By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
On Nov. 17, City of Asylum unveiled its latest public service marketing campaign against authoritarian regimes criminalizing dissent and freedom of speech: “Dictator Book Reviews,” a collaboration with advertising firm Brunner Pittsburgh. Featuring fictitious book reviews from three dictators about books they have banned in their countries, the campaign shines a light on the importance of freedom of expression in the modern age.
Located in the heart of the North Side, City of Asylum Pittsburgh is part of an international grassroots network that works to promote freedom of speech worldwide. A critical piece of that effort is their writers-in-residence program, which provides resources to authors who have been exiled from their home country while helping them build a new life.
“We are an organization whose mission is to build community, and we protect and celebrate creative free expression,” said Andrés Franco, executive director of City of Asylum Pittsburgh. “We provide housing and a stipend to the writers-in-residence who have to flee their countries because of censorship.”
Two of the authors featured in this campaign are former writers-in-residence at City of Asylum Pittsburgh. Author Israel Centeno fled Venezuela in 2011 with his wife and two children due to political persecution from supporters of Venezuela’s then-leader, Hugo Chavez. His novel “The Conspiracy” is the subject of one of the fictional reviews, “penned” by current Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
Osama Alomar is another former writer-in-residence who is featured in the public service campaign. Alomar came to City of Asylum Pittsburgh from Syria after his home and possessions were destroyed by the fighting in the region. His short story collection, “The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories,” was the subject of a review “written” by Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad.
The third and final review focuses on the short story collection, “The Accusation,” written by North Korean author Bandi, a pseudonym as he is still living in the country. The ad campaign features a critical review of the work, supposedly penned by Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un.
For this campaign, City of Asylum collaborated with Brunner Pittsburgh, who also created their 2019 “Book in a Book” ad campaign.
“They are an organization that we are proud to support,” said Kevin Corfield, writer and creative director for Brunner Pittsburgh. “We think more people should be aware of their organization around here, because they’re doing a lot of good things, not just for the city, but for writers everywhere.”
Corfield and his team heavily researched each of the leaders and authors in order to ensure the reviews came from an authentic point of view.
“It was an interesting challenge trying to get in the heads of these dictators, to write from their perspective,” said Corfield.
The campaign has been distributed in English through social media and the City of Asylum mailing list, as well as through traditional publications. There are also plans to translate each review so that they can be distributed across borders.
“As we were talking about it, we decided it would be great if we had the same content in the original languages, so it could be more widely circulated in those countries,” said Franco.
The campaign hopes to raise awareness about the plight of writers and creatives around the world, and the work City of Asylum is doing right here to address that.
“For us, the most important thing is to bring the idea of freedom of expression and to remind people that this particular issue is not getting any better. In fact, freedom of expression is under attack pretty much everywhere in the world,” said Franco. “We also want to remind everyone that we have the largest endangered writer’s sanctuary right here in Pittsburgh.”
Another part of the goal is to increase local awareness of the City of Asylum bookstore, in which all three books reviewed can be found. The proceeds from any book purchased through the City of Asylum bookstore go toward funding the writer-in-residence program and the organization as a whole.
“When you buy a book from us, you are helping us protect freedom of expression,” said Franco.
For more information on the bookstore, residency program, and virtual events, visit cityofasylum.org.