Written by Chris Elford
On cool and rainy Tuesday November 11th, students and faculty welcomed this year’s Writer’s Voice candidate Azar Nafisi to Southwestern Univerity. Nafisi is perhaps best known for her award winning memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Nafisi spent the day attending classes and chatting with students over lunch at the San Gabriel house across the street from the University. Later that evening she spoke from her upcoming book The Republic of the Imagination about the transformative impact a sustained engagement with works of the imagination can have on individuals and their perception of other cultures, including, she wanted to emphasize, the other culture that is their own.
Azar Nafisi was born in the Iranian capitol of Tehran in 1955. She was educated abroad and received her PhD. in English and American Literature at the University of Oklahoma before returning to Iran in 1979, near the beginning of what would become the Iranian Revolution. Nafisi took jobs teaching American literature at universities in Tehran during the Revolution, but as the Islamic Republic Party under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated its power and began enforcing laws governing every aspect of its subject’s lives, her freedom to teach what and how she wanted to was increasingly taken away from her. Nafisi was threatened with expulsion from the university in 1981 after she refused to wear a veil and eventually resigned her position. In 1987 Nafisi returned to the university to teach for another eight years, until 1995 when the intense scrutiny she was under from the authorities became too much for her and she was forced to quit her job. She continued to teach, however, holding secret meetings in her house among former students and acquaintances, all women, to discuss works of literature. These meetings and conversations would form the basis for her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which she wrote after immigrating to the United States in 1997. Nafisi currently lives in Washington D.C. and serves as a Visiting Professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature. Her book Things I Have Been Silent About is due in December.
After an eventful mid-morning excursion which involved, among other things, getting caught in a rainstorm on her way to Cianfrani’s where she ran into President Jake Schrum and had to bum a ride back to campus, Dr. Nafisi had a chance to sit down with SU student Chris Elford to discuss her book, her life, and her thoughts on literature and the future.
Elford: If my figures are right, you’ve been living in the United States now for more than a decade.
Elford: So I’m curious as to how you would describe your situation here? You’ve written about your time in Iran, or a certain portion of your life in Iran, as being, for you, like a kind of internal exile. You’ve written that “did not feel at home in your own home.” And I wonder whether you feel at home here in the United States or whether you haven’t sort of accepted or been able to affirm the condition of homelessness as a kind of moral stance…
Nafisi: Well, I think that I have, in one sense, accepted the condition of homelessness, you know. I think I used to resent it…[S]ince [age] 13 I have been wandering around the world, footloose you know… [B]ut then I think it is also, in a sense, a blessing in disguise to be able to look at the world through different eyes. And I don’t think that being too-much at home is good for you. This is one thing I love about this country, and I think I feel as much at home in any place in the world as in the United States, is that there are so many other, you know, the cliché is there are so many other immigrants, so you are never completely at home… To be at home over here means to be a little bit not at home. And that is what makes me feel at home, this feeling that I am not completely at home.
Elford: I was surprised to see that your first book…on Nabokov… was written in Persian. Are you still able to be active in Persian? Do you still speak it at home or among friends?
Nafisi: Oh yes, because, you know, it was the first language that I learned. I use it a lot. When I went back to Iran, for 18 years I was writing and speaking in Persian, so the two languages are sort of interchangeable.
Elford: And do you think that has shaped your artistic sensibility at all… this being able to say a thing in two languages?
Nafisi: Oh definitely! I think that this is wonderful, because the whole idea of writing is discovering the stranger inside your self, not just out in the world. When you know another language the nuances of that language can come into the new one and change it. Of course you see it in Nabokov although I’m not claiming to be like him at all, I’m very humble about that, but you see it in Nabokov: the way the lush colors of Russian come into his English and change it.
Elford: Do you have any desire to write in Persian or translate works from Persian into English? Is that something you have considered doing at some point?
Nafisi: Yes, I would like to write in Persian but English is the language I feel most comfortable in, maybe because at the age when I started writing seriously… which was at school you know… I was writing in English. So it became this other language, one which somehow did not have the restrictions of Persian. It is as if…Persian…was like my parents: I always feel a little shy about completely exposing myself. But with English it feels like a friend or a lover and you can take off your clothes in front of them. So in a strange way because English was not my mother tongue I feel free in it. I play with it. With Persian I am more cautious.
