Freedom of expression, identity explored at City of Asylum’s International LitFest
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Fall Arts PreviewLitFest returns for second year

Freedom of expression, identity explored at City of Asylum’s International LitFest

10-day free festival features writers and artists from 15 countries speaking more than 11 languages

Themes of identity, displacement and migration, along with works in translation, will be the focus of City of Asylum’s Pittsburgh International Litfest (LitFest ‘22), according to Abby Lembersky, the organization’s director of programs.

“Of course, that is complementary to City of Asylum’s broader vision, our commitment to being a place for international voices and cross-cultural exchange in Pittsburgh,” she added.

Unlike last year’s LitFest, which was Zoom-only, this year’s 10-day free festival takes place both in person and online. Beginning Sept. 10, the festival features writers and artists from 15 countries speaking more than 11 languages and is meant to be a companion event to City of Asylum’s Jazz Poetry festival, which occurred in May.

Fitting within the broader themes are subjects that will resonate with a wide audience. On Sept. 13, Angie Cruz will discuss her new book “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,” exploring the world of a woman in her mid-50s who loses her job in the Great Recession. Acclaimed writer Gary Shteyngart, whose novel “Our Country Friends” centers on a group of friends who gather in a country house to wait out the pandemic, will talk about his book on Sept. 14.

“Part of the hope for a festival like this,” Lembersky said, “is to pull books that are newly published, newly coming out. What we’re seeing now is people who started writing in the pandemic.”

The writers participating in the festival explore subjects beyond the pandemic, though. Identity and connection are two other themes that play important roles, Lembersky said.

Both Morgan Talty and Dubravka Ugrešić will discuss works that don’t use COVID-19 or the resultant economy as a backdrop. Talty will discuss his short story collection “Night of the Living Rez” about the indigenous Native American Penobscot people on Sept. 12. “Thank You for Not Reading” by Ugrešić is about the world of publishing and young authors who first became famous in some other way. The author will speak from her home in Croatia on Sept. 17.

LitFest shines its light on literature in translation during two of its sessions. On Sept. 17, Persian translator Sara Khalili and Iranian illustrator Nooshin Safkhoo share the stage.

On Sept. 20, City of Asylum turns its gaze to the theater for a staged reading and post-show artist discussion of Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy’s 1924 novel “I am (Romance),” originally intended for the Slovo House Kharkiv — a writers’ house offering residency to cultural figures in Ukraine. The night will include opportunities to discuss theater in translation, as well as Ukrainian cultural heritage.

The festival’s Sept. 19 session, “DISSIDENCE: Exiled Writers on Resistance & Risk,” will hold special significance in light of recent events. On Aug. 12, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times while being interviewed by City of Asylum co-founder Henry Reese at the Chautauqua Institution. In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader declared a fatwa against Rushdie, accusing him of insulting Islam and blaspheming Muhammad in his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

In response to his experience and the growing incidences of attacks on writers, Rushdie formed the International Parliament of Writers in 1993. IPW called on European cities to provide support for endangered writers in exile.

In 1997, Rushdie spoke in Pittsburgh and mentioned the idea. Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, were in attendance, and, after a circuitous journey, formed a Pittsburgh chapter of City of Asylum in 2003. Rushdie served as a founding member of the North American board of the organization, which now has chapters in several cities.

“What happened at Chautauqua speaks to why City of Asylum exists,” Lembersky said. “We are a safe haven for writers who are exiled under threat of persecution. It’s important that we protect freedom of expression.”

During “DISSIDENCE,” Russian poet Dmitry Bykov, Nigerian Pwaangulongii Dauod, Nicaraguan Pedro X. Molian and Algerian Anouar Rahmani will share the stage for the first time, discussing their experiences, writings and commitments to creative freedom of expression.

Author Gary Shteyngart said he felt it was vital to participate in City of Asylum’s LitFest this year.

“What they are doing is so important,” Shteyngart said. “I know my friend Salman Rushdie was associated with them, which makes it even more important. It just puts it back in everyone’s mind.”

The Soviet-born Shteyngart said he’s been to City of Asylum before and has a great fondness for Pittsburgh. His college roommate was from Pittsburgh, so he visited the city, and its Squirrel Hill neighborhood, often.

The author, who was born in St. Petersburg, said he is no longer allowed to visit his ancestral home.

“The last time I tried to visit, they said my passport was no longer valid,” he said.

The Jewish writer said two of his grandparents were born in Ukraine.

“I obviously have a lot of feelings toward Ukraine and horror it’s been subjected to,” he said.

“Our Country Friends,” which was just published in paperback, isn’t strictly about the pandemic, Shteyngart, said, but more about friendship. He’s excited to discuss the novel in person, now that people might be feeling more comfortable getting together again.

“I’m in upstate New York. There’s a feeling of being in a little bubble, which is very different from when you step into New York or another big city like Pittsburgh,” he said.

Shteyngart, who is known for his humor, said his blend of tragedy and comedy can be traced to his Russian Jewish background.
“It’s kind of humor from the edge of the grave,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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