Vegas Unexpected: City of Asylum

Vegas Unexpected: City of Asylum
by Megan Edwards

If asked to blurt out whatever words come to mind when Las Vegas is mentioned, I think it’s fair to say that most people would not come up with “City of Asylum.” “What happens here stays here,” is a far more likely response, and the well-loved slogan just may make a sad point. A decade ago, Las Vegas became the nation’s first City of Asylum, but few people, both here and elsewhere, seem to know it. I am unhappy to admit that I was woefully underinformed myself. While I had heard that a program connected with the university offered refuge and support to writers who had been forced to leave their home countries, I didn’t know until recently how it operates. I knew even less about the writers City of Asylum has served. Fortunately, Carol Harter, President Emerita of UNLV and current executive director of the Black Mountain Institute, took time from her busy schedule to answer my questions about COA and what it has accomplished here in Las Vegas in its first ten years.

The idea of offering safe harbor to imperiled and exiled writers was inspired back in the mid-‘90s by the plight of Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a “fatwa,” – essentially a death sentence – on the author because of his novel, “Satanic Verses.” In the wake of that episode, a number of cities around the globe rallied to offer sanctuary to writers who have been forced into exile.

Through the efforts and financial support of Glenn Schaeffer, President and CEO of Fontainebleau Resorts Group and graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Las Vegas became the first American city to “identify and financially support writers from around the world whose voices are muffled by persecution or censorship.” Since 2000, three writers have come to Las Vegas to live and write. The first was Syl Cheney-Coker, a poet and novelist who fled Sierra Leone after a military coup in 1997. In 2003, Cheney-Coker was able to return to Sierra Leone.

Chinese writer, critic, and painter Er Tai Gao was the second resident writer to come to Las Vegas. Targeted by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution and again following the Tiananmen Square protests, Gao finally escaped to Hong Kong and eventually came to the United States. His memoir, “In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp,” was recently published by HarperCollins.

Currently in residence is Moniro Ravanipour, an Iranian novelist and short story writer whose books have been banned and confiscated in Iran. Ravanipour is now in her third year as a writer in residence. The author of eight novels that were highly regarded in Iran until they disappeared from bookstores, Ravanipour is still unable to return to her homeland without fearing for her freedom and life. “She feels threatened, even here,” Harter told me.
The individual challenges each writer faces mean that City of Asylum has to be creative in how it offers assistance. The program has no governmental authority, but it draws on a wide range of resources to assist with issues like visas. “The immigration clinic at the law school helps,” Harter said, adding that support has also come from a number of other sources. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman steered the wife of one of the writers to a job with the post office, for example, and that eventually resulted in “green cards” for the couple. All writers in residence receive an annual stipend, housing, and health insurance. In addition, every effort is made to help the writers get their work translated into English and find publishers.

Although the City of Asylum’s mission is to offer two-year fellowships, Moniru Raninapour is now beginning her third year in residence. “She has no place to go,” Harter said, illustrating the role City of Asylum plays as an underground railroad for persecuted writers. A safe haven isn’t much use if it doesn’t help provide a ticket to the next stop.

I asked Harter how writers are selected to come to Las Vegas. “Anyone can apply,” she said, although the program is for poets and creative writers only — not journalists. A thorough vetting is conducted for all potential candidates to make sure the selected writers are truly in need of the kind of support City of Asylum offers. Not surprisingly, the program receives thousands of inquiries, which makes the selection process arduous. “We want to make sure the writer is really in need,” Harter said. Many applications arrive from Cuba, for example. No one would argue that being a writer isn’t difficult in Cuba right now, Harter said, but the government isn’t actively persecuting anyone.

I asked how the writers have reacted to Las Vegas. “Moniru still shakes her head,” Harter laughed, “but she is also buying a house here.” Er Tai Gao, the program’s first writer in residence, also still lives in Las Vegas.

City of Asylum’s biggest challenge is raising money to keep the program going. Fortunately, fundraising is a task Carol Harter excels at. She played a pioneering role in the growth of UNLV as its president from 1995 to 2006. During her tenure, over a hundred new programs were added to the university’s offerings, half of them graduate programs. In addition, five new professional schools were launched, including the Boyd School of Law. As the Black Mountain Institute’s Executive Director, she has already raised nearly $3 million in gifts and pledges.

What happens here in Vegas is happening around the country as more cities organize, usually in conjunction with universities, to offer refuge to threatened writers. Two of the most active programs are in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Ithaca, New York. An international organization based in Norway provides global support for the movement.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Harter said. “We’ve had a mixture of people, and they’ve had the opportunity to keep writing.”

I’m proud, too, of what Glenn Schaefer started and Carol Harter and the Black Mountain Institute are continuing to build. The only thing better than a world dotted with Cities of Asylum is a world that no longer needs them.

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