A while ago I went to hear a talk by Iran’s foremost woman writer living in the US today. Azar Nafisi. She is author of the international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, and professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
Her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, has spent over 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been translated in 32 languages, and has won diverse literary awards… It mixes a book group studying literary masters and invasive Iranian politics. It shows a sophisticated, educated people who find themselves surrounded by strict Islamic laws; it brings the reader into women’s dizzying shift from wearing European dress to a chador. Reading authors such as Nabokov become an expression of inner freedom. Azar has an on-line reading list: The Thousand and One Arabian Nights are there, along with Nabokov, Austen, Flaubert and Fitzgerald.
Marin Academy, where my sons attended high school, invited Azar Nafisi to speak in the Thatcher Lecture series on April 20. She talks quickly with a kind of urgency that is born in someone who understands how very fast one’s reality can shift; she is a speaker who wants to impress the audience with the preciousness of the freedom to share your truth, as you know it. She addressed a crowd of the students and their parents. The reading of literature was the vehicle of her message that night.
“One of the best things about books,” she said, “is the connections they make… readers and writers share the trait of curiosity.” She quotes Nabokov, “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” She continues: “Insubordination is an everyday business. It’s posing yourself as a question mark. A good education strives to make us more restless about our world. Curiosity is the basis of this restlessness. Nothing in life is ordinary! Art, music, and poetry give us curiosity. Fiction gives us the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes…. Literature brings us together. The novel is about the shock of recognition… how much we have in common! The villain in fiction is the one who doesn’t listen, see, or be willing to change. Blindness is bad. Literature is always an act of discovery. We need to investigate. We live in a world that’s intellectually timid. Discover something that you don’t know! You need imagination in order to imagine a future that doesn’t exist.” Her subtext for me was to stay awake, and beware of how fast the powers-that-be can take away the freedom of an unaware people; keep your mind keen, practice intellectual bravery.
“Iran was ethnically diverse with many different religions and all of a sudden we had a Muslim world! Bereft of individuality, culture and religion. Iran is 3,000 years old and half of that time it was Zoroastrian, after the seventh century it changed to Islam. But we still celebrate the first day of spring, a Zoroastrian Holiday.”
I have been reading her new book, a brave memoir called, Things I’ve Been Silent About. It grabbed me right away. She offers beautiful writing and the scenes of family life in Teheran during the time of the Shah. The book begins with: “Most men cheat on their wives to have mistresses. My father cheated on my mother to have a happy family life” It is a deeply personal reflection and exploration of a young girl’s pain over family secrets and a mother’s lost life. The first half of the book is a wonderful fresh Alice-in-wonderland look at growing up. Then the political realities replace family life – as it did for many Iranians – and the book shifts gears. For those who have read Reading Lolita in Tehran, this is a very good next read. If you love books– you’ll savor Reading Lolita…<>
ResearchChannel – 2004 National Book Festival – Azar Nafisi. Click on this. It is a powerful video from of Azar speaking at the National Book Festival, 2004