Elford: In your book Reading Lolita in Tehran you characterize yourself a great reader of sorts…certainly as a voracious reader. Indeed, there was a time in your life—a very dark time, but also, I gather, a very formative one—when you were reading quite literarily everything you could get your hands on. But I wonder, at what point were you inspired, in that process, to write… was it the desire to tell this particular story or had you wanted to write all along?
Nafisi: I wrote to my family. In my new book I talk about this, because it is, in part, about my family. Writing came naturally to us. My father, just in a period of four years when he was in jail, wrote about 1500 pages of just diaries. Often when there was something to say, we would say it to each other through writing. My cousins had these journals, these journals they would publish and in them there would be poems, there would be travel logs and so on. So writing and reading came to me as a natural part of my life. When I went back to Iran and started teaching I also started writing. The urge to write not just literary criticism but also narrative, you know, I had it but I couldn’t do anything about it in Iran. So as soon as I came here, I guess, that was was able to come out. That is why these two books became memoirs.
Elford: I gathered that the process of writing Reading Lolita in Tehran involved culling a great deal of prose from dairy entires. You mention for example the stacks of torn-out pages you had with you when you started. So what is the writing process like for you now? Has it changed since the publication of your first book, or is the dairy still a vehicle for your writing?
Nafisi: Well, in this new book that I’m writing yes. In my next book I think it will be a little different. Right now for example in this two day trip I brought two new note books, and then I start scribbling… as I walk sometimes. So I always scribble. In my next book I used my dairies. Actually the title of this book hat is coming out in December is from a page in my dairies. When I was writing my book on Nabokov, I wanted to talk about the different realities, under which I read Nabokov when I first read it, and how these realities change, and how my conceptions and perceptions changed, of Nabokov, but I couldn’t do that… and not just because of politics… I couldn’t for example say that the first book I read by Nabokov was given to be by my boyfriend Ted. That was impossible. So in my diary I had different headings and one of them was “Things I Have Been Silent About” and so I wrote about all sorts of things I couldn’t talk about. I’m using that for the title of my new book and a lot of it is based on my own dairies, my father’s diaries, letters.
Elford: So this new book also takes the form of a memoir…
Nafisi: Yes up to now it has taken the form of a memoir. But you know, I never imagine that I will write a memoir. It has been an amazing experience. Why have I chosen to write a memoir? [laughter] Partly because, for me, I am interested in reality and fiction simultaneously… I’m interested in that intersection… where fiction turns into reality and reality turns into fiction. For me memoir has served that better then any other form… to do this sort of turn around.
Elford: You talked earlier about writing literary criticism, and in your first book the writing was so intimately related to teaching and the novels you were reading in Iran and your lectures sort of make it into the book itself. Is that still the case this sense that teaching is inseparable from the experience of writing for you?
Nafisi: As you probably know, part of writing is obsession. Something just doesn’t leave you. Part of what I teach are the books and ideas that don’t leave me. Always in teaching you get so much feedback. Teaching for me is an ongoing conversation. That urge to turn that ongoing conversation into something [that can go] even further usually turns into books or articles.
