Sunday, March 26, 2006

Azar Nafisi in Austin

Imagination can change reality, Iranian expatriate says

Azar Nafisi discusses 'Reading Lolita in Tehran' and her upcoming Austin event.

By Edward Nawotka
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.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Books and Mascots at NACS/CAMEX

Books and Mascots at NACS/CAMEX

Publishers Row was sparsely populated at this year's National Association of College Stores and Campus Market Expo (NACS/CAMEX), which took place in Houston March 3-7.

Pearson Higher Education, Penguin Group and Merriam-Webster were there, as was Random House—in a very modest booth, with a single spinner rack of paperbacks and a smattering of new hardcovers. But everywhere you looked the emphasis was on college logo-laden swag: from sweatshirts and backpacks to beer cozies shaped like jerseys and fight-song-singing bottle openers.

Overall, organizers say some 7,000 people attended, including 2,000 booksellers and 700 vendors. A smattering of authors also appeared, as if to remind the attendees that college bookstores also sold, well, books.

Television news anchor Mike Wallace opened the conference with a speech that served up entertaining anecdotes from his long career, many of which also appear in Between You and Me: A Memoir, out now from Hyperion.

Business guru Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind (Riverhead) started on an upbeat note by reassuring booksellers that they weren't going to be replaced anytime soon. "Right-brain thinkers and creative types will rule the future," he said. Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda gave a rousing speech about how lone individuals can stand up against seemingly insurmountable odds. His autobiography, An Ordinary Man, has just been published by Viking.

Some 500 people attended the always popular Book & Author breakfast and were charmed by writers Dava Sobel (The Planets), Myla Goldberg (Wickett's Remedy) and Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). Among the panelists, Ron McLarty, author of The Memory of Running, was sanguine about the writer's lot, despite the decades he spent in obscurity until Stephen King championed his cause. He told the assembled booksellers "I encourage my children to write. It's a great way to start the day. You'd be surprised how a paragraph a day adds up."

One of the best educational sessions at the event featured a formal college debate between teams from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University on the topic of whether computers will eliminate the need for hardcover textbooks in the next five years. Although the consensus was that computers will probably win that battle, the transition isn't likely to happen in the next few years.

Why not sooner? Since the average professor is in his mid-50s, everyone decided they were too set in their ways to completely abandon books.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Talking with David Liss, author of 'The Ethical Assassin'

Talking with David Liss, author of 'The Ethical Assassin'

By Edward Nawotka

David Liss got his first taste of the book business as a teenage door-to-door encyclopedia salesman in Florida. Flogging high-priced knowledge, apparently, was the perfect starter job for a would-be professor: After attending Syracuse for his bachelor's degree and Georgia State for his master's , Liss enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia, where he worked on a thesis about how, in his words, "the mid-18th-century novel reflects and shapes the emergence of the modern idea of personal finance."

He abandoned the thesis after writing his first novel, "A Conspiracy of Paper," a brainy thriller about Benjamin Weaver, a freelance debt collector who investigates the death of his father amid financial foment in early 18th-century London. It won a 2001 Edgar Award for best first mystery novel by an American writer and was followed by another historical thriller, 2003's "The Coffee Trader," and a sequel, 2004's "A Spectacle of Corruption."

Last week, Ballantine published Liss' first contemporary thriller, "The Ethical Assassin." The year is 1985; the place, Jacksonville, Fla. Wang Chung is on the radio and "Miami Vice" is the show of the moment. Lemuel Altick is a 17-year-old who — you guessed it — sells encyclopedias door-to-door to raise money so he can attend Columbia. He's working a trailer park when two of his customers are killed by an erudite hipster assassin. Soon, the killer has recruited Lem to help him undermine the operations at a local hog farm, which is a front for police and political corruption.

Liss has always woven big ideas into his books and this one is no different. In addition to serving up a twisty mystery, he offers disquisitions on Marxism, food politics and the morality of murder.

We spoke to him by phone from his home in San Antonio, where he moved in 2001 to follow his wife, an English professor at Trinity University.

Austin American-Statesman: Was writing a contemporary novel easier than writing a historical novel?

David Liss: Since I could draw on my own memories of what it was like to be alive in 1985, there wasn't as much research to do. One of the things I worked on in my historical novels was figuring out how people thought in the past. Human subjectivity was different in the 17th and 18th centuries, but I know what things are like today, minus a couple of decades.

Does the book draw on your own experiences selling encyclopedias door-to-door?

Yes, minus the drugs and murder. The world of door-to-door sales is pretty much dead, but it is a part of American history. I thought for years that encyclopedia sales would be a great setting for a book. The period in which I set the book was pretty much the last moment in which it was common. A rising sense of vulnerability and the Internet have conspired to do away with it. I say that somewhat wistfully. It was something unique and bizarre.

The character of the assassin is an animal rights activist who makes a strong argument for the ethical treatment of animals. Did you set out to make the book so polemical?

I wanted to write a book that would make people think about animal rights. It's not possible to convert many people to your view in a novel, especially if it's a polemic. The reader will feel preached to and you won't feel happy. So I had to put the animal rights position in the mouth of an iffy character, a charismatic wacko. It's difficult to take him on face value. His existence challenges norms.

For the record, where do you stand on this issue?

