Newsmaker: An Interview with Azar Nafisi

Posted Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 10:03
Azar Nafisi

In Iran, whoever goes to jail because of what they write is a hero in the eyes of the people,” author Azar Nafisi says. Through her 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which spent 117 weeks on the New York Times best­seller list, and Things I’ve Been Silent About, as well as her presentations about literature and culture, she has elevated public discourse about the political nature of reading. Educated in Iran, the UK, and the US, Nafisi returaned to Iran in 1979. She moved back to the US in 1997 and became a citizen in 2008. She is a lecturer for the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. American Libraries spoke with Nafisi as she was completing Republic of Imagination, which is scheduled for publication this fall.

AMERICAN LIBRARIES: Your efforts to promote literacy and books of universal literary value are directed primarily toward young people and adults.

AZAR NAFISI: Oh, definitely. They are directed toward readers in general. I think that readers have so much in common no matter what background they come from or what age they are.

Where do you see the need being most pronounced?

That is a very difficult one because I think the need belongs to each and every one of us. You know, Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-American Nobel Laureate, talks about how writers are persecuted or imprisoned and we can protest that. But the worst thing that can happen to an individual or a nation is becoming indifferent to reading. So right now, this is not a matter of one group, although we should always pay attention to the youth because they are the hope of the future. Our efforts and focus should also be very much directed toward how we have our children read books, both the way we encourage them at home as well as when they go to school.

In an interview you did with Huffington Post that was published February 3, 2014, there is a quote from you: “It’s not so much this generation’s fault that they have become indifferent toward the sort of complexity that is needed in order to enjoy a great book.”

Definitely. Time and again, especially since I started thinking about this book I am currently writing [Republic of Imagination], I keep asking myself about what my generation did. You know, I have a lot of complaints about the state of education. I have a lot of complaints about how we do not pay enough attention to the treasures of this country as well as the heritage of the world, which is our libraries.  I think the fault lies not with the children who come into the world very innocent but with the legacy we leave them. Especially since I returned to the US in 1997, I’ve noticed a negative dominant attitude toward the idea of reading, of humanities and the liberal arts that was rather shocking to me—although not among the whole population.  I’ve traveled over the past 15 years to 34 or 35 states, and when I talk to the young people, I see how much they crave passion, how much they crave meaning in their lives. When they talk I see that urge in them. And I ask myself whose fault is it if that urge is not satisfied?

If that urge isn’t channeled. . .

Yes, it has to be channeled. I mean we can’t just expect our youth to instinctively go to the libraries, or to have a love for books. But children have a natural curiosity and there is in each and every one of us this urge to know. And although my experiences are very different from my daughter’s, we share the same human urge. And where do you go to satisfy that curiosity? One of the first places you go is a library. It is a public space. A library is one of the best gifts society can offer its citizens.

I was in Montreal for a book tour and my escort was telling me that she was an immigrant from Eastern Europe who had nothing when she and her loved ones came here. They were just barely making a living and during the daytime her mother would take her to the local library and leave her there. She told me that what gave her the will to love life was just sitting in that library and picking up books and reading them. So that instinct for survival is mixed with the instinct for knowledge. It’s just sad that people don’t take that seriously.

What role do you see librarians having in helping students think more critically?

Libraries have become a second home to so many children, and especially a place where people talk about books and reading and learning almost as luxuries. I remember when I was speaking at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and people were telling me how mostly children coming from the inner city, whose parents both worked and did not have enough money for a nanny or private school, took them to libraries. That’s just another world because children have access not only to books but to a community. And I think how libraries have been in the forefront of using the internet in the best way possible—showing us that it has uses other than tweeting what you’re wearing right now. 

But when you go to a place like a library, you see how every space, both physical as well as virtual, is used to genuinely connect. When I was in Iran I did not have access to this sort of thing and the only library I could use was that of the university where I was teaching. Since I returned to the US, one of the first things I did was to check my local library. At first, we lived in Potomac, Maryland, and I wrote most of Reading Lolita in Tehran in the Potomac Village Library. And later when we moved to D.C., again the first thing that I did was check out my local library, the West End Library. I know almost every single person in that library. When I go there I still feel that pang of excitement, like when I was a child and my father would take me to the bookstore. I love to talk to my librarian and we have so much in common. And the library is in every sense of the word, a portable world.

So that is what I try to tell friends and students and people around me, that one of the first things we should do is support our local libraries. To us—to me and my family—it means a lot. Usually before buying a book, I check it out of the library, because I had so many personal libraries at different times at my home, and each time I had to leave the books behind. And so I guess that makes me even more attached to the community library.

You often speak about promoting literature that has universal literary value. What are your standards for judging how a book has universal literary value?

People talk about the canon but I think the standard is how books or works of imagination endure throughout the ages because of readers. It is very difficult to define a standard. But the great books, no matter what background, what country, what nationality they come from, appeal to our basic humanity. And that is why, you see the same theme, the same story in Sophocle’s Antigone, written in Greece 2,000 years ago, repeated in a television program like Boston Legal. That is what amazes me. Or Vīs and Rāmin (The Story of Love) in Iran. From the 11th century on, we have had at least three versions of what we call the Romeo and Juliet story, and it is said that one of the 11th-century Iranian poems that has been translated into English was the inspiration for Tristan and Isolde. Isn’t it fantastic that a student who was born in the Islamic Republic of Iran (not even the pre-revolutionary Iran) would read Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet or Zora Neale Hurston and empathize and her heart breaks? And a student in Washington, D.C., would read the great epic poet Ferdowsi or Dante or Jane Austen and the same emotions come through her. This is the most important aspect of imagination, that it knows no boundaries, and as readers we have a responsibility to keep books alive.

