WSU students bring asylum for exiled writers to Detroit

The English department would like to welcome a new student organization to Wayne State University, City of Asylum Detroit! This student org is partnering with a parent organization under the name City of Asylum, whose Detroit branch is in the works and hopes to soon be an official member. Essentially, City of Asylum is a network of cities, most of which are located in Europe and were formed to protect writers whose lives have been threatened because of the truths they write. 

Laura Kraftowitz and Robert Laidler provided more information on the brand-new Detroit branch. There are currently four Cities of Asylum in the U.S. The first three are in Pittsburgh, Ithaca and Las Vegas. The fourth is taking root in Detroit. Kraftowitz is the co-founder of City of Asylum Detroit and Laidler is the founder of the student organization at Wayne State. For some time, Kraftowitz had wanted to create a socially engaged writing residency and thus decided to initiate this particular branch. She is from Pittsburgh and has an affiliation with the Tree of Life synagogue where a shooting occurred last year. After this horrific attack, Kraftowitz felt even more strongly that she must take action to “show resilience in the face of hate.” For her, what made the most sense was to found City of Asylum Detroit.

Kraftowitz stated that the goal of “Cities of Asylum is to host authors and writers who are imperiled in their place of origin […] and to provide two years of sanctuary, time to write, a stipend and no obligation to work, healthcare, professional networking and assistance with publication. The mission is to basically provide time, space and platform to people whose voices have been suppressed. There are over 200 people [who have] come through this program.” The sanctuary has recently been expanded to visual artists as well. The chair of the Pittsburgh Headquarters has spent 14 years developing their program and his mission is to bring COA to the national level.

City of Asylum/Detroit

Since this organization largely centers around assisting exiled writers, it is important to better understand what that means. The COA Detroit co-founders shared their thoughts on what it means to be an exiled writer. Kraftowitz mentioned that being an exiled writer is much more than geography. For her, it has to do with “whether you [the writer] are able to connect with your sense of self and express that sense of self without fear of verbal or physical abuse. So that can apply to the international setting where people do face political persecution by the government for what they say overtly, where they’re thrown into jail or attacked physically. We can also talk about what it means to be here in the US and to have your voice suppressed.”

Laidler said of the matter “I think the exiled writers get their strength from the word ‘exile.’ If you think of the olden days form of exile, which was to just send someone off to a place to where they were by themselves, their voice was not able to be heard at all. And, the goal of this is not to necessarily agree with every political point that’s going to be made by the writer, but we do believe that the writer has a right to write. And if that’s taken away, if their voice is taken away and they’re in danger because of something that they’ve said, due to their political affiliation. We’re not going to write things that everyone likes and we have a freedom here in America […] but in other countries, if you write a poem that goes against your government, you are in danger of losing your life for it. That’s kind of what the City of Asylum is made for, is to stop this muting of writers and to basically encourage the writing to keep going. Because […] you should have just as much of a right to write beautiful things as well as realistic things and things that paint an ugly picture of the world or an accurate picture of the world.”

With that in mind, Laura further explained that the main objective is to assist international writers and “to give voices that have been suppressed, a platform, but I would say a secondary objective as an organization in Detroit, which is undergoing a period of rapid transformation is to bring the kinds of voices to the community that the community would benefit from and to also serve the community in some way, through readings, through events, through providing space for that [to happen].”

As the organization is in the early stages, there are some details that are still being finalized. However, COA Detroit will very soon be obtaining a space in which they will be able to host residents free of charge. The location will have a renovated living space for authors as well as a space for events such as film screenings, readings or dinners. The next step is to bring on an exiled writer, which will likely take place in May of 2020.   

Laidler commented that while there are international writers in danger, there are also “writers right around the corner, who don’t know that they’re writers but are also in danger at the same time. So, this organization cannot just bring asylum for international people, but could be asylum for people who live right here in the city of Detroit.” 

Amira Hanafi reading.

This group especially wants to connect with WSU because they have seen the success of COA in Ithaca and its partnership with Cornell University. The hope is that by having a WSU connection another level of professionalism will be associated with the org. The founders of COA Detroit have seen how WSU benefits its surrounding community, especially with the recent decision to offer Detroit students free tuition to WSU. As well as the fact that the university also houses Inside Out Detroit, which provides creative writing programs for youth. COA Detroit believes they too can contribute to the city and university. 

While participating with the org students will learn a number of skills which will include, making journals, organizing readings, servicing readers when they are not from the area, contacting famous writers or their agents, as well as properly hosting the writer. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to intern and obtain English credit with ENG 5820. Interns may work on some of the aforementioned tasks as well as projects such as a podcast for COA Detroit.

This organization will be beneficial to an undergraduate’s experience as a writer during their time at WSU. Traditionally, students may register for a few creative writing classes, but after graduation, they are off on their own when it comes to this style of writing. This organization will allow students to learn what it’s like to be a full-time writer as well as provide the opportunity to help others.

The student organization will be hosting events such as readings. Earlier this semester, poet Amira Hanafi read some of her work at Wayne State. The event received a great turn out and the org hopes to host another reading soon. They will also be recruiting for positions within the organization. Kraftowitz is looking forward to involving students in the org because they bring a different type of energy which will be vital to the organization as it moves forward and builds its foundation.

Anyone interested in participating with City of Asylum Detroit or in obtaining more information can contact the org at or follow them on Instagram @cityofasylumdetroit.

By Nicole Saez