On Sampsonia Way, a street of monotonous row homes in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Writer’s House stands out. Wooden wings carved by sculptor Thaddeus Mosley seem to fly from the brick facade. A passage by Nobel Laureate and exiled Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka is etched above the door. “I DESTROYED time.” The words of Soyinka, who spent 22 months in prison for speaking out against his country’s civil war, remind passersby that the mind, even in the solitude of a jail cell, can overcome any barrier. That’s a comforting thought to the novelist who lives in the house, Horacio Castellanos Moya.
Moya fled his native El Salvador when death threats followed the publication of his 1997 book Revulsion, a retelling of the assassination of San Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero that sparked violence in El Salvador. After the country’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, El Salvador was plagued by a gang crisis, abject poverty and a government with no policy to stop crime. Moya’s book annoyed the conservative ruling party, still partially aligned with the death squads of the civil-war crisis. So Moya went into exile after publishing the book, living in various countries until Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum offered him a safe, creative space to write.
The organization is part of Cities of Refuge North America, which helps persecuted writers by giving them the ability to write free from censorship. Moya is the second exiled writer to find a new home in Pittsburgh. City of Asylum co-founder and president, Henry Reese, got the idea for the inscription on Moya’s house from exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang, who lives in the nearby Poet’s House. Huang covered the exterior walls with his own poetry, written in white Chinese characters, some six feet tall. It was the first time, Huang said, he could express himself without fearing imprisonment. A third home is in the works, and City of Asylum expects to welcome a new writer this winter. During the dedication ceremony for Moya’s house, local writers and musicians were asked to respond to the question, “What is home?” For Moya, the answer isn’t a fixed place but “a state of being in which you feel a kind of safety, and a good energy for doing your work.”