Sept. 23: DISSIDENCE: Exiled writers on resistance and risk

Solidarity tour brings City of Asylum writers to Ithaca 

Panel and reception Friday, September 23, 7 p.m.
Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E. State St., Ithaca

No registration required. Free and open to the public (donation requested)

By Jonathan Miller, member, ICOA board

The brutal stabbing of author Salman Rushdie on August 12 shocked readers, writers, and defenders of free speech everywhere. Yet around the world, writers, journalists, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, actors, and other creative people are censored, harassed, imprisoned, or killed for speaking their minds or exercising their imaginations.

Four writers who have faced these dangers first-hand will share their experiences in “DISSIDENCE: Exiled Writers on Resistance and Risk,” a reading and reception on Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m in Martha Hamblin Hall at the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca.

The event will also celebrate Ithaca City of Asylum’s 20th anniversary of protecting and supporting writers at risk. Longtime ICOA board member Barbara Adams will moderate. No registration is required. Please leave large bags at home. Admission is free but a donation is requested.

The featured writers are Russian poet and polymath Dmitry Bykov, who nearly died in a poisoning, then was banned from teaching or appearing on state media; Nigerian essayist Pwaangulongii Dauod, who received death threats for writing about queer culture in his home country; Nicaraguan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, who was forced to flee after his journalist colleagues were jailed or killed and his newspaper’s offices were occupied; and Algerian novelist Anouar Rahmani, who was threatened with imprisonment for writing about human rights.

The writers will also speak at Ithaca College on Thursday, September 22 at 5:30 p.m. (details here) and at Cornell on Friday, September 23 at noon (details here). Their visit is part of a three-city tour organized by City of Asylum programs in Ithaca, Pittsburgh, and Detroit and timed to coincide with Banned Books Week.

The tour is supported by a grant from Cornell University’s Migrations Global Grand Challenge and the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative. The Migrations Initiative, part of Global Cornell, studies the movement of all living things through an interdisciplinary, multispecies lens, with a special focus on themes of racism, dispossession, and migration.

About the writers

Dmitry Bykov (Ithaca City of Asylum) is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. He spent five days in a coma after falling ill during a speaking tour in 2019. An independent investigation blamed Russian security forces for poisoning him with the nerve agent Novichok. In addition to prohibiting him from teaching at the university level, the government has also barred him from appearing on state radio or TV. The author of more than 80 books, Bykov is currently a fellow of the Open Society University Network and a visiting critic at the Institute for European Studies, part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell.

Pwaangulongii Dauod (City of Asylum Detroit) is a novelist, essayist, and memoirist from Nigeria. His 2016 essay in Granta, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men,” sparked a national conversation about queer issues in Nigeria and provoked threats to his life. Woke Africa Magazine named him one of the “Best African Writers of the New Generation.” He is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Wayne State University.

Pedro X. Molina (Ithaca City of Asylum) is a political cartoonist who fled Nicaragua during a crackdown on dissent in 2018. He was an International Writer in Residence at Ithaca College and was an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at the Einaudi Center’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Cornell. Among his many honors is a 2021 Gabo Award, a 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia Journalism School, and the 2018 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International.

Anouar Rahmani (City of Asylum Pittsburgh) is a novelist, journalist, and human rights defender from Algeria. He has faced legal harassment for his advocacy for individual freedom, environmental rights, and the rights of minorities, women, and LGBTQ+ people. In 2021, he was shortlisted for the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards. He is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Carnegie Mellon University.

About Cities of Asylum

The Cities of Asylum movement was born in the 1990s, after a group of writers led by Salman Rushdie formed the International Parliament of Writers and convinced governments in several European cities to provide one to two years of support for endangered writers. These “Cities of Asylum” pledged to protect not only the physical safety of writers, but also freedom of speech and publication.

Today, more than 75 cities around the world belong to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). In the US, City of Asylum organizations in Pittsburgh, Ithaca, Detroit, and other communities help threatened writers find jobs, housing, and legal services, and advocate for human rights and freedom of expression.

Exiled writers complete solidarity tour

“DISSIDENCE: Exiled Writers on Resistance and Risk” wrapped up with this panel at the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca. The presentation was followed by a reception celebrating ICOA’s work over more than 20 years.

Four writers whose work has been suppressed and whose lives have been threatened spent Banned Books Week on a three-city solidarity tour that included public presentations, meetings with students, social events, and other activities.

“DISSIDENCE: Exiled Writers on Resistance and Risk” featured Algerian novelist Anouar Rahmani, Nigerian essayist Pwaangulongii Dauod, Russian poet Dmitry Bykov, and Nicaraguan political cartoonist Pedro X. Molina. Each was forced to flee his home country under threat of violence and censorship and each found safe haven in a City of Asylum in the United States. Learn more about the writers here.

