Sean Carman on a reading across borders

Sean Carman, our man in Washington D.C., reports on a reading of Literature From the Axis of Evil.

It’s a great paradox that, at a time when communication across borders and between peoples has never been easier, or more vital, there is so little of it. There are American media outposts in every corner of the globe, and yet the news they bring back tends to address a limited set of concerns. True cultural exchange — people of one country speaking directly to another — takes place rarely in our so-called globalized world.

In 2003, works in translation accounted for less than one-half of 1% of the books available to Americans. As the editors of Literature From the Axis of Evil: Writing From Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations, write in the introduction to their anthology of foreign stories and poems, “the attacks on the World Trade Center were an assault on a symbol, made in total ignorance of the reality of the particular human lives unfolding within the towers.”

Yet we responded to that act of ignorance with one of our own, equally misguided in its conception, but even more devastating to the lives of innocent people. It isn’t even radical to point out that there is a connection here, between a country whose citizens aren’t acquainted with the world, and that country’s failure to comprehend the nature of the threat against it or to anticipate the disaster that would unfold from its misguided response.

Last week in Washington, two nights before the President announced his intention to escalate his war, the editors of Axis and five local writers read from a collection that hopes to bridge the world’s most dangerous divide.

Literature from the Axis of Evil is published by the New Press, and is the first print endeavor of the web project Words Without Borders. The anthology collects poems and short stories by contemporary writers from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and the Sudan.

Axis is notable for the insight it offers into the people and cultures of these countries. It’s the kind of perspective literature is uniquely adept at delivering. Reading these stories and poems, we identify with the sadness, light moments, and small triumphs of their characters, and so become intimate with something beyond the American experience.

Jeffery Paine, one of the presenters at this week’s D.C. reading, put it best when he said that Axis is “a worthy book for other than literary reasons.” And it is also true, as he said, that if you read this book you will know more than the Administration does about the cultures and people of America’s so-called enemy nations. Axis might also be viewed as the best kind of armchair travel book, one that gifts its reader with the cultural understanding and appreciation that even travel doesn’t always provide.

I particularly enjoyed the stories “The Vice Principal,” by Houshang Moradi-Kermani, and “On the Sacks,” by Hanna Mina. Each is a touching narrative autobiography about its author’s beginnings as a writer. Because the collection is so eclectic, there will be something to delight and disappoint every taste. The prose poem “Project for a Commemorative Mural (Mixed Media)” is the sort of thing that makes my eyes roll, and the North Korean entries are essentially state propaganda, as the prefatory Editor’s Note acknowledges. This is a collection, in other words, that is rewarding, but that also demands understanding. That understanding is, if you think about it, sort of the point of the enterprise.

Axis also illustrates the difficulty in its own undertaking. The collection speaks eloquently and easily across political boundaries, and yet it highlights the challenges in describing literature through the prism of politics. There is the problem of translation, of course, a creative and therefore fraught endeavor, and there is the difficulty of convincing a skeptical public that literature is an antidote to isolationism. It was remarkable how many of the questions following last week’s reading were essentially hostile. (At the uber-hip U Street bookstore and restaurant where the reading happened there was an added problem, of waiters constantly passing through the swinging doors that only partially muffled the din of the restaurant in the next room. It wasn’t their fault, of course. That was just the thing. If you wanted to hear the stories and poetry, you had to filter out the noise that, at times, seemed to be all around.)

Last week President Bush told the country that we are locked in the decisive ideological struggle of our time, a conflict between the elements of freedom and moderation on the one hand and, on the other, extremists who want to destroy our way of life. He offered that bit of rhetoric to justify the escalation of a conflict that is killing far more innocents than extremists, and that now threatens to launch us into an unnecessary war with Syria and Iran.

In its noble mission and the power of its art, Literature From the Axis of Evil stands as a healing response to this madness. At a time when communicating across borders is at once remarkably easy and terribly hard, a time that begs us to find ways to transit the chasms of our world, here is one small bridge — a web site and its companion print anthology — that offers a way across.

See also: Excerpts at NPR, and a podcast featuring anthology editor Alane Mason.


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