Strange Times, Indeed

Strange Times, My Dear is the most important book to be published this year in the United States.

You might wonder why I’m using such a strong statement for an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature, rather than one of the 100,000 other books of fiction being published in 2005. The reason is simple: This book represents a major win against those who think that writers from “Axis of Evil” nations should have to apply for a license to get their works published here, against those who consider a Nobel Peace Prize winner such a threat to American readers that she could not publish her book in the States, against those who think freedom of speech is negotiable with the government.

Last year, the rules imposed by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made it necessary for Arcade Publishing to go to court to get Strange Times, My Dear published. This, in one of the world’s largest democracies. Co-plaintiffs in the case were the Association of American Publishers, the Association of American University Presses, and PEN American Center, whose president, Salman Rushdie, a man who knows a thing or two about freedom of speech, contributed a letter of support. And OFAC backed down.

The first review of the book I’ve seen so far is this one, by Christopher Byrd for The American Prospect, and it’s largely positive:

Although Strange Times, My Dear is not wholly free of the blemishes usually found in anthologies, it succeeds on the primary level of hastening one to delve deeper into its chosen subject area. And, on a civic level, it heroically assists to demystify a people seldom viewed in the United States outside the lens of geopolitics. Yes, there are excerpts that feel like excerpts, such as Esmail Fassih’s “Sorraya in a Coma.” This story allows the reader to overly empathize with the protagonist’s position of waiting in the intersection between where one is and where one is headed. While other entries feel too slight, for example Ghazaleh Alizadeh’s tale of bureaucratic blitheness, “The Trial” or Manuchehr Atashi’s poem “Visitations.”(..)

In contrast with these samples, which make up a negligible part of the book’s contents, the greater portion is composed of selections that advance like a vanguard of hypnotists contracted by the original works. Hushang Golshiri’s “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi,” which describes the hypocrisy that bedevils people and revolutionary movements, provides one of the many “aha!” moments in the book. Or, in variance with the tendentious reversal of connotations in “Visitations,” there are exquisite lines of poetry that make all the more tired the bemoaning of poetry in translation.

The anthology features poetry and prose, and includes brief bios on all the authors chosen. Contributors include Mahmud Dowlatabadi, Hushang Golshiri, Shahrnush Parsipur, Abbas Kiarostami, and Roya Hakakian, among many others. You can buy a copy at Powell’s or B&N.

But what still troubles me is that, even with this gained freedom, American publishers simply are not eager to put out books in translation. Consider this: Last December, the Association of American Publishers offered $10,000 grants to publishing houses interested in releasing three Iranian novels in translation here in America. Even with the subsidy, there have been no takers so far, Poets and Writers reports. So the next time people start bitching about the insularity of the Middle East, they’d better be careful with their own glass houses. It’s a fucking worldwide disease.