Rahmani is writer-in-residence with City of Asylum Pittsburgh and Dauod fills the same role with City of Asylum Detroit. Bykov is currently the guest writer with Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) and Molina was ICOA’s artist-in-residence from 2018–2021. The tour was jointly organized by the three Cities of Asylum and supported by a grant from Cornell University’s Migrations Global Grand Challenge and the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative.

An estimated 60 people attended the “DISSIDENCE” event at Trinosophes in Detroit on Friday, September 16. On Monday, September 19, 157 people attended a presentation at Alphabet City in Pittsburgh, with 72 participating in person and the rest joining online. A total of 132 people attended three presentations in Ithaca, including one at Ithaca College on Thursday, September 22; another at Cornell University on Friday, September 23; and a third that evening at the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA).

The CSMA event was also a celebration of ICOA’s 20th anniversary, delayed one year by the COVID pandemic. Current board chair Gail Holst-Warhaft, co-founder Bridget Meeds, and Rachel Beatty Riedl, director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell, all gave brief remarks.

The Detroit-based quarterly literary journal Three Fold published a ““dossier” featuring the four writers’ work in its Fall 2022 issue. The Ithaca Times and Cornell Chronicle published articles about the tour.

ICOA condemns Rushdie attack

The board of Ithaca City of Asylum, a local organization that has been giving shelter to endangered writers for twenty years, joins with many authors and human rights advocates worldwide in condemning the brutal attack on novelist Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua, New York, on August 12th.

Targeted by extremists for many years after publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has frequently spoken out for the need to protect the right of free expression for all artists. He is a past president of PEN America, the writers’ advocacy organization, and has publicly organized campaigns to protect poets, essayists, novelists and journalists everywhere. For us at Ithaca City of Asylum, he has been an inspiration for our efforts to give shelter to writers in danger. His is a courageous voice for freedom, and such vital voices must never be silenced.

We would like to express our solidarity with PEN in its efforts to give shelter and support to endangered writers, and with the other North American Cities of Asylum in Pittsburgh and Detroit. The director of the Pittsburgh organization, Henry Reese, was the moderator of Rushdie’s talk at Chautauqua and was also injured in the attack. To Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese we offer our heartfelt support and wishes for a complete recovery.

Gail Holst-Warhaft
On behalf of the Board of Ithaca City of Asylum

The Forbidden Future: ICOA presents panel at Spring Writes festival

The Forbidden Future: Literature and Journalism in Today’s Russia
Friday, May 13, 7:15–8:15 p.m. EDT
Via Zoom.

UPDATE: This event occurred as scheduled on May 13, 2022. We will post a video when it becomes available.

Russian dissident poet, novelist, and satirist Dmitry Bykov says societies need writers to help them imagine the future. But he says “the future is the most forbidden topic” in his country. Journalists, artists, and social critics are censored, silenced, and (in his case) poisoned for daring to envision a future that doesn’t simply recapitulate the past.

Join Bykov, a visiting fellow at Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and Ithaca City of Asylum’s current writer-in-residence, in a spirited conversation with literary scholar Mark Lipovetsky, director of graduate studies at Columbia University’s Department of Slavic Languages. The moderator is ICOA board member and Ithaca College associate professor of writing Barbara Adams.

This event is part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. Learn more at SpringWrites.org.

Video: Bykov and Adams in conversation

Russian dissident writer Dmitry Bykov speaks with ICOA board member Barbara Adams at the 2022 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. The conversation was recorded on March 23, 2022.

For dissident writer, the fight for Russia’s future is personal

By Jonathan Miller

A version of this article first appeared in the Cornell Chronicle on April 14, 2022.

Dmitry Bykov is a man of letters. He is also a man of words, sentences, verses, paragraphs, chapters and books – more than 80 of them, including novels, literary biographies and collections of poetry, criticism and essays. That’s not to mention his output as an editor, journalist, television and radio personality, teacher and globetrotting lecturer on topics ranging from Russian and Soviet history to Black American literature.

Dmitry Bykov is ICOA’s eight writer-in-residence. He is a visiting critic in Cornell’s Institute for European Studies. Photo by Jonathan Miller.

Sometimes his words get him in trouble.

Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. His satirical poems and political commentaries often take aim at President Vladimir Putin. Putin has not been amused.

In April 2019, Bykov fell violently ill on an airplane on his way to a speaking engagement in Ufa, Russia. He began vomiting uncontrollably and eventually lost consciousness. It would be five days before he emerged from his coma and another six before he was released from the hospital. There was no clear diagnosis.

