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Unlikely Haven for a Writer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even over a bottle of wine, the idea sounded crazy to the two novelists: declare this an international “City of Asylum” for oppressed writers?

But as they talked, the head of the local university’s writing program and the Nobel Prize-winning author from Nigeria grew more confident. This is, after all, the city of second chances, a magnet for people on the run, a well-known backdrop for human frailties and fantasies.

And so it has come to pass that Las Vegas, hungry to prove that it has a sophisticated side, is the first American city to join an international program for writers escaping terror or turmoil.

With key support from its ambitious mayor and a would-be novelist who happens to run casinos, the city is set to announce today that a poet from the war-torn West African nation of Sierra Leone is its resident writer-in-asylum.

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From the den of his temporary townhome, Syl Cheney-Coker, 55, can now view the garish neon of casinos, a world apart from the homeland he reluctantly left in 1997 after U.S. diplomats warned that his life was in danger.

Tens of thousands have been murdered and maimed by terrorist rebels during nine years of civil war in Sierra Leone. In Las Vegas, Cheney-Coker says, he is better able to concentrate on his acclaimed prose and focus attention on tyranny.

“I expect Las Vegas to be a place where imagination is allowed to run wild,” he said. “I hope this will be a very fruitful experience.”

The notion of bringing the poet to a place best known in literary circles for Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was launched by Richard Wiley, head of the writing program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Nigerian Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986.

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Soyinka is president of the International Parliament of Writers, formed in 1993--after Iranian death threats were made against author Salman Rushdie--to help writers in jeopardy find safe harbor. Rushdie twice served as president of the group, which has since found sponsors for about 60 writers in two dozen cities around the world, including Stockholm, Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris and Mexico City.

Cheney-Coker, who previously taught literature in New York, has been given use of a townhome and car, and will receive an annual stipend exceeding $30,000, thanks to local benefactors.

Key among them: the casino company Mandalay Resort Group, which quickly contributed $20,000 to support the writer, and the group’s president, Glenn Schaeffer, who contributed $5,000 more.

Cheney-Coker is completing his fourth book of poetry, titled “Stone Child” in reference to the diamond mines that finance the rebels in Sierra Leone.

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The author, whose work is contained in three other harshly titled poetry collections--"Concerto for an Exile” (1973), “The Graveyard Also Has Teeth” (1980) and “The Blood in the Desert’s Eyes” (1990)--arrived in Las Vegas a week ago. His initial observations of this place are as candid as his view of his native country.

Reflecting on his first foray into a neighborhood casino Sunday night, he said: “I walked in and saw at least 2,000 gamblers, gambling themselves to agony. I’m sure they were losing money. I saw grief on their faces, long looks of agony and despair.”

He is free here to make such observations--even if he is figuratively biting the hand that will feed him--in stark contrast to the risks he faced in Sierra Leone for a voice that reviewers described as filled with passion and righteous anger.

Cheney-Coker had been identified by the International Parliament of Writers as a poet under political siege, and the organization was quick to match him with Las Vegas, whose role in the program evolved serendipitously.

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Soyinka had participated in a 1999 lecture program at UNLV, where he was awarded an honorary degree and became a friend of Wiley, himself a renowned author.

Over dinner and wine, Soyinka and Wiley discussed the “City of Asylum” program and wondered aloud--at first cynically--whether Las Vegas might host it.

“It was counterintuitive,” Wiley said. “Wole was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t get any U.S. city to sponsor a writer, even though it had become popular in Europe. And we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we did it here in Las Vegas--because it’s the last place anyone would think of.’ ”

Said Soyinka: “My reaction was, ‘Are you serious?’ And then I thought, ‘Why not?’ Cities are known for certain things--in Las Vegas, gambling and go-go girls--at the exclusion of other things.”

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Other cities, of course, are home to exiled authors, but the International Parliament of Writers seeks communities that will offer formal sponsorship. In the United States, the program is under consideration by supporters in Oakland and Atlanta.

Key to its success is finding local sponsors to pay the living expenses of a writer in refuge, Soyinka said.

In Las Vegas, the plot turns came quickly.

Wiley had attended the acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop with Schaeffer, the local casino executive and writer. Schaeffer offered his moral--and financial--support.

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“Las Vegas is on its way to becoming a major American city,” Schaeffer said. “We already have one of the five most recognizable skylines in the United States. We’re the fastest-growing city. And while we don’t have a resident symphony or museum . . . we do have the ability to support the arts, besides what we’ll call popular entertainment.”

To further boost the local literary arts, Schaeffer has since endowed a $2-million chair in creative writing at UNLV--to be filled in January by Soyinka--and is launching the Institute for Modern Letters, of which Soyinka will be the director of literary arts. Soyinka thus becomes the first Nobel laureate to take up residence in Nevada.

With Schaeffer and the Mandalay Resort Group providing the initial funding, the International Parliament of Writers invited Cheney-Coker to come to Las Vegas for at least a year, perhaps two. The possibility of bringing more writers here hinges on continued support, and optimistic fund-raising is underway, Wiley said.

“I find the irony absolutely exquisite,” Soyinka said. “The predominant culture of Las Vegas--the glitz, the surface culture--absolutely precluded in my imagination any consideration of it being a creative sanctuary.”

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Already, Cheney-Coker said, he has learned that the city “has a saner side. I’m going to devour both halves of Las Vegas.”

Perhaps, he speculated, the city will nourish his creativity more than, say, a London or a New York. “If you go to a great, cultured place--with great symphonies, great museums, great theater, that can be a hindrance,” he said. “Establishment has a way of destroying innovation.”

But “by its very nature, Las Vegas is very freeing, and should be an exciting place to write in.”

Local writers and literary fans note that distinguished American writers--ranging from novelist Robert Stone to poet Robert Stern--have done readings in Las Vegas, to enthusiastic audiences.

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“Who’d think there’s an audience for poetry and serious literature in Las Vegas?” said Lenadams Dorris, a local writer and radio commentator who owns Enigma, a coffee shop that hosts literary readings. “But no matter who shows up, and whatever time of the year, they get an audience. People are hungry here, in search of things to feed their souls.”

For his part, Cheney-Coker hopes his presence will help “prove people wrong who demonize Las Vegas as Sodom and Gomorrah.”

And he says he can easily reconcile himself to the fact that his primary sponsor is a casino conglomerate.

“It makes absolute sense to me,” he said, “that people who are making money out of gambling should put the money back into the arts.”

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