City of Asylum Pittsburgh brings international writers facing persecution in their home countries to Pittsburgh, where they're provided with the security and support they need to continue their work. In return, through readings and other public events, Pittsburghers get an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others whose lives may be very different from their own.
The program is run by Henry Reese, who sees in City of Asylum's mission an analogy to the experience — and the value — of reading fiction: "It's a way of understanding that there are others who imagine, and in learning how to imagine, how others imagine you."
On his bookshelf:
Horacio Castellanos Moya, Senselessness
There's a bracing pessimism coursing throughout Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness. Like a world-weary private investigator setting his rich client straight, the novel confronts one of the comfortable West's cherished beliefs: namely, that societies affected by mayhem will somehow, in the end, be all right. Through his speeding, stylized prose, translated by Katherine Silver, Castellanos Moya disabuses us of such hope.
Told by an opportunistic writer, presumably from El Salvador (where the author, a political exile now living in Pittsburgh, is from), Senselessness charts in a mesmerizing, darkly humorous way the boozing hack's headlong stumbles toward a well of paranoia. He's come to an unnamed country that is clearly Guatemala, hired to copy edit the oral accounts of Indians who survived the government's years-long extermination campaign. These testimonies are part of a truth and reconciliation report, the modern era's means of dealing with the culpable but powerful.
Ismet Prcic, Shards
Ismet Prcic's brilliant and provocative debut novel is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California. He is advised that in order to move forward he must "write everything." The result is a great rattle bag of memories, confessions, and fictions: sweetly humorous recollections of Ismet's childhood in Tuzla appear alongside anguished letters to his mother about the challenges of life in this new world. And as Ismet's foothold in the present falls away, his writings are further complicated by stories from the point of view of another young man—real or imagined—named Mustafa, who joined a troop of elite soldiers and stayed in Bosnia to fight. When Mustafa's story begins to overshadow Ismet's New World identity, the reader is charged with piecing together the fragments of a life that has become eerily unrecognizable, even to the one living it.
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa
Pressured by her unscrupulous family to marry a wealthy man she detests, the young Clarissa Harlowe is tricked into fleeing with the witty and debonair Robert Lovelace and places herself under his protection. Lovelace, however, proves himself to be an untrustworthy rake whose vague promises of marriage are accompanied by unwelcome and increasingly brutal sexual advances. And yet, Clarissa finds his charm alluring, her scrupulous sense of virtue tinged with unconfessed desire. Told through a complex series of interweaving letters, Clarissa is a richly ambiguous study of a fatally attracted couple and a work of astonishing power and immediacy. A huge success when it first appeared in 1747, and translated into French and German, it remains one of the greatest of all European novels.
Speaking Volumes is a weekly conversation on books and reading with some of the people who make news in Pittsburgh. The program airs on 90.5 FM Mondays during Morning Edition, and Wednesdays during Essential Pittsburgh.