Azar Nafisi and the subversive power of literature


Iranian writer Azar Nafisi has written her last book in 2014, titled The Republic of Imagination. I haven’t read it yet, but a couple of years ago I wrote a review about her previous works. It is a short essay about her two wonderful memoirs – Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve been Silent About, but I also mentioned a lecture she gave in Rome in 2004. The main theme is the subversive power of imagination and the political, empathic role of literature. Besides, I was particularly stunned by Nafisi’s analysis of the role of family as the first model of tyranny and the liberating power of books. All the links are taken from Azar Nafisi’s website, where you can also read excerpts from the two works.

Article first published in Italian on Leggere Donna, 157/2012, Tufani Publishing

Reading Lolita in TehranWhat we search for in fiction”, writes Azar Nafisi at the beginning of the novel that has made her famous worldwide,“is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth”. The expression holds the essence of her entire work and is the advice she used to give her students, a group of Tehran girls who “had both a real history and a fabricated one”. From 1995 to 1997 they periodically met at her house, in a clandestine literary salon. The meetings – described in Reading Lolita in Tehran – went on with resolution in spite of the dictatorship and were all dedicated to the most “wanted” subversives of the Iranian Republic: Truth and Beauty. Writes Nafisi: “We were, to borrow from Nabokov, to experience how the ordinary pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eye of fiction”.

No doubt, Azar Nafisi is the literature professor we would have liked to meet at school. Her presence is delicate and familiar, but she possesses the charm of those masters who build bridges between imagination and reality, literature and life. Through her words, the great works of literature shake the dust off in order to reveal their universal wisdom.

In Reading Lolita, the creatures invented by writers intertwine their humanity with the Iranian post-revolutionary reality, a theocratic dictatorship that suffocates both political dissent and beauty. Words open themselves like four o’clock flowers: it’s the nightfall of a day when art cannot show itself in broad daylight.

Thus Azar Nafisi removes the mandatory veil imposed on the subversive beauty of literature. She firstly takes it off writing Reading Lolita in Tehran (published in 2003), and then again with Things I’ve been silent about (a private memoir published in 2008). In between, Nafisi published a lecture in Italian titled The Republic of Imagination (now her new book has the same title).

nafisiOn my opinion, these three fragments are sufficient to illustrate the thought of this great intellectual. Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve been silent about are in some ways complementary. On the one hand, Reading Lolita lets us glimpse the situation of Iran through the students, these girls who “shed their mandatory veils and robes” in the presence of literature and suddenly “burst into color”. On the other hand, in the second work, Nafisi in person takes her veil off in order to narrate the private genesis of her love for literature. Thus one fragment integrates the other and a sharp description of “the essence of every dictatorial mind” emerges. In Reading Lolita we find four marvelous literature lectures, while in Things I’ve been silent about she explains the very mechanism of subversion: the power of imagination.

But let’s linger on the comments these works have received. The book cover of the English edition says that “Reading Lolita is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature”. Among the many praises mentioned in the first pages, there is an essential comment from the Kirkus Review magazine, which I personally love: “it is a spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression”. And publishers can help us bring the second book into focus as well. For instance, the cover of the Italian edition says that Things I’ve been silent about “is above all a sort of revelation about how tyrannies sometimes reproduce the silences, the blackmails, and the double truths upon which the first and most perfect dictatorship is built: the family”. So in Azar Nafisi’s works, “private” and “political” – an antithesis dear to Nabokov – are the cornerstones of the narrative tension. These two coordinates sustain her interior, sociological and political analysis, and are also mirrored in her two novels.

However, it is The Republic of Imagination to give us the starting point to retrace Azar Nafisi’s themes. Readers and writers, says Nafisi, share “the Republic of Imagination. It is a country worth building, a state with a future, a place where we can truly know freedom. Let’s call it Nabokov’s «somehow, somewhere» – a world that runs parallel to the real one. The key is an open mind, the restless desire to know, the indefinable urge to leave the mundane behind. […] Curiosity is essential. No amount of moral preaching or political correctness can replace what the imagination gives us when it places us in other people’s experiences, opening our eyes to vistas and views we never knew existed”.

Thus Azar Nafisi speaks of a path we can walk though, a secret passageway with the power of generating empathy among the human beings (real and invented ones), a free zone where the seeds from the neighboring areas can germinate. But showing us that we all share an unassailable sovereignty, the author also reveals that every dictator, every censor, every Humbert Humbert… is inevitably doomed to failure.


Young Azar Nafisi with mum

On the one hand, in the first novel Nabokov’s “private” becomes the “political”: “like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom. And like Lolita, we took every opportunity to flaunt our insubordination: by showing a little hair from under our scarves, insinuating a little color into the drag uniformity of our appearances, growing our nails, falling in loves and listening to forbidden music”.

On the other hand, the “political” becomes the “private” in the second, much more intimate work by Azar Nafisi: “Long before i came to appreciate how a ruthless political regime imposes its own image on its citizens, stealing their identities and self-definitions, I had experience such impositions in my personal life – my life within my family. And long before I understood what it meant for a victim to become complicit in crimes of the state, I had discovered, in far more personal terms, the shame of complicity. In a sense, this book is a response to my own inner censor and inquisitor”.

Thus “private” and “political” are not so distant from each other. Azar Nafisi says she has worked on the relationship between fiction and democracy starting from an observation: in Iran the novel was born together with the demand of freedom and democracy. So I wonder if it is freedom that red thread linking literary imagination and reality (both private and political).

Anyway Nafisi shows us the very bone structure of falsification. She teaches us more than literature: how to build (and to demolish) a tyranny. The genius of this writer is the capacity to reveal – like Nabokov – that tyranny is not only a political system but also a region of the human heart. It is a part of ourselves, victims and torturers. It is a ghost we can fight with the most powerful weapon ever used: imagination.

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