner Award in 1987.

“My job as a writer is to disarm the exotic,” said Wiley, whose novels are rarely set in the United States. “Cultures are only exotic from the outside looking in. I try to get readers to see them from the inside.”

He not only forges cultural understanding in his art, but also with his life’s work. A professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), he helped establish the first American City of Asylum for exiled writers in 2001. The UNLV program hosts writers for up to two years while providing a $40,000 yearly stipend, housing, and health insurance. This enables the writers to create freely. Following the residency, the program also helps the writers secure an academic appointment at a leading college or university. Writers from Sierra Leone, Iran, China, and other countries have participated in Wiley’s program.

“No one is ever obligated to read a book,” said Wiley. “But they are obligated to let other people write them.”

Home is another country

By his own description, Wiley was a “dunderhead” when he arrived in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1967. “I was 21 or 22, just out of the University of Puget Sound,” he said. “It was then that I discovered something obvious: Language dictates reality.”

He was amazed at what a different person he became as he was immersed in Korean culture. “What we value as frank or honest, Koreans see as presumptuous or bloated,” he said. “When you speak Korean you have to learn to circumnavigate the word ‘I.’”

Wiley ended up spending two years in Korea and another five in Japan. “I started reading translations of Japanese writers,” he said. “They invested me with the stark, minimalist aesthetic of the country. They were concerned with beauty and the idea that less is more. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Wiley returned to the United States and earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. “My wife is from the Philippines and had never been to the United States,” said Wiley. “It was a shock for her, but coming back was a culture shock for me, too. I felt like a foreigner again.”

The couple eventually moved to Tacoma where they started raising their two boys. Wiley worked with the Tacoma public schools, which had a sister school relationship in Lagos, Nigeria. It wasn’t long before Wiley moved the family to Nigeria, and then to Kenya, where he was the executive director of the Association of International Schools of Africa.

“My interest was not in traveling, but in immersing myself in other cultures,” said Wiley. “I wanted to actually live in different places and get to know the moods and currents of the people.”

Taking a Gamble on Asylum

Wiley joined the creative writing faculty at the UNLV in 1986. It was there that he met Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. In 1994, Soyinka helped found the Paris-based International Parliament of Writers (IPW) along with Salman Rushdie, Jacques Derrida, and Václav Havel, among others. IPW was established in response to the assassinations of several Algerian writers and created a network in cities mostly in Europe to provide a safe haven for writers in danger and exile.

Soyinka himself had experienced political repression and exile. As a playwright, poet, and author, he had issued a written appeal for a cease-fire during the Nigerian civil war. The government accused him of conspiring with Biafran rebels and imprisoned him from 1967 to 1969. He left the country in voluntary exile in 1970. He won the Nobel Prize in 1986.

Soyinka told Wiley about his hope for an American city of asylum at dinner one night. “We laughed at the notion that Las Vegas could be the first,” said Wiley. “It was so counter-intuitive.”

But suddenly, all of Wiley’s experiences as a writer who had lived abroad coalesced into a concrete purpose: to help writers in exile. He approached one of his former classmates from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Glenn Schaeffer. Schaeffer had become the president of Mandalay Resort Group, owners of such luxury resorts as Circus Circus, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay and Monte Carlo. “In every city, there’s an angel,” said Wiley. “Glenn was ours.”

With $20,000 from Mandalay Resort Group and another $5,000 from Schaeffer, Las Vegas hosted its first writer in exile in 2000—Syl Cheney-Coker, a poet from Sierra Leone.

Thus began Cities of Asylum in the United States. Since then similar programs have been founded in Ithaca, NY, Pittsburgh, PA, and Santa Fe, NM. The IPW disbanded, but left in its place the International Cities of Refuge Network and the Cities of Refuge North American. Both organizations continue to maintain an international asylum network for writers.

“One writer at a time”

Perhaps reflecting the profound influence Korean language had on Wiley as a young man, the member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame is self-deprecating when it comes to his role in establishing the program and its affect on the world: “We bring in one writer at a time and it seems a small enough thing to do,” he said, avoiding the first person. “The point is to give a repressed writer space and time; it’s up to them how to use it. They should have the freedom to succeed or fail, just like the rest of us.”

Read Desiree’s bio.

About the Author

Desiree Cooper is a regular contributor to Sampsonia Way. A former Pulitzer-prize nominated columnist with the Detroit Free Press, she has also been a National Public Radio host and contributor to the BBC. She has won awards for her short stories and poems, and will be included in the upcoming Best African American Fiction 2010, guest edited by Nikki Giovanni.

View all articles by Desiree Cooper

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