People who eat meat should be set on fire. No, I'm not serious. I do think the animal rights movement is correct and the treatment of animals is a major problem. I feel we have certain assumed ideas or behaviors that we've allowed to go unquestioned, especially in commercial industries for food or the testing of products. I feel that all the assumptions should be questioned.

Do you worry about the reaction of meat-eating readers?

My experience with making public statements about animal rights has been limited, but unpleasant. Starbucks had a program where they recruited celebrities, writers, musicians to put quotes on their cups. The quote I used was an animal rights quote. I got a lot of hate mail from it and not the "I disagree with your point of view" kind of hate mail either.

Austinites can be a bit smug about our literary culture. How about San Antonio?

For a town to be literary you need a critical mass for writers and readers. A friend of mine pointed out recently that San Antonio has more professional basketball players than writers. Not being around a lot of other writers isn't a problem for my creativity, but it is nice to be around people who understand what you do.

What becomes of the broken hearted?: Honeymoon with My Brother by Franz Wisner

What becomes of the broken hearted?

When love goes south, two brothers hop on a plane and head east (and west and north and south).

By Edward Nawotka
Sunday, March 05, 2006

In 2000, Franz "Wiz" Wisner was sitting on a rooftop of an Istanbul, Turkey, hotel when he thought, "Time to think. This is the greatest luxury of travel. Hard-core, maharishi-meditating, clear-all-the-cobwebs-away thinking. One thought, one subject. An idea, an emotion. Pry deeper and deeper and — lo and behold — sometimes find something there."

Fair enough. So what does Wisner, a successful 36-year-old red-blooded American male, think about while in Turkey?

Women? Food?

No. Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1996.

Sure, it might not be the first thing to pop into your mind while on vacation, but Wisner was unwinding after a stressful career as a press aide for Sen. and Gov. Pete Wilson of California and as a lobbyist for the Irvine Group, a posh real estate developer.

So what was Wiz doing in Istanbul other than dreaming of Bob Dole? Spying for the Bush administration?

No. He was mending his broken heart.

In his unexpectedly entertaining book, "Honeymoon with My Brother," Wisner explains how he was dumped by his on-again, off-again fiancée five days before his lavish storybook wedding.

Instead of sending his far-flung friends and family back home, Wisner threw a party anyway, sans bride, and then persuaded his recently divorced younger brother, Kurt, to join him on his prepaid honeymoon to Costa Rica.

There, they discover that they're more than just siblings — they're compatible travel mates — and Franz soon persuades Kurt to join him on a two-year trek around the world.

To pay for the trip, they sell off their belongings — cars, houses, even Kurt's giant-sized wedding photo (Price: $1. They joke that Kurt's ex-wife will get half). They travel to Europe and buy a Saab in Sweden to travel through Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey. In a move that was bold even in a pre-9/11 world, they persuade a border guard to let them cross into Syria by brandishing a fundraising photo of Franz posing with George W. Bush.

After a quick return trip to California to recharge, they head to Asia. It's on a remote island off the coast of Bali that they discard their middle-class mores and fully embrace the backpacker persona, opting to sleep in cheapo beach shacks rather than in comfortable hotels.

Overall, their trip took them to 53 countries throughout Europe, Asia, South America and southern Africa.

Unlike travel books that strive to reveal the secrets of obscure, out-of-the-way places, the account of this thirty-something globetrotting duo mostly hits spots that are familiar from Sunday travel supplements, such as Prague and Bangkok. That's not to say the Wisner brothers don't also fall off the beaten path often enough to keep things interesting. But the focus is less on sightseeing than it is on their evolving relationship.

Throughout the book are letters Franz wrote to his 98-year-old step-grandmother, LaRue, who has tacked up a world map in her nursing home on which she tracks their travels. She, unlike the Wisners' parents, encourages them to keep moving, reminding them that life is short and they'll never regret their adventure. The Wisners' honeymoon ends when the brothers return from a five-month stint in Africa to attend her 100th birthday party.

The Wisners' travelogue might remind you of the movie "Sideways," with its male heartache, bonding over booze, frolicsome skirt-chasing and introspective epiphanies at scenic overlooks. There's even a moment much like the one where Paul Giamatti's character, Miles, rants about how he won't be drinking any merlot: After finding a Vietnamese café recommended by the Lonely Planet guide filled exclusively with other Lonely Planet-toting tourists, Franz Wisner tosses his guidebook into the garbage. He fumes, "(Enough with) that thing. I'm sick of the cult of the Lonely Planet. And I'm sick of hanging out with Lonely Planet groupies. Plus, how can this planet ever be lonely if we all congregate in the same cafes and youth hostels sipping our teas and patting each other on the back for avoiding tourist traps?"

In spite of occasional frustrations with guide books, larcenous taxi drivers and belligerent border guards, Franz Wisner remains such an upbeat advocate of travel as a transformative experience that he'll have you logging on to long before you finish the book.

P.S. It has all ended well for Franz. Not only has "Honeymoon with My Brother" been optioned by Hollywood, giving him a welcome financial windfall, but he found a new love, the actress Tracy Middendorf. They married in January 2005, though, according to Wisner, they have yet to take a honeymoon.

Kurt, 38, is single and still available.

Austin writer Ed Nawotka contributed the books section to Lonely Planet USA and recommends using any guidebook responsibly and in moderation.