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Pittsburgh to host Prague Writers’ Festival

October 16, 2013

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The decision to hold the world-renowned Prague Writers’ Festival in Pittsburgh isn’t as unlikely as it seems.

Nearly a century ago, what was originally known as Czecho-Slovakia was born in the Pennsylvania city, in lodge of the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal organization.

The festival has given writers a platform to promote their works but, more importantly, to freely express the thoughts behind them. Friday and Saturday mark the first time the festival will be held in the United States — or anywhere outside Europe, for that matter — at Point Park University downtown.

“It’s a festival of ideas,” said Michael March, the festival’s founder — and often a platform for contentious or unpopular ones. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco writer who won a U.S. Supreme Court appeal of his arrest on obscenity charges in the 1950s, and Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” led to death threats from some who felt it attacked Islam, are past participants.

“Writers’ festivals are celebratory expressions of intellectual and artistic freedom,” said E.L. Doctorow, who will read excerpts of his new novel, “Andrew’s Brain,” at the festival.

Doctorow, known for works including “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” said festivals are important because in many countries, writers are “censored, jailed, exiled, attacked, murdered, because they know what governments know: that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.”

That the festival coincides with the anniversary of the birth of Czecho-Slovakia (the country later dropped the hyphen) only adds to that importance, said professor Channa Newman, director of global cultural studies at Point Park. She’s also the international program director for the festival and helped bring it to Pittsburgh.

The Czech Senate is sending a delegation, as is the Czech Chamber of Commerce, while the honorary consul representing Slovakia will also attend, Newman said.

“So there’s the historical ties, the cultural ties and the business ties, which is now apparently of interest,” Newman said.

March agreed that holding the festival in Pittsburgh underscores its international significance.

March, a poet, was raised in New York City. He moved to Europe after the Helsinki Accords attempted to thaw relations between then-Communist bloc nations and the West, and formed a smaller writers’ festival in late-1970s London.

March eventually established the Prague Writers’ Festival in May 1991, less than two years before Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The festival was first held in Wallenstein Palace, now home to the Czech Senate.

Celebrating Czecho-Slovakia’s birth brings the festival full circle.

The Pittsburgh Agreement, which announced the intention to form Czecho-Slovakia, grew out of a meeting in May 1918 of the Czecho-Slovak National Committee at the Moose lodge in downtown Pittsburgh, said University of Pittsburgh professor Martin Votruba. He leads what is believed to be the nation’s only university program offering a minor in Slovak Studies.

Czechs, Slovaks and some smaller ethnic groups foresaw the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and hoped to determine their own future as a nation, instead of having it thrust upon them by the international community, Votruba said.

The resulting Pittsburgh Agreement was essentially a Czecho-Slovak declaration of independence, said Andrew Masich, director of Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center. The museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian, has had a copy of the document since 2007.

The document’s author, T. G. Masaryk, declared the nation’s independence on Oct. 18, 1918, and became the new nation’s first president a month later, after the war.

“People forget, the first Czecho-Slovak flag either flew in Washington, D.C., or in Pittsburgh,” March said.

The Pittsburgh Agreement “wasn’t a perfect creation, it was an artificial creation during a terrible time of the first World War, a time of absolute devastation for people,” March said. But, he said, reflecting on that might help people “appreciate their own environment even more.”

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