The following year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny would experience the same symptoms, also on an airplane. Tests confirmed that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. A 2021 investigation by the news outlet Bellingcat concluded that both men had been targeted by a secret “poison squad” of Russia’s Federal Security Service, as had several other well-known government critics. It is widely believed (although not proven) that Putin personally ordered the poisonings.

Bykov remained in Russia after the incident, in part to help care for his elderly mother. But it was much harder for him to work. He was banned from teaching at the university level and appearing on state radio or TV. Several of the media outlets where he had worked were shut down. He says spies attended his lectures and reported to their bosses on what he calls “my non-careful words.” Officials labeled him “an enemy of the people.”

He compares the atmosphere to that of the United States in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. “The bullying is really unpleasant,” he says. “Sometimes you feel yourself in exile in the motherland.” He continued to challenge the government, but he found it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard.

“The writer may be the only person who really needs political freedom,” he says. “To discuss serious problems and serious challenges, you must have no political restraints.”

In February, just days before the Russia invaded Ukraine, Bykov and his family left Moscow for Ithaca. Since then, he has been a vocal opponent to the war on social media and in interviews, lectures and other public appearances.

As a visiting critic in the Institute for European Studies, part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Bykov will be in residence for one to two years, engaging with Cornell faculty and students and completing several writing projects.

“The Einaudi Center’s work on democratic threats and resilience is a vital focus that unites scholars, activists and writers from around the world,” said Einaudi director Rachel Beatty Riedl. “Dmitry Bykov lives that spirit of democratic resilience, even under threat. He writes because he needs to reach people with his ideas and his words – this is the essence of freedom.”

Talk of the future taboo in Russia

Bykov says the war in Ukraine lays bare a larger conflict in Russian society over the direction the country is headed. Putin, he says, is obsessed with the past, or at least his version of it. “The future is the most forbidden, the most banned topic in Russia,” he says. “The past is always the field of battle. The future is discussed only by science fiction. And the image of the future is very gloomy.”

He claims Putin is paranoid (“he’s afraid of everybody”) and delusional (“yesterday he invents something, today he believes in it”) and accuses him of lying about everything from Russian history to Ukraine’s military capacity. “I write every day because I feel like my writing replaces all these lies, all these wrong words produced by Russian power,” he says.

Bykov did not leave Russia because of the Ukraine conflict. Last year, he was awarded a teaching fellowship from the Open Society University Network’s Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, one of the international rescue organizations that works with universities like Cornell to find placements for fellows in safe locations. He was invited to Ithaca by Global Cornell, partnering with the local nonprofit Ithaca City of Asylum, which supports writers and artists at risk. He says he could go back home if he chose to; he has no intention of emigrating to the United States.

But there is “a professional danger” in remaining in Russia, he says: “First of all, when you’re frightened, you can’t work much, and you can’t work well.”

And fear has another, more pernicious effect.

“The most dangerous thing is not censorship but self-censorship,” he says. “Because when you begin to restrict yourself, and you feel yourself a coward all the time, and you’re editing your work and taking away all the sharp places, that’s a professional harm.”

Bykov says he is proud of his journalism and political activism, and he is honored to be called a “dissident.” Still, he says, “I would rather be known for my literary writing than for my politics or my poisoning.”

Literature is his greatest passion. He is an expert on Russian and Soviet literature and an avid student of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian who spent more than 10 years at Cornell, is one of the authors he knows best.

He says he has never been tempted to settle on one type of writing. When he isn’t producing satirical poetry or journalism, he says, “I feel that I have forgotten my civic duty.” When he only writes journalism, “I’m afraid I have forgotten about eternity.” When he doesn’t teach, he feels he’s neglecting future generations. When he teaches too much, “I think that I’m too chatty and I should write in silence.”

“Every kind of work I do consoles me somehow psychologically,” he says, noting that one critic jokes that he only works in one genre: Bykov.

During his time at Cornell, he wants to write a trilogy of novels, which he predicts will be his masterpiece. He also wants to write a novel in English. (Only one of his books, the dystopic comic novel “Living Souls,” has been translated into English.) He also looks forward to engaging with students and speaking in public.

Bykov says he relishes the relative quiet of Ithaca. “I was editor-in-chief of a big newspaper,” he says. “I was famous, and I’m very proud of it. But you know, I’m not very fond of fame – and my safe life, and the safe life of my child, is more important for me than being well-known.”

And with safety will come words. “When I feel anxiety, I cannot write,” he says. “When I feel fear, I cannot write. When I write here, I am free.”

Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, and a member of Ithaca City Of Asylum’s board of directors

ICOA welcomes artist-in-residence Dmitry Bykov

Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is pleased to welcome Russian poet, satirist, literary critic, novelist, and media personality Dmitry Bykov as its eighth artist-in-residence.

