Freedom to Write:
China’s Gift to Pittsburgh

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Henry Reese. (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

[Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Henry Reese of Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh stole the show this Spring at the novelist Robert Coover‘s annual ritual at Brown around the altar of free expression. Writers in exile are the stars of this international freedom-to-write literary festival — this year from Cambodia, last spring from Burma, earlier from Zimbabwe and Iran. Shahriar Mandanipour, who wrote his exile novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story as Coover’s guest at Brown, was back this year to witness for freedom. But it was the mild-mannered American telemarketer from Pittsburgh, Mr. Reese, whose story about his own marginal neighborhood nailed some essential points: about the power of individual examples, for example; about the universal stakes and contagious connections.

So this is Henry Reese’s story — about the Huang Xiang, a poet who’d spent 12 years in Chinese prisons before he was banished to silence in the United States. Reese and his wife, the artist Diane Samuels, invited the poet to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum.


Huang Xiang — at first sight of the stone bluffs high over Pittsburgh’s famous rivers — asked if he might paint his expressive caligraphy on Mount Washington. His hosts countered: why not begin by painting his poems on the house he would live in for two years — just down the alley from the Reeses’ house on the North Side of Pittsburgh. It was an important sign from the community that people came out, in numbers, in the rain, to watch a Chinese poet paint his life on the walls of what had once been a crack house. It was something else when the neighbors began stuffing their own poems into Huang Xiang’s mailbox.

“That’s when I knew,” Henry Reese says, “that freedom of expression was going to resonate with people who have had no connection with what we call literary life, and that this could be a powerful force for change in our community, which is what it’s become.”

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