An Interview with Zara Houshmand

How did you find the pieces you included in the Iran section of Literature from the "Axis of Evil"? Isn't it next to impossible to find out who the great writers are from the countries branded the "axis of evil"?

Finding out who the best Iranian writers are is not difficult if you know the language. There is a tremendous amount of literary activity in Iran now as always. The publishing industry is booming and there are many journals that feature new writing. The general public in Iran pays a lot of attention to writing that in the U.S. might be considered the preserve of the intelligentsia.

But finding Iranian writing translated well into English is much more difficult. The process was a scavenger hunt for anything that might be available in the limited time we had. I had some discussion with experts about authors worthy of including, but ultimately I sent out an email to translators to say "What do you have in hand?"

Were there any problems you encountered along the way?

One of our advisors, Majid Roshangar, editor of the Persian Book Review, found the "Axis of Evil" title very offensive and at first was unwilling to participate because of it. He relented when I explained it was tongue-in-cheek and powerful marketing.

What was offensive about the title?

No one is happy being labeled "evil." It's such an absolute and all-encompassing value judgment that it cuts off any possibility of dialogue or rational defense. Not to mention lumping Iran indiscriminately with the other countries of the so-called Axis. It's a self-righteous over-simplification and it's such a Hollywood way of looking at the world, a sound bite straight out of Star Wars.

Did other people feel the same way about the title?

Younger Iranians seemed to "get it" immediately that we were co-opting the phrase. I think the problem was mainly a question of the humor being lost in translation.

Did you include a range of writers? Were they all up-and-coming, or were they all famous?

We've included a range. Houshang Moradi-Kermani is very well known. He has been writing since the 1960s and, as he often writes for youth and many of his stories have been adapted for film and TV, several generations of Iranians have grown up with his work.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a very interesting newcomer. A conceptual artist as well as a writer, he lives between Switzerland and Tehran and writes in English, which gives some sense of how the younger generation is anything but isolated.

Finally, Ahmad Shamlu, who died in 2000, is a giant of contemporary Iranian literature, such a huge name that I can't even remember how I first became aware of his work.

What made the poems that you selected stand out? Did you like them more on a personal level, or were they the ones that the author was best known for?

It was a very personal response, which is important in translating poetry. So many of the best-known modern poems carry a political aura that's hard to reproduce in English. They might not be political on the surface but Iranians will associate them with political circumstances that are emotionally loaded. For example, a poem of longing for a lover carries a different weight when you know it was written from prison.

What are the consequences for writers of return to a more conservative political climate under Ahmadinejad?

It's not entirely clear that Ahmadinejad's unexpected rise to power represents a conservative swing, although that's invariably how it's represented in the west. His platform in the election was anti-corruption, and economic reforms to benefit the poor: fairer distribution of the oil wealth and measures to fight unemployment. Inside Iran, that only translates as "conservative" because religion is so class-bound there. Anti-Ahmadinejad feeling is pretty much limited to the intelligentsia and the wealthier sections of Tehran. Otherwise Ahmadinejad is very, very popular. Anti-government feeling more generally, however, is widespread, mainly in response to decades of corruption and inefficiency. It's also worth noting that the position of president does not hold much power. For years, Khatami's reformist movement struggled against the constitutional constraints of his position and accomplished nothing. Ahmadinejad holds no more power than Khatami did, so really not much has changed.

It's worth knowing that Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic remarks have been wildly mistranslated, distorted, and pulled out of context by the Western press. The relationship between Iran and Israel gets relatively little attention inside Iran. In general, the Western press distorts the situation in Iran and translates everything into simplistic terms of the relationship with the US. Conservative = against us; progressive = for us. On the ground, it's much more complex internally, and the US is far from being the most important external relationship.

Would you say that there is a "dissident" literature in Iran or being produced by writers in exile?

A lot of writers are living in exile because they feel the conditions for living and working in Iran are intolerable. On the other hand, a lot more "dissident" views get published in Iran than one might expect, as long as they are not framed as explicit political opinions about the post-revolution government. There is a long tradition in Iran of literature that is "veiled", and much can be expressed indirectly. There is also a tremendous amount of foreign writing translated and published in Farsi that allows for a sophisticated level of discourse. So, one might not be able to publish anything that serves as a call to action against the current regime, but one can certainly discuss political ideas in an international or historical context.

Are writers now more likely to end up in prison?

Journalists, yes, though again, this has been going on for some time and is not obviously linked to the recent election. I'm not aware of other writers in prison now.

Have any had to go into exile since his election?

Not that I'm aware of.

Iran seems to have a lively publishing business. What can we find out about how it functions under censorship, and how many books are published, etc?

I don't know if it's possible to get numbers on local publishing. Last year at the Tehran International Book Fair, 900 foreign publishers from 55 countries offered 75,000 titles. The even is open to the general public and lasts ten days.

I think the technicalities of how censorship functions (the process of submitting mss for approval, and how writers work around the various requirements) explains a lot.

It's my impression anecdotally that a lot of publishing is samizdat; books are published illegally and become bestsellers but not in the official press or something....

I've had booksellers offer me things "under the counter" but always books that had been previously officially published and were no longer available. This included Sufi writings that are now suppressed, ie. "dissident" religious views within Islam. I haven't stumbled on self-published samizdat, only manuscripts that writers are begging me to translate because they can't get published locally. But, as you know, there are many reasons why a writer can't get published, and not all of them are political. In any case, my personal experience is very limited.

Finally, this is off point, but worth knowing about. There's an article by Hamid Dabashi that gives a very interesting critique of "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It's been much circulated by Iranian writers on the internet and obviously resonates in a powerful way.