STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, people trying to understand North Korea might find some clues by studying an unusual export. That export is creative writing, and it's compiled in a book called Literature from the Axis of Evil. It gathers short stories and poems from three countries that once received that label from President Bush: Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Additional material comes from Syria, Cuba, Sudan, and Libya.
To help judge this work, we sent a copy to Azar Nafisi. She is an Iranian-born writer, whose own works include Reading Lolita in Tehran. And she's in our studios.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Iranian Author): And thank you.
INSKEEP: The editors of this book suggest that you can learn something about even enemy nations by reading their literature. Can you?
Ms. NAFISI: Oh, well, yes. Definitely. Mainly because those nations, the governments might be considered, quote/unquote, "enemy," but definitely not the people. These stories and poems offer an alternate view, which is very different from the politicized and polarized view of these nations.
INSKEEP: Is that true in the country you know best, Iran?
Ms. NAFISI: Actually, Iran is one of the best examples. Some - everything that you read, in terms of fiction or poetry, is a statement against both the dominant view of Iran in this country, and the view that the Islamic regime tries to put out. Iranian fiction is playful. It is sensual. It is anti-authoritarian. So it has all these elements.
INSKEEP: Does this mean that Iranian writers directly criticize the regime? Or are they doing something more subtle?
Ms. NAFISI: Well, you know, I think that generally with stories, you do become subtle because subtlety is, in fact, a way of resisting the brutal obviousness of an authoritarian state. Mr. Ahmadinejad is very obvious.
INSKEEP: The president there.
Ms. NAFISI: The president. But these writers are subtle because they are trying to also shape the mind of the readers, and give it nuance and give it playfulness.
INSKEEP: Interesting that you say trying to shape the mind of the readers, because the first story in this collection, called The Vice Principal, is about a school where students' minds are being shaped. What is this story about?
Ms. NAFISI: This is one of the greatest examples of what anti-authoritarianism should be all about. This is the story of a boy who wants to be a writer, and who reads books that are out of the box.
INSKEEP: So this boy is reading banned books.
Ms. NAFISI: He's reading banned books and he is writing on topics that are fresh, that are not pre-formulated. And he's being punished severely by the vice principal of his school for being a good writer and a good reader.
INSKEEP: I don't think it's giving away too much of this story to say that this boy is given an assignment to write an essay about who serves society most. And he says...
Ms. NAFISI: The body washers, someone who washes the corpses. He says that in all other areas - doctors, teachers, farmers - they are appreciated for the work that they do. But the body washer is exiled from his community; no one appreciates what he does. No one wants to associate with him. So instinctively, as a writer, he chooses the exile - the person that mass mind would refuse. This is fantastic.
INSKEEP: And he gets beaten senseless in front of the class.
Ms. NAFISI: And gets beaten senseless. And the class, of course, except for a few students, they are not really sympathetic towards him.
INSKEEP: Sometimes, I suppose, it can be said the writers win. But there are other occasions where it seems the writers have lost. There's an essay in this book, of short stories from The Axis of Evil, which suggests that Iraq's literary elite were totally defeated by Saddam Hussein. They totally gave in and totally began supporting the regime.
Ms. NAFISI: In one sense, they were defeated. But, you know, this is the great thing about works through words. No matter where you are, the word gets across. And notice that many of these writers are in exile. And so, I think that one message is that the home that a writer or a reader feels safest in is in the Republic of Imagination, in the portable world that we carry with us wherever we go. It is very, very difficult, unless you live in North Korea, to be silenced. I think there are ways of getting across.
INSKEEP: There are also stories from North Korea in here.
Ms. NAFISI: Those are the most horrifying, I think. We have the story of this woman who's talking about her brother who's a genius in music. And all his life he wanted to learn music, and then he gives it up to become a stonecutter in order to cut the statue of the great leader. And he talks about the fact that the stone is the highest form of music, you know.
INSKEEP: And this is not written as if the brother has made a terrible choice, but as if he's made a good one.
Ms. NAFISI: He has made a good one. It is the ultimate in state asking you to give up everything, at whose service politics should be: children, love, music. All of it becomes subservient to the one voice of the leader and his stone monument.
INSKEEP: So we're learning something from this literature even when it's pretty bad.
Ms. NAFISI: We are learning constantly from stories. Stories are wayward. They never remain within the control of even their own creators, and this is what's so exciting about stories.
INSKEEP: The book is called Literature from the Axis of Evil. It's a Words Without Borders anthology. And we had a review conversation with Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Thanks very much.
Ms. NAFISI: Thank you.
(Soundbite of a North Korean lullaby)
INSKEEP: And if you thought that literary collection was one of a kind, think again. We're listening to music from a CD called Lullabies from the Axis of Evil. This North Korean lullaby is performed on a CD with lyrics in both Korean and in English.
(Soundbite of Korean Lullaby sung in English)
Unknown Woman: (Singing) Stars are rising in the night, like shining (unintelligible) on velvet skies.
INSKEEP: The CD also includes songs from Iraq and a traditional lullaby from Iran.
(Soundbite of music)
(Singing in foreign language)
INSKEEP: And you can hear more Axis of Evil lullabies and read Baghdad, My Beloved and other selections from literature from the Axis of Evil by going to NPR.org.
(Soundbite of music)