Elford: Your book Reading Lolita in Tehran has become immensely popular. It has been translated now in to 32 different languages, and as a result of this, of course, its readership is incredibly diverse… and among these readers, I’m sure you know, were people who, prior to reading this book, knew next to nothing about the Iranian Revolution or the situation of women in Iran, both of which are central to the action of the book. I think in many people’s minds you have come to occupy the position of a sort of representative writer… the perception, I think, among at least some of your readers, is that you speak for more than just yourself when you speak. I wonder how you feel about that…
Nafisi: You know I don’t want to be a “representative” because people should have their own voices, and there are so many voices that are different from mine, even opposed to mine. I understand that every writing at some point represents what it writes. Or at least I think every writing should take responsibility for what it writes, in that sense. But I don’t feel that I am a representative of Iranian women, because that’s very presumptions… and some people might want to turn you into that for good or bad reasons. That was one experience. As far as the facts about the situation of women in Iran, or the social conditions, I was overly careful to be absolutely accurate. I didn’t want to tamper with any of the facts. As far as the personal experiences go, that is a murky place. People have different opinions about the same facts. So I hope that it gave people a glimpse into some of the facts in Iran. I wanted to give a different image of Iran. The image of Iran was very politicized, and everyone that thought of an Iranian woman thought of that woman in a specific image. I wanted to tell them that Iranian women are very different. Some wear the veil some don’t. Some are orthodox Muslims some are atheists. And they are like you. We are all alike somewhere. And you should empathize rather than look at them as exotic creatures… Women are very vocal. People like to simplify… They see all these strong minded Iranian women. For example: the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. Now she used to be a women circuit judge before the revolution. After the revolution they said women cannot become judges and they defrocked people like her. As far as that goes, that is one step backwards. That is a victimization of women. But what did Shirin and women like her do? they refused to accept their situation. So she became some of the most vocal advocates for the dissidents and for women’s rights and children’s rights. So if people accept that the fact that the government that is ruling the country is an authoritarian government, it is not nice to have a law that stones people to death. It is not my culture. It’s as much my culture as slavery is a part of the culture of this country. We have both the bad and the good. If people understand that that is not what Iranian women want… to be stoned to death…The question of the veil is not whether the veil is good or bad. It is that the state has no right to tell people how to dress. If a women, like a Jewish woman or a Christian woman, some orthodox Jews or Christians have their women veiled. They wear very uniform-like clothing. If a woman chooses that, she should choose it because it is part of her faith, not because the government flogs you if you don’t wear it. Those are the issues that are central to Iran. People get them mixed up. They don’t differentiate between the government and the people, so that the government is good and Iranian women like to be that way and a woman like me is a Westernized woman. Or the government is bad but the people are also bad because they like to be that way. I think that both of these are incorrect.
Elford: Your book deals very pointedly with the experience of women in Iran at a time when there was a great deal of violence being done to them. Is there something unique or singular about the way women in a culture, in any culture experience themselves and their cultural environment, such that they should have the right to claim a space for themselves, in which to unfold that experience? This was, in some sense, your project in Iran… but is this a project that could be productively taken up in other cultural contexts and work in a similar way?
Elford: In my class we chose all women partly because we didn’t want any trouble, but also because I think women can be more open about their problems. I don’t know about men you can tell me but with women this is so natural. You create groups in which you talk about how you feel, your problems with you husband, problems with society. So I think that this can happen anywhere. And it has happened. When I was going to school in the 70’s in the United States we had many women’s groups where we looked at, like that book Our Bodies, Our Selves… Because you have been turned into a figment of someone’s imagination you need to define yourself in terms of who you are. Sometimes women together can do that.
Elford: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the role memory plays in your work. So much of your work involves returning to a conversation, returning to a novel, or an experience and processing it and reprocessing it and locating it in a specific historical moment. Your books seem to hold up this process of returning as a kind of moral necessity.
Nafisi: Oh yes. I’m so glad you asked that question. It’s an excellent question. You know, Nabokov wanted to name his autobiography Speak, Memory “Conclusive Evidence.” It would be conclusive evidence that he had lived. I think that is all we have. Through memory we have evidence that we have lived. I also mention it in relation to my second book because it is, in a way, about my parents. The only way you can resist the tyranny of not just man but of time is to safeguard the memory. That is all we have in life. That is all the control we have in life. Reality is so uncontrollable. It’s not just wars and revolutions: you could walk out of this room and a banana peel could destroy you. The only way you can resist death is through memory. The only way you can tell your reality is to tell a story from your own perspective. I think that [those with] an authoritarian mindset, especially in politics… the first thing they do is take away your memory, the first thing they do is confiscate history and rewrite it in their own fashion. The fascists did it. Stalin did it. In this country anyone who has that sort of a mindset tries to tell you what history is. They justify what they do in the present by taking away the past. We should not allow people to steal our memory. That is the most central thing I want to do in any work… to give people a reminder of their memories.
Elford: Do you think that this motion of returning has a way of passing into the future? One of the things you seem to find again and again in the books that you talk about reading is some sense of what could be and not just what was.
