My last trek out to Pittsburgh ended on a note of sweet and sour. I arrived to the Alphabet Reading Garden, not yet in bloom, and greeted the tour guide who would shed light on the amazing work the City of Asylum Pittsburgh has been doing for endangered writers since 2004.
I walked the perimeter of the far wall as other members of my group began to arrive. Carved into the tiles were letters from alphabets all around the world, and I ran my fingers across the cool surface tracing the outline of an ü and an ø and a δ. The tour guide explained that the garden had build in place of a jazz building, contributing a place of quiet reflection in the neighborhood. It has a plant, shrub, or tree of every letter of the English alphabet from A-Z.
Once everyone had arrived, our tour guide led us from the garden to a street of colorful houses called “House Publications.” Each visible side of these houses was a beautiful masterpiece of art that represented the writers-in-residence.
Each of these houses originally acted as a residence for writers who were forced to leave their home countries for their writings, deemed too controversial or dangerous. The first house on the street, called “House Poem,” was written and then painted by author Huang Xiang.
Huang Xiang was a writer persecuted in China for his published works. He was imprisoned and tortured numerous times, fleeing to the United States with his wife to escape and start a better life. Xiang resided in 408 Sampsonia Way between 2004 and 2006, recovering from his traumatic experiences and allowing his poetry, a special form where he uses his body to express his poems, to be expressed freely. Watch Xiang’s beautiful, gut-wrenching poetry expressed in this video published by City of Asylum:
Though paling greatly in comparison to the horrors Xiang witnessed in China for expressing his thoughts, I can feel a kinship with him. As a non-conformist, specifically in religion, I often find myself receiving backlash when speaking about my beliefs, and a particular push (sometimes a violent one) from my own family. It seems that groups of people who have a solid system of values and beliefs often will do anything to protect them, even if it means harming those that think differently.
Writers, artists, and religious practitioners alike should not be made to suffer because of what they stand for. I find myself overwhelmed by Xiang’s story of overcoming such adversity. Is this something I can apply to my own life and the way I view my own hardships? Yes.
I think I will volunteer at the City of Asylum one day, once I’m on my feet and live a little closer. I could use some time learning from these wonderful, amazing writers.