Khet Mar is shy. It took urging from her grandmother to submit her early stories to magazines. Even after establishing herself as a writer, she was hesitant to read to large groups of people.
In her native Burma, that reluctance may have saved her life.
“More than two hundred of my short stories were already published but I was scared to be in front of the public,” she says in her melodic but halting English. Her slender hands move back and forth as she sits in a living room filled with her books, her husband’s paintings and her children’s toys. “But now I am here and I have to talk,” she says laughing.
“Here” is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Two years ago, she came as a writer-in-exile through City of Asylum, an organization that gives writers who are persecuted in their native countries a home and the opportunity to live and work freely. There are similar programs across America in Las Vegas, Miami and Ithaca – and in Europe.
Since coming to Pittsburgh, 42-year-old Khet has given many readings. But back in Burma – now renamed the Union of Myamar by a long-running military dictatorship – she was a quiet, retiring writer, teacher and social worker. Raised in a small, poor fishing village, she began publishing at age 19.
She says she didn’t intend for her stories to be a social commentary. But the government thought differently.
“I just wrote about the people’s lives…how do they survive? But in my country, the social situation is very related to the political situation. They thought that I was writing politics” she says.
Khet was arrested while still at university. She was held in detention centers, physically tortured and sentenced to ten years in prison, though she was given amnesty after 12 months.
Unbowed, she went back to writing essays and stories, and published a novel. She married her husband, an artist and had two sons. Occasionally, her stories were censored and she was interrogated.
In 2007, she came to the US for a few months for a writing program. While she was in Iowa, the Saffron Revolution took place back home. Buddhist monks led protests against the the government, drawing attention to economic inequality and hardship. Several of her students became leaders in the movement and were arrested, she said.
Then Khet Mar returned to Burma, though she feared for her safety. She was prepared for possible arrest.
Shortly afterward, in 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless. Journalists who wrote about the aftermath were targeted and jailed, she says. Though she understood the personal risk, she began doing relief work.
“Although many people died and millions of people were suffering, the Burmese government didn’t accept international help,” she says. It was then that she began seeking asylum.
Step forward Henry Reese, a retired businessman, and his wife Diane Samuels, an artist.
They were inspired to found their own City of Asylum after seeing the writer Salman Rushdie speak in Pittsburgh back in 1997, about his involvement with the program. Though Reese used his savings and raised money from friends and foundations, it took them until 2003 to get the program off the ground.
“I’m a reader; in some ways we’re a reader’s organization protecting writers,” says Reese. “You can’t support the arts, or what artists do, and not protect people who are endangered, because they’re actually doing what you say you believe in.”
Reese and Samuels were living in an area called The Mexican War Streets, a neighborhood of densely packed Victorian row houses, since the 1970’s. Over the years, the couple had been buying up extra property on their block: the city was selling off houses for $100 in the hope of repopulating the streets.
The City of Asylum homes sit along one alley. The first writer-in-exile to arrive in 2007 was Huang Xiang. He was fleeing jail and persecution in his native China.
In his first few weeks, Huang Xiang told the couple he wanted to write a poem about the mountains that flank downtown Pittsburgh’s landscape; a thanks to the city for welcoming him. They suggested he start off by painting the facade of his house.
Tom Roberts, a jazz pianist who lives several blocks from City of Asylum, calls the area, “one of these old-fashioned neighborhoods where people form friendships and bonds.” The neighborhood, parts of which have benefited from urban renewal, is diverse. People from all over the world make their home alongside those who are second, third or fifth generation Pittsburghers.
He calls Reese and Samuels, “a force in the neighborhood,” whose City of Asylum guests fit in well with the Spanish college professor or the French filmmaker.
“I think the neighborhood embraces those people; they tend to become part of the community,” he said of the writers-in-exile.
Reese and Samuels agree.
“You start seeing what the presence of someone from outside can do for a community that is itself under certain kinds of stresses due to everything from gentrification, race, economics, all those things. And you start to see that caring for someone…is a binding agent that everybody can rally around,” says Reese.
Although Khet Mar would like to return to Burma, she feels at home here, evidenced by the mural and essay on her house.
Based on a dream she had when she first arrived, the mural depicts Burma’s Irrawaddy River meeting with the three rivers that form a confluence at the point of Pittsburgh. Elsewhere on the house are scenes of Pittsburgh’s skyline and bridges, juxtaposed with images of Burma: a mother holding a baby, an empty bowl, crows flying over a prison. Her husband, Than Htay Maung, painted the mural, she wrote the essay.
Adapting to the city has had its difficulties: getting used to the weather, for one. And it’s been a struggle learning English and being away from the family and friends they have known all of their lives.
But Khet Mar still marvels that her own journey – and her current berth – came out of writing books.
“Sometimes it is like a dream” she says, “I was really endangered in my country and now I am here, safe and peaceful with my family. “