“Reading Lolita in Tehran” made me think about my country, my gender and the role of literature in our cultural history. The New York Times bestseller’s author, Azar Nafisi, has consistently argued for the importance of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, to connect readers around the world in their individual and collective interpretations.
Nafisi will speak to the San Antonio community at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4, about literature as a tool for social change and a way to gain new perspectives and challenge conventions.
The act of reading takes us to others’ communities and struggles where they inspire us with their courage. Each person reads a book from her own perspective, drawing from it truths to apply to her own life. Readers may agree on themes of a book, and scholars and teachers may teach a classic in the same way, but each book is uniquely understood and felt by the individual.
“Reading Lolita in Tehran” is a harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students. The story made me feel for the individual women characterized so thoroughly by Nafisi, though I recognized the difference between her situation and my own. My unique experience as a female English major at Trinity University, and the daughter of an Air Force colonel, has allowed me to travel more than most, but nothing has taken me farther from home or deeper into the experiences of another culture than reading.
Nafisi argues that reading is different for each person—that women reading western novels in Tehran see them differently and gain different understandings than Western readers do. Reading provides individual pleasure and understanding, and also the collective understanding of universal truths and connections.
Iranians and others across the world have come to know American culture through its great literary works. Nafisi says she learned some U.S. history from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and was inspired by Huck’s courage in challenging the conventions of slavery. She has also been inspired by other subversive characters, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie. Nafisi said, in a 2012 lecture at Vanderbilt University, that America’s strength lies in its cultural democracy, not in its military might. This cultural democracy plays out in literature—in the debates it contains or inspires—and in the emotions and actions it engenders in readers.
Yet all across America bookstores are closing and schools are cutting funds from the humanities. In America, where many, Nafisi said in an interview with The Washington Post, “mistake sound bites for deep thought, politics for action, reality shows for creative entertainment . . . now—more than ever—we need the courage and integrity, the faith, vision and dreams that characters and stories from American and world literature can instill in us.” We need to challenge the world as it is, maintain our essential humanity and ideals and strive for beauty in our art because it connects us.
For Nafisi, books are part of a “Republic of the Imagination,” where people connect with those in the physical world, and where art and writing are not bound by nationality. Necessities in this republic are curiosity and empathy, and just as Nafisi came to know America through its literature, she wants to introduce Americans to Iranian literature. She argues that her nation’s literature presents readers with a more complex view of the Iranian people and culture than is portrayed in the media. She has spoken about her dismay over the stereotypes of Iran, as so many Americans reduce Iran to one aspect of itself: religion, represented in the repressive regime.
“If this is my culture,” she said in her lecture at Vanderbilt, “then inquisition and fascism are the culture of Europe. If this is my culture, than slavery is the culture of the South.”
Rather than reducing a culture to one simplistic and negative view, Nafisi said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012, “the most respect you show a people is to genuinely try to know and understand them—you go to that country’s history and culture.”
San Antonians can come to understand the complex history and culture of Iran through its authors—through Nafisi’s work, of course, but also through the work of poets like Firdausi, Hafez and Rumi, and modern feminists Forough Farrokhzad and Simin Behbahani.
We can make connections and gain insights both about diversity and about universal connections through these Iranian philosophers and artists. This is the power of literature, to celebrate diversity and similarity, differences and commonalities, to bring people together in democratic debate—and, in turn, to empower us to change worldviews and raise understanding and tolerance.
When Azar Nafisi speaks at Trinity, I will be there to consider human rights and women’s education, not only for the women in Tehran I have read about, but for women across the world, including me. I hope many of my fellow students and the San Antonio community will participate in this discussion on the role of art and the humanities in our lives.
As part of Trinity University Press’s 10th anniversary celebration, Azar Nafisi will speak on Tuesday, March 4th on human rights and women’s education in the Middle East, and literature as a tool of social change. The event is at 8 p.m. at the Stieren Theater on the Trinity University campus. A book signing and reception will follow. Free and open to the public.
*Featured/top photo: Author Azar Nafisi. Photo by S. J. Staniski.