Imagination can change reality, Iranian expatriate says
Azar Nafisi discusses 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' and her upcoming Austin event.
By Edward Nawotka
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, March 26, 2006
It probably struck more than a few people as naïve when, three years ago, the U.S. State Department recruited 15 writers — including Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and then poet laureate Billy Collins — to contribute to an anthology of essays promoting America to Arabic-speaking nations. Cynics probably wondered if literature was really the way to win the hearts of hostile Middle Easterners.
Don't count Azar Nafisi among the cynics. Her surprise best-selling memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," describes how Nafisi, after being fired from her job as an English professor at Tehran University for refusing to wear a veil, taught a clandestine literature class to seven Iranian women. Together, they relied on banned American literature, such as Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" to sustain their dreams of freedom amid severe repression.
Nafisi, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, comes to Austin to give a talk on Wednesday as part of Spark: KLRU's Engaging Speaker Series. Currently a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Nafisi spoke with us via phone from her home in Washington, D.C.
Austin American-Statesman: Does your lecture here in Austin have a topic?
Azar Nafisi: I want to talk about the importance of imagination to culture and the way in which it transforms our reality and our interpretation of it. I want to link that to my experiences in Iran, a society that is culturally suppressed, in order to create a form of dialogue between the two systems and cultures. There is a way literature reveals our universal aspirations.
How has your life changed since publication of the book?
Dramatically. When my book came out, my publisher wanted me to go to the usual cities. I told them I wanted to discover America instead, so I started my tour with small cities in Ohio and went through many of the states, red and blue. One of the things that amazed me was all the book groups I discovered. It was life-transforming experience. I realized that I was not alone.
You mention in the book that you visited Austin in the 1970s when you were getting your doctoral degree at the University of Oklahoma. What were your impressions?
What I remember is the University of Texas had a great population of Iranian students, many of whom were at that time active against the shah. Now I wish I had made several trips and paid more attention. There is a large population of Persians in Texas, especially in Houston. My cousin teaches at Rice, where he was chair of the media department.
There's an Iranian writer in Houston named Farnoosh Moshiri, who just published the novel "Against Gravity."
She's a fine memoirist as well. Iranians, especially Iranian women, are active in writing. I was recently in San Jose and met with Lila Azam Zanganeh, who is the editor of the Iranian anthology "My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes." These people try to create the alternative voice.
Such as the graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi?
I appreciate her comic strip novels ("Persepolis," "Embroideries") because the form itself challenges the totalitarian mind-set.
Are you disappointed with the paucity of translated books available in the U.S.?
Lack of knowledge about other parts of the world is one of the main problems here. People think politics has nothing to do with reading stories. But a lot of times, the literature shows what politics is trying to hide. Think of the Iranian mystic poets: Rumi or Hafiz. These writers were the most adamant critics of hypocritical clerics who "Flog people in public, drink wine in private."
Is religious fundamentalism, essentially, the product of laziness — a refusal to read closely and put work into interpreting a text, rather than just taking something literally?
Poor reading, like poor writing, is imposing what you already know on texts. You should go into reading to discover, not to reaffirm what you know. This applies especially to religious readers. But it even applies to secular readers, like Stalinists — they impose their own wishes and truth. That is very dangerous reading. You see that in this country a lot. You see people only reading about themselves. Women reading about women. But I'm a woman and I want to read about men, because that's what I don't know.
You mentioned Lila Azam Zanganeh. She, too, is writing a book about Nabokov. What is his appeal to Iranians?
Almost every major novel he writes relates to the state of exile. In his most political novels, such as "Invitation to a Beheading," the protagonist is an exile in his own country. What I completely identify with is the idea of homelessness. When you're in search of a home, you take what a country offers you, especially works of the imagination. Literature and imagination are portable. For Nabokov, his real home became books.
Did being a woman in a repressive Islamic society contribute to your sensitivity to literature?
Yes, a woman who has covered her skin all her life and walks by the seaside and feels the sun on her skin and wind in her hair feels it differently than someone who has felt it all her life. But I would not advise that people live in terribly repressive countries to become sensitized to literature.