Nafisi: Because the past is so central to our future, writing the past becomes a way of predicting it. To understand where you were will lead you to where you will be. That is why I am fascinated by this mixture of history and fiction. I think they should talk together. That is why in this country, which likes to deal with short term memory rather than long term memory, it becomes so central. Without experiencing the past you will be lost in the future. For me that has been an amazing experience. The unexpectedness of it too… When you retrace it you think, “Yeah, I was doing it to get there.”
Elford: Just one week ago today Barak Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States. He is also, I would say, the first truly international figure or personality to be elected to that office… his father was born in Kenya he grew up in Indonesia etc. He is also, as I’m sure you know, someone who carries himself as an intellectual of sorts, as someone who reads, who has been inspired by great works of literature. Is this encouraging to you?
Nafisi: I remember a long time ago, when he first announced his candidacy. I had said when I left Iran that I would be free to associate with any political group that I want to but I don’t like to belong to any one of them. I was very scared. But with him I got excited. I’m very guarded, because I don’t want to be disillusioned one more time. The thing about him which was fascinating, which you mentioned, about being international… not just his background but the fact that he is not just a symbol… He became what he was. One thing I used to tell my American friends is that we should advertise the fact that his middle name is Hussein. Because if someone who’s name is Hussein can become the president of the United States, I think of all those millions of Husseins around the world who now will not be defining themselves in terms of opposition to this country. They will be seeing themselves as one who might be the future president of the United States. More than that even. Your name is Hussein and you’re a Christian and even that breaks a barrier. Your name can be anything. This is how the world should move. This is what literature always does. In that “republic of the imagination” your ID is not where you come from. Your ID is who you are. With Barak Obama he has the fortune, the luck, to embody all of these things. Those who supported him now have the responsibility. It’s not just him. We should not vote for him because we did not like the previous administration. We should vote for him because of what we see in him. In that sense I’m very hopeful. It took me 10 years to finally apply for [U.S.] citizenship. I will be going for my first interview this December and I thought, you know, this is a good time to become a US citizen. It’s a very celebratory time.
Elford: You said you are hopeful about the future of this country. Are you at all optimistic about the future of Iran? In there anything in your experience that would suggest that change is possible in the near future?
Nafisi: Yes. This gets back to what I wanted to say about the young people. I don’t want to sound overly optimistic about anything. That just becomes kitsch rather than truth. You think of a country that has been living for 30 years under a state theocracy and yet none of the elements of the society have obeyed the rules of that theocracy. When I think of these young people wearing their weapons of mass destruction—which is for them their lipstick, or their hair or holding hands or listing to music—and getting flogged and thrown in jail and coming back to do it again. I think of young students in Iran who know Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper much better than my students here in the United States. Three or four days ago I was at Voice of America, in the far seas section, with a friend, and we were talking about the anniversary of anti-fascist struggle and Hannah Arendt and the calls from Iran were coming not just from the major cities but from the boondocks and people were quoting Arendt. Because you have been deprived of something, you really appreciate what you don’t have. I think of former revolutionaries who were trying to expel people or jail people like me who are now in jail because they are now asking for democracy and secularism. All of these things make me hopeful, because I think democracy comes from within and that it’s a process. If we don’t go through the right process, we’ll never change. More than the regime, what makes me hopeful is the people. The regime is in a mess!
Elford: Do you think that that’s in part due to this mixture of ideas? Is that having an effect on the regime? Or is the threat external?
Nafisi: Yes it is. First of all there is the moralization from within. It is a system that promised a lot and couldn’t live up to any of its promises. So the more sensitive, the more intelligent, the more humane people from within the regime now think that they should look elsewhere. And then there’s the young people who were born and who want to be part of the world, who want to know and communicate… Iranian is either the 3rd or the 5th [most common] language [in use] on the internet. Despite the fact that some of the young bloggers were tortured and one of them was sentenced to 14 years in jail, you go on the internet and see all of these bloggings (sic) coming out of Iran. They’re not going to be deprived of their share. That makes me hopeful. But hope comes with a lot of hard work. That part of it we should remember.