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Dissident and novelist from African autocracy finds sanctuary at Cornell

"I didn't attach writing to politics; I just thought it was important to inform Swazis about certain simple things that can be harmful," says writer Sarah Mkhonza [pronounced mm-KON-za] of her fictional stories that tell of violence against women and other injustices in her native country, Swaziland, the southeast African nation that is one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchies.

Hate mail and public attacks on her writing didn't stop Mkhonza from publishing in Swazi newspapers, but when her faculty office at the University of Swaziland was broken into and her computer and diskettes were stolen and destroyed in 2001, "I started to be afraid," she says. "I felt there were people who were asked to harm us."

In 2003 Mkhonza managed to make her way to the United States with her two sons. Granted asylum in 2005, she taught at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., before coming to Cornell this August as a visiting scholar in Africana studies and English and as a writer-in-residence for two years with Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA). Affiliated with Cornell's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, the organization provides sanctuary to writers in exile whose works have been suppressed.

Mkhonza, who earned her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in 1996, will teach Zulu at the Africana Studies and Research Center this semester -- the first time the language has been offered since the early 1990s. The author of two novels for young adults, "What the Future Holds" and "Pains of a Maid," she hopes to continue her writing here, shedding light on problems that plague southern Africa but also giving young people "a feeling of hope."

"I'm grateful to ICOA, Cornell and Africana Studies for all the help they have given me," says Mhkonza, who is the recipient of a 2002 Hammett-Hellman Award from Human Rights Watch and a Novib/PEN Emergency Fund grant.

"Ithaca City of Asylum is a fantastic program," says Kathleen Gemmell, chair of ICOA and director of planning, policy and academic support in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. "It offers us a chance to make a significant difference, one life at a time, and it gives writers at risk a chance to stabilize their lives, resume their writing careers and be in a better position to find work in two years."

Although they are not required to, all ICOA writers-in-residence have taught courses at Cornell, notes Gemmell. "They have found it a good way to integrate themselves into the academic community. And their presence brings us an immense cultural richness, diversity and range of experiences as well as a better understanding of what it's like to live in less fortunate places." Iranian writer Reza Daneshvar, in residence in 2003-06, was the first to offer classes in Farsi. Chinese writer Yi Ping, in residence in 2001-03, now edits a journal in Chinese from Ithaca.

Cornell plays a big part, providing a visiting scholar appointment, salary, office and other expenses for each writer-in-residence as needed, including travel expenses, health insurance and costs associated with obtaining a visa. Also supporting ICOA are Ithaca College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where Mkhonza will interact with students and faculty. Additional help comes from individual donations and volunteer efforts.

"Cornell has been involved with Ithaca Community of Asylum from the beginning," says Gemmell. Founding ICOA members include Walter Cohen, professor of comparative literature and former dean of the Graduate School; Anne Berger, professor of French; and Bridget Meeds, staff member in the Center for Applied Mathematics. Berger and Meeds also are members of ICOA's advisory board.

Mkhonza will speak and read from her writing Sunday, Sept. 24, at ICOA's Voices of Freedom, which commemorates Banned Books Week. The free public event takes place at 3 p.m. in the First Unitarian Church of Ithaca and includes a performance by world musician and Ithaca resident Samite.

ICOA is linked with the international cities of asylum movement started by writer Salman Rushdie in 1994 after the murders of writers and intellectuals in Algeria, and with the North American Network of Cities of Asylum.

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