Reading the world

For someone who can count on one hand the number of times he’s been out of the U.S. (even taking the San Diego trolley to Tijuana), I am fascinated by other countries. I decided to indulge myself last weekend with two books I just heard about. I’m certainly glad I did.

The first was The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent, edited by James and Kathryn Morrow. I came across it in a reference to a panel at Readercon, which I’m attending next week. A number of years ago I read a collection of Soviet science fiction edited by Isaac Asimov and was intrigued. This work outshines that one.

The 16 stories do not depart greatly from traditional SF memes and subjects. Yet they present just a slightly different view or slant, one not so different as to be off putting but enough that you sense a somewhat fresh and unique feel. Translated from French, Russian, Italian, Finnish, Czech, Polish and Romanian, to name a few, the stories seem to have an inherent sense of place that I may well overlook in the works of the well-known American and British SF authors. As such, excellent stories were enhanced by touches both distinct and distinctive.

The other book — purchased at the same time — is equally inimitable: Literature from the “Axis of Evil”, an excellent compilation from Words Without Borders. (Public Service Announcement: Go read WWB’s excellent online magazine, which has been on my blogroll for months; subscribe to its newsletter; and give a donation to support its efforts to promote international communication through translation of the world’s best writing.)

Don’t let the book’s title or subtitle (Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations) mislead you. This is not prose and poetry fomenting, expressing or based upon contempt or hatred for America. This is, insofar as any particular country is concerned, straightforward writing by its citizens, some in exile. Not only is there the so-called “Axis of Evil” itself, there are also works from Cuba, Syria, Libya and the Sudan.

Not all of it is my cup of tea. But perhaps that is to be expected when I not only do not have but often have lacked the opportunity to learn about the cultural background. Besides, would it truly be foreign literature if some of it did not feel “foreign”? Suffice it to say that, at least to me, the works from the Middle Eastern countries seemed to share a somewhat common, although not universal, feel that stems largely from Arabic traditions, heritages and beliefs. Yet it also provides firsthand insight into those traditions, beliefs and everyday life, as well as some basic commonality to growing up and human existence. Likewise, the work from Sudan (of which I found “The Sweetest Tea with the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” particularly compelling) and Cuba also carried their own feel firmly rooted in their unique culture.

Yet what struck me most — and perhaps best explains why reading literature from our “enemies” helps us understand the people — is the North Korean works. Although certainly unintended by the authors, the stories may be the most explicit portrayal of just how bleak life must be in this authoritarian state. Given state control of the arts and literature, every piece glorifies the North Korean government and, particularly, “the Great Leader,” Kim Il Sung. There are also plenty of barbs at Americans, the Japanese and anybody else on Kim’s list. Given that this is literature as it is known in North Korea, it paints a better picture of North Korean life and society than anything I have read to date.

I fully endorse and understand the purpose of works like these. I think the editors at Words Without Borders said it quite well in their book’s introduction:

Our hope was that with this book we might simply celebrate diverse works of literature and through them, provide fresh perspectives on the notion of the “enemy nation.” Is the “enemy” a particular leader, or a more pervasive ideology? A system of government, a people, a social group? …. we aim simply to stimulate international conversation through literature, with all its complexity and nuanced insights into the ideas, beliefs, daily lives and articles of reference of people of other cultures, who are thinking and writing in languages other than English.

Literature from the “Axis of Evil” undoubtedly succeeds in that regard. And while The SFWA European Hall of Fame comes from an entirely different angle and genre, it, too provides an opportunity to reduce our ignorance of other parts of the world and the thought, traditions and culture that helps create any person’s sense of place.

[T]he last thing we should do in these dark times is shut ourselves off from seeking greater knowledge of foreign experience.

Editors’ Note, Literature from the “Axis of Evil”

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