By Stephanie Brown,
I am a wild beast hunted down.
I am a captured wild beast.
I am a wild beast trampled by wild beasts.
I am a wild beast trampling wild beasts.
This age viciously seizes me
With squinting eyes
Its feet stomp on the bridge of my nose
Gnawing until barely a bone of me is left.
Even though barely a bone is left
I want this detestable age to choke on me.
– Huang Xiang, 1968
If you’ve gone to visit the Mattress Factory Art Museum, or spent time wandering the North Side, you’ve probably passed Huang Xiang’s house. It’s a small house on Sampsonia Way, with wooden siding, a gray door – and hundreds of Chinese characters painted on the walls in bold white strokes.
What you may not have known is that these characters are lines of poetry, and that the house was painted as a monument to free speech and human rights.
Huang Xiang was jailed in China for creating a similar display in Beijing in 1978. His anti-Communist poetry, painted on large banners and hung up in Tiananmen Square for all to see, prompted others to speak out against the government as well by posting anti-Communist news and ideas on the wall. These acts of resistance became known as the Democracy Wall Movement.
Huang had begun writing poetry twenty years earlier, at the same time that the Communist party launched their disastrous campaign to collectivize and industrialize China. This campaign, misleadingly termed the Great Leap Forward, led to the deaths of millions of people. Dismayed by the human rights abuses he saw all around him, Huang Xiang began to write poems that promoted justice and freedom. For his “antirevolutionary” spirit, Huang Xiang was forbidden to write and put in jail.
Huang’s role in the Democracy Wall Movement and the circulation of his pro-democracy literary journal Enlightenment would land him in prison five more times. Twice he narrowly escaped Death Row. But Huang would not be silenced. His works banned and his life in danger, Huang escaped to the US.
And that’s where the North American Network of Cities of Asylum (NANCA) came in. NANCA is an organization that gives aid to writers like Huang Xiang who have been forced to leave their home countries to preserve their lives or their work. NANCA provides a place to live for up to two years, assists with daily expenses, and organizes public events for these writers to share their work here in the US.
Huang Xiang was City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s first guest author. From 2004 to 2007, he lived in the small character-covered building he named House Poem, celebrating his freedom by sharing his poetry with everyone who walks by. “When I posted my poems on the Democracy Wall, a huge crowd gathered. It was very risky, and the consequences were dear,” Huang explained in a 2007 interview with American poet Susan Hutton. “Here, on the house, it was not risky. It was safe. The first time it was an act of rebellion; this time it is an expression of art. And if the two are combined, it reflects my pursuit of spiritual, artistic freedom.”
Huang moved to New York City in 2007. Since then, Sampsonia Way has been home to novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, exiled from El Salvador for writing “political novels” (2007-2009); fiction writer Khet Mar, arrested and tortured multiple times in Burma for her pro-democracy activities (2009-2011); and author Israel Centeno, whose work has been taken as a condemnation of political violence in Venezuela (2011 – present). Following Huang Xiang’s example, Khet Mar’s husband Than Htay Maung painted the couple’s house with a brightly colored mural depicting images of life in Burma and lines of Burmese writing.
The next time you’re in the North Side, walk down Sampsonia Way. Take a moment to look at the words and images left there by people who were willing to give up their lives and their homes to speak out against injustice. Although many of us are unable to read Chinese or Burmese, the stories behind the writing demonstrate the importance of free speech in our fight for human rights. And that message is universal.
Today, Huang Xiang’s old house has become the headquarters of Sampsonia Way Magazine, City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s online publication about “literature, free speech, and social justice.” Visit their Facebook page and subscribe to the magazine here.
Watch a video interview with Huang Xiang, and download a PowerPoint presentation of his poems. Check out the Century Mountain Project, an “East/West collaboration of art” by Huang Xiang and American artist William Rock which celebrates creative potential.
To learn more about City of Asylum Pittsburgh, visit their website and check out Pittsburgh Magazine’s article about Sampsonia Way. Read about the courageous authors that City of Asylum Pittsburgh supports and browse their work here.