At the round wooden table in his skylit North Side kitchen, Huang Xiang jumps up for two reasons: to endlessly refill his guests' glasses with hot tea, and to fetch books -- his own extensive writings along with histories attesting that he's perhaps China's premier dissident poet of the past half-century.
Huang, 62, and his wife, the writer Zhang Ling, arrived in Pittsburgh Oct. 29 to begin a two-year residency as part of the international Cities of Asylum program, which temporarily shelters writers persecuted in their home countries. Huang's work has been banned in China for decades, and he has been continually persecuted by the government -- imprisoned six times, most recently in the mid-'90s along with Zhang, both of them tortured in detention.
They fled China in 1997, living for a time in New Jersey, then moving to New York. They did odd jobs, and Huang published 15 books, mostly poetry -- 15 more than he'd ever published in his homeland.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh businessman Ralph (Henry) Reese was researching Cities of Asylum, which he'd heard program co-founder Salman Rushdie discuss in a 1997 Pittsburgh appearance while Rushdie was still under a death sentence decreed by Muslim clerics. Eventually Reese contacted Cities of Asylum, who matched Huang and the cozy, two-story rental property Reese and his wife, artist Diane Samuels, own on narrow Sampsonia Way. With co-sponsorship by the neighboring Mattress Factory art museum, Reese is working to raise $30,000 a year to keep Huang writing in Pittsburgh -- one of a handful of American cities currently participating in the Asylum program.
Huang is slight and speaks little English; his gestures grow increasingly emphatic as he talks about Chinese repression and his open opposition to Mao Zedong and China's Communist Party. "He as a writer wants to sing freedom's voice," says Zhang, translating for Huang. "So they don't like him." Known for public performances of his ringing, Whitmanesque poems, in 1978 Huang hung a huge banner filled with anti-Communist, anti-Mao poems in Tiananmen Square. His 1979 open letter to President Jimmy Carter drew attention to Chinese human-rights abuses. British diplomat Roger Garside called Huang Xiang "the greatest free spirit known to us from China in the 20th century."
Of her husband, Zhang adds, "He was a little bit lucky because they didn't kill him."
Huang says he likes Pittsburgh; its hills, rivers and cloudy skies remind him of his home county of Guidong, in Hunan Province. Reese says Huang will do readings and other appearances here, but the poet has already fulfilled one dream: to cover a house in poetry. In a day and a half, sometimes with an audience of neighborhood kids, he painted a dozen of his poems on his house's bare wooden siding in calligraphy. (The front door reads "Poet's House / Dream Nest.") On Nov. 22, he'll unveil House Poem here at a reading featuring novelist and North American Cities of Asylum chair Russell Banks.
"He's very happy," says Zhang. "No police come to knock." If China ever opens up to him, he hopes to have two countries, she says. "He continues to look for his home. His home is freedom."