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US Businessman Helps Dissident Writers Persecuted by Authoritarian Governments - 2004-08-12

A leader in the Las Vegas resort industry once hoped to become a writer but found success instead as a corporate executive. Glenn Schaeffer is president of the Mandalay Resort Group, which operates casinos and hotels throughout the United States. He has found an outlet for his literary passion through an institute that helps persecuted writers.

Mr. Schaeffer completed masters degrees in fine arts and writing at the University of California at Irvine and the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"I was at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. This was almost 30 years ago, and what I learned in two years was, I might not have the right stuff to be a novelist, so I came back to the West Coast and went into business," he said.

Working in business, he says, he would not have to face the constant rejection slips that nearly every young writer receives in response to his manuscripts.

Mr. Schaeffer became a consultant for the entertainment group behind the famous Caesar's Palace, then moved to another casino-resort called Circus Circus. Now named the Mandalay Resort Group, it has expanded into a nationwide operation of casinos and hotels, and is currently being acquired by MGM Mirage for $4.8 billion.

The high-rolling executive was having lunch one day with two friends from graduate school who are now professors at the University of Nevada. They asked what role Mr. Schaeffer could play in the writing community.

"And I said, well, I might be interested in one form of writing, which is writing checks, because for that you never get a rejection slip, and there are fewer of us doing it," he said. "And so we came up with the notion of helping writers who were facing persecution, censorship, sometimes incarceration or worse, in countries generally under tyranny."

In 2000, he founded an organization called the International Institute of Modern Letters, in part to promote the work of a program called the "cities of asylum," which offers help to persecuted writers. The first U.S. branch was in Las Vegas, and two others are operating in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Ithaca, New York. Each offers the dissident writers a place to live and work.

"They have a one-year residency, sometimes two. With Las Vegas, our first writer was Syl Cheney-Coker, who was a poet and essayist from Sierra Leone, who had a price on his head," he said.

Now, Chinese writer and artist Er Tai Gao is completing the first year of his two-year residency. "Gao is a painter, a poet, and a critic, an esthetician, who spent a number of years, too many, in the Chinese gulag for having the audacity and political bravery, effrontery, to write a book where he argued that the value of art lay in its emotive and aesthetic qualities, not in its propagandistic value. And for that, he earned a right to labor camps for any number of years," he said.

From his new Las Vegas home, the writer will soon publish a three-part memoir of his life in the prison camp.

The International Institute of Modern Letters operates at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where the Nigerian Nobel-prize winner Wole Soyinka is the program's literary director. It also has a branch at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and partnerships with Mr. Schaeffer's alma maters, the University of California at Irvine and University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

In addition to helping writers continue with their work, the program translates books for a wider audience. Mr. Schaeffer says that otherwise, few would be translated.

"There are about 140-thousand titles that are published in the United States every year, and about 200 are original works in translation. And the reason is that often they are literary books, which means they have a small market to begin with, and that makes it difficult for publishers to bear the cost because they have to pay the writer, plus a translator," he said.

The institute program finances the translations and exposes English-speaking students to overseas writings.

The Las Vegas executive says the history of censorship is a failed effort, yet totalitarian governments and tyrannies keep trying to silence independent voices. In the long run, he says, the effort accomplishes little.

"The pen still remains mightier than the sword. A few good writers reaching the right minds can do a lot in terms of changing a society. Literature, in our view, is a change agent for the better in society, and the freer the better," he said.

The Las Vegas executive says there is no ideology that motivates his efforts, but if a book of poetry or literary work angers a tyrant somewhere, Mr. Schaeffer will probably like it and the institute may consider helping the writer.