City of Asylum’s second annual international LitFest is a celebration of connectivity and translation

by Jody DiPerna

By showcasing international writing and literature in translation, LitFest 2022 creates bridges in our turbulent times. 

Featuring writers from Europe, Africa, and Central America, as well as international illustrators, translators and a theater collaboration, Pittsburgh International LitFest fits with City of Asylum’s mission: the intersection of art with contemporary life. 

“We’re thinking about inclusion and empathy, and who gets to translate what books get published. We’re thinking about children’s literature and translation and how that genre breeds empathy and understanding and international awareness,” said Abby Lembersky, director of programming at City of Asylum.

The festival will open with an afternoon honoring and celebrating Salman Rushdie with writers Amitava Kumar, Kiran Desai, and Suketu Mehta reflecting on Rushdie’s unique literary voice and also his legacy as a tireless champion for free expression. 

Rushdie was attacked on stage at the Chautauqua Institution with City of Asylum co-founder Henry Reese on August 12th. Writers all over the world have come forward to speak about Rushdie’s importance as both a craftsman and an advocate. This event was added to the line up recently, but it feels essential to the programming. 

Another event brings together four exiled writers to discuss risk and resistance, writing and the urgent need for freedom of expression. Russian poet Dmitry Bykov, writer in residence at City of Asylum Ithaca, Nigerian essayist Pwaangulongii Dauod, writer in residence at City of Asylum Detroit, Nicaraguan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, and Algerian novelist Anouar Rahmani, writer in residence at City of Asylum Pittsburgh, were all forced to flee their homelands and all four live in the writer sanctuaries in the US Cities of Asylum network. 

Lembersky said that this is the first time these writers will share a stage together and they’ll do a tour in all three cities of Asylum, first here in Pittsburgh, then Detroit and Ithaca, in this ground-breaking event. 

“They have all faced risk and all of them write about different things and this will be about their experiences with risk and resistance, using their art as activism, both at home and what it means to be in the United States now,” Lembersky said. 

The writers work in different written mediums and come from different places, but the throughlines in their work of resistance and conscientious candor should make for a dynamic conversation. Novelist Rahmani was threatened with imprisonment for his writing about human rights in Algeria. Poet Bykov nearly died of poisoning and was banned from teaching and working in Russia. Queer essayist Dauod received death threats for writing about queer culture in his native Nigeria. State forces jailed journalists and took over the office of the newspaper where cartoonist Molina worked in Nicaragua. 

“He’s still active every day, and he regularly publishes cartoons in response to the Nicaraguan government and everything that is happening since he left,” Lembersky said. “He also makes cartoons about what’s happening in the United States.” 

There are other events, featuring translators and illustrators of children’s books, a reading by Morgan Talty, author of “Night of the Living Rez,” a debut collection of stories set in a Native community in Maine, and a reading and discussion with Dubravka Ugrešić, the author of “Thank you for Not Reading,” a gloves off critique of the publishing industry that feels particularly timely. 

Two very Pittsburgh-centric events are on the docket. There will be a talk and reading by Angie Cruz, an associate professor of english at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “Dominicana” and “How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,” her latest. There will also be a reading that serves at the launch of “Pittsburgh Live/Ability: Encounters in Poetry and Prose,” a new literary collection which interrogates what it means to live in one of the U.S.’ “most livable cities” and reflects the realities of life for Pittsburghers with disabilities.

The festival also features a staged reading and post-show artist discussion of “I Am (Romance)”, Ukrainian theater in translation. Seven of these displaced Ukrainian theater artists have worked with playwright Audrey Rose Dégez to interpret the 1924 book, “I am (Romance),” by Ukrainian author Mykola Khvylovy. In “I Am (Romance),”  the head of the local Cheka sentences the protagonist’s mother to death in the name of the ideals of the Soviet revolution. 

Lembersky said it’s impossible to ignore the parallel with the present day and Vladimir Putin’s appalling war on Ukraine in the name of protecting the “Motherland.” 

“The whole event is about translating that particular story into theater,” Lembersky said of the challenges of this particular project. “It’s about how we translate a story into theater. But it is also about the cultural heritage of Ukraine, the theatrical and literary legacy there and what’s happening on the ground right now to protect Ukrainian cultural heritage. So the whole evening is in partnership with global household Kyiv.” 

LitFest ’22 kicks off on September 10 at 3:00 pm. The events will be presented in hybrid fashion, with in person events taking place at Alphabet City, as well as streaming events on-line. Check City of Asylum’s Event Listing for details.  

This article has been updated to reflect recent changes to the LitFest schedule.