He is based at Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and supported by a fellowship from the Open Society University Network.

Dmitry Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. He has authored more than 70 books, including novels, poetry, biographies, and literary criticism. Known for his wit, he is a popular lecturer and public speaker and has served as the host of numerous television and radio programs.

Hear Dmitry Bykov and ICOA board member Barbara Adams in conversation during the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. Register here.

Bykov is also an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In April 2019, he fell ill while on an airplane flight and spent five days in a coma. An investigation by the news organization Bellingcat found that the symptoms were very similar to those suffered by opposition politician Alexey Navalny and that the same government agents who poisoned Navalny had also been following him.

Bykov remained in Russia after the incident, but he has been banned from teaching there or appearing on state television.

He has joined fellow intellectuals in publicly condemning the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Still, he says he would rather be known for his writing and teaching than for his poisoning or politics. He is a four-time winner of the International Award in the Field of Fantastic Literature, a three-time winner of the Fiction International Assembly Award, and a three-time winner of the Bolshaya Kniga (Big Book) award, one of Russia’s most prestigious literary prizes.

He has taught literature at Princeton and UCLA as well as at universities in Russia.

Photo by Jonathan Miller.

Podcast features asylum cities movement

The latest episode of the Peace Talks Radio public radio show and podcast looks at cities of asylum (also known as cities of refuge), communities that put out the welcome mat for writers, artists, journalists, and human rights defenders whose work puts them at risk in their home countries. 

Guest host (and ICOA board member) Jonathan Miller interviews former ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina, City of Asylum Pittsburgh co-founder Henry Reese, and International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) program director Elisabeth Dyvik.

You can listen to the hour-long program here.

Molina is a political cartoonist who fled Nicaragua during a violent crackdown on dissent and came to Ithaca with his family with help from ICOA. He spent two years as a visiting scholar at Ithaca College. Today he is an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.

Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, heard Indian author Salman Rushdie describe the nascent cities of asylum movement in 1997, soon after he had come out of hiding after the 1989 fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran after the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses. They decided to renovate a run-down house they had purchased near their home in Pittsburgh and make it available to an exiled writer. Since then, City of Asylum Pittsburgh has grown into a major cultural institution, with six houses for at-risk writers, an event space and bookstore, and year-round programming that celebrates the freedom to create. 

Based in Stavanger, Norway, ICORN is a network of more than 70 cities worldwide where threatened writers, artists, and journalists can live and work in safety. Elisabeth Dyvik has been involved in artist protection work for more than 25 years.

Ithaca, Pittsburgh, and Detroit are the only U.S. members of the ICORN network. Programs in Las Vegas, Virginia, and Arkansas also provide two-year residencies for writers and artists fleeing persecution.

Guest host Jonathan Miller is a writer and radio producer who has worked in more than 20 countries. He is executive director of the journalism cooperative Homelands Productions and founder and co-director of Story House Ithaca.

How Ithaca became a “global hub” for refugees

A feature article on the news site Documented describes Ithaca’s long history of sheltering and supporting refugees from around the world. Written by Meghna Maharishi, a student at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the piece calls the area “a global hub for people fleeing oppression.”

How Ithaca Became a Haven for Refugees” looks at the way citizens, organizations, government, and institutions in Ithaca have opened their doors to people fleeing violence or persecution in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other countries. Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is among the featured groups.

Maharishi tells the story of cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, who fled Nicaragua with his family in 2018. After two and half years as ICOA’s artist-in-residence, he became an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.

“Molina said ICOA was the only organization willing to resettle his wife and two young children as well,” Maharishi writes. “He received offers from other international assistance programs, but none of them could accommodate his family. ICOA helped Molina’s children get settled into local schools and arranged English lessons for his wife.”

The article also describes efforts at Cornell, Ithaca College, Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, and Catholic Charities of Tompkins County.

Pedro X. Molina wins prestigious award

Pedro X. Molina, ICOA’s seventh writer in residence, has received the 2021 Gabo Award for Excellence from Fundación Gabo, the foundation created by the late Nobel Prize-winning writer and journalist Gabriel García Márquez. The award is one of the most prestigious in Latin American journalism.

“PxMolina’s work stands out for its visual delicacy and its deep reflection on events taking place in Nicaragua, Central America, and elsewhere, and hilarious irreverence,” the awards committee wrote. “His work has become a model for the genre of satire that adds value to the journalism profession and performs an important task of monitoring and criticizing power.”

Molina is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. He has won several major awards, including the 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Award for coverage of Latin America from Columbia Journalism School and the 2018 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International.

You can read more about the award at the Fundación Gabo website.