Almost three years ago Dorothy Connell and her husband, Sherman Carroll, conceived the idea for Readers International, a nonprofit organization publishing contemporary literature from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
Connell and Carroll are Americans who went to live in London after completing their graduate studies at Harvard. Connell has worked for the Index on Censorship, which monitors the plight of novelists, poets, journalists, and other writers all over the world, whether they are victims of dictatorships or of secular or religious persecution. Her husband has worked for Amnesty International, the London-based organization that defends the rights of political prisoners whatever the ideology of the governments that have imprisoned them.
During a visit to Mexico while on leave from their jobs, Connell and Carroll were impressed by the wide variety of Latin American writing available there. Works that had been banned in countries like Chile, Brazil, and Argentina were readily available in Mexico. Much of this writing, however, had not been translated into English. This gave Connell and Carroll the idea of offering English-speaking readers third-world authors, many of whose works had been banned in their native countries.
Readers International was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 1983. Its editorial offices are in London, and it has offices for subscrip-tions and distribution in New York and Louisiana. Why Louisiana? Both Connell and Carroll are Louisiana natives and went to college in their home state. Connell recalls that her early interest in South Africa's system of apartheid owed much to her own feelings of guilt as a Southerner growing up in a segregated society.
In conjunction with Connell and Carroll and a board of advisers (translators and other experts in regional literatures), Readers International has planned a truly international list of books. The firm hopes not only to provide English-speaking readers with firsthand accounts of life in such places as South Africa, Chile, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Czechoslovakia, and the People's Republic of China, but also to publish books of enduring literary quality.
How does it operate? Initially, Connell says, by offering subscriptions: For about $42 a year, subscribers will receive six books. Readers International also plans to distribute some of its books through bookstores as the project gets under way.
First in its six-book series is ''A Ride on the Whirlwind,'' by Sipho Sepamla. Banned by the South African government in 1977, Sepamla's book was unbanned on appeal in 1980. The authorities felt that his novelistic account of the 1976 Soweto riots was basically truthful, even if - in their opinion - too favorable to the rioters and too hard on the police. The book is appearing in England as part of Heinemann's African Writers Series.
The second book is by Peking-based scholar Yang Jiang, who is now in her 70s. During the Cultural Revolution she and her husband, a well-known Chinese writer, were forced to work on a farm. Her account, ''Cadre School Life,'' was published for limited circulation in China after the present regime came to power. It has already been published in Hong Kong and reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement (London).
Scheduled for this month is Sergio Ramirez's novel, ''To Bury Our Fathers,'' which provides a picture of life in Nicaragua under the Somoza regime. Ramirez is now a prominent member of Nicaragua's Sandinista government. His novel, which first appeared in 1977 (published in Venezuela by Monte Avila), is, in Connell's opinion, a far cry from revolutionary propaganda: Although epic in its mode of storytelling, it expresses an ironical attitude toward left-wing revolutions as well as right-wing dictatorships.
''My Merry Mornings,'' stories by the Czech writer Ivan Klima, will be available in January. A Czech edition is being published in Toronto by Czech emigre Josef Skvorecky's Sixty-eight Publishers. (Skvorecky's own novel, ''The Engineer of Human Souls,'' has recently been published in this country by Knopf.) The Czech edition is published abroad with a view to its being smuggled back into Czechoslovakia, a practice known as tamishdat.
Fifth in the Readers International series is a novel by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmenta, who is living in exile in West Berlin. ''I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning'' is set in the last days of the Allende government in Chile, which came to a brutal end with the assassination of the elected Marxist leader and the takeover by the current military regime.
Asked if Readers International plans to publish any books that are previously unpublished elsewhere, Connell says he is trying to obtain the manuscripts of Hiber Conteris, a prisoner in Uruguay who has written four novels. Prison authorities have thus far denied requests for the manuscripts from Conteris's family; Readers International hopes that its expression of interest in these writings may preserve them from oblivion.
The final book in the series is a novel set in Saudi Arabia. Its author is head of the Palestinian Writers' Union. ''Najran Below Zero'' is an indictment of life under a virtual theocracy, a country where religious leaders are exceedingly powerful. In the many places they have gone to live, remarked Connell, Palestinians have often taken on the role of gadfly: Being outsiders and generally well educated has given them a unique perspective on the Middle East.
Readers International may well serve as a gadfly itself, reminding those of us who are used to a relatively high degree of freedom that people who live under repressive regimes are neither content with oppression nor ''used to'' censorship. In fact, they are fighting against it every way they can.