As you know, libraries collect a great deal of material that does not endure. How do you feel about libraries collecting a lot of popular works that don’t necessarily have that value?

Many of the books in a library are a reflection of books that endure. But there are so many genres that I enjoy. For example, I love mystery tales. Actually in my new book, I talk a little bit about my most favorite mystery writer Raymond Chandler. And I talk about how Chandler did for mystery writing what Twain did for the novel in terms of the kind of language, the kind of sensibility he brought. In one sense a great mystery tale also has a moral center and focus to it. It makes us curious not just to find out who the murderer was but it makes us curious about the world around the victim and the criminal, the complexity of these characters.

Vladimir Nabokov used to say “Readers are born free and they ought to remain free.” So I feel that readers should have freedom of choice. I hate to make statements that are a complete affirmation or negation but in this case I’m pretty sure that readers will choose books that will endure in libraries. After all, who was the audience for Greek tragedies? Who was the audience at the Globe when Shakespeare first came into being? Or Dickens? Who read any of these great authors who now have become part of the canon? It didn’t start in universities. That is why I would like to focus on the readers because we should have respect for the readers. And with respect and freedom of choice for the readers comes responsibility. It is not just up to the writers, the librarians, the bookstore owners to preserve books and the integrity of books. It is up to us. I would like to reach out to communities. If we live in a democracy, especially in this democracy where we talk about the people, we can’t only rely on the elite. If we want the government to do something for us, we have to show that we really want it. Nobody is going to give it to us. So, coming from a society that was ruled by a government that never listened and closed the libraries to us, I feel that I have to do my share.

Your father took you to bookstores as a child. Was there a public library system?

When I was a child, even, libraries were very small.

Were they private?

Yes, they were private. When I left Iran in 1997 I had become the keeper of three libraries—my father’s, my own, and my brother’s, which we sort of gave away after I left.  There was the National Library but it was very difficult to go. Some schools had small libraries, and then later on at the end of the 1970s when libraries were flourishing, especially for children, the revolution happened. And as you know, liberal arts and humanities are the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever freedom of expression is threatened, it comes with banning books. And so that is what happened in Iran. And after the revolution even more so. Both my children and us, we were dependent on these private libraries. And when my brother and I were children, my father would give us books as a gift. If we were good for that month, then we would get a certain number of books as a reward. So I always looked at books as a reward, not as a task. Reading was never a task.

It’s a wonderful way to teach the value of books.

Oh, definitely. And that is why the library plays such a role. Because first of all, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, what background you come from, the library belongs to you. It is important for children to learn that everything they want to have or that is precious in life should not be all privately owned, that the community is concerned enough not just about their bodies but about their imaginations, that the library provides a community center for them. I love the idea that my children go to a place where other children are, and I love to think of libraries as a meeting place for children because usually libraries have these spaces where children play or read. And sometimes when I go to the library I look at those faces completely immersed in the pages of a book and it is beautiful to see that.

Yes, it is.

Well, you know far more than I do because you have always had that experience. For me stories became very much like Alice’s story, where wonderland is in your backyard. You don’t have to get up and go. All you have to do is pick up a book. And each book has its own voice, its own texture. It is like meeting all these different individuals.

What drew you to a career in teaching and writing about literature?

Like all good things in life, I really don’t know. Part of it was that I was born into a family where some were writers and historians. Even for those who had other professions, writing and reading were part of their lives. I was 9 when I started writing my diary, and in my family, especially my father’s family, we had this game we played with my cousins where we would both write poetry and recite our poetry to one another. So, when I went to school, at first I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher when I was 13. Then I just instinctively—I went to school in England—I took my O level and A level in literature, both Persian literature and English literature and then when I went to college, it was obvious that I would be taking literature. So it wasn’t so much that I chose these professions. It was in a sense that they chose me.

When I was first teaching, I was scared of publishing anything. But when I went back to Iran and I started teaching, there were so many things I wanted to say. And as you know, it is very different when you write for yourself or when you write for an interlocutor, when you write to have a conversation, which is what I wanted. So I just wrote. You know, it’s like love. You never know why.

It just exists.

It just exists. I regretted many things in life and the way I’ve gone about things, but what I have never regretted, never looked back on, is my profession and I connect to people through it. I find people who are strangers to me become intimate strangers. It is very existential.

You share and they share in return.

Yeah. Some of the most genuine relationships I’ve had are with readers and myself as a reader. Because if someone talks to you, not just because they love your book but sometimes even when they hate your book, it is authentic. How many people I’ve heard say they hate [Henry] James, they hate Nabokov. What do you see in Austen? You know. Genuine like or dislike of books comes from the heart. And that is what I enjoy, that affair of the heart.

You’ve been in the US long enough to know that there’s a belief here that it’s impractical careerwise to get a degree in literature. How do you respond to that and is there a difference culturally in Iran?

Well, first of all I think Iran is a little bit like Latin America or some European countries like France where literature and humanities as a whole are very much respected. People will go to jail for it, not just because of what they have written but what they have read.

That’s a huge sign of respect in itself.

That is the highest respect a regime can pay. I remember the first time I saw Salman Rushdie. He very generously came to my table to tell me that he liked my book and I was sort of tongue-tied. What I wanted to tell him came out as if I was saying you deserved to die. But what I meant was they bestowed the highest honor by wanting to kill you because in Iran, whoever goes to jail because of what they write is a hero in the eyes of the people. And if the tyrants want you to be eliminated, hopefully nothing will ever happen to you, but that is a sign of their weakness and your strength. Rushdie didn’t want anyone dead. He just wrote a book. So that comes from the inner confidence of a writer, that you write the truth.  Your loyalty is not to any state. It is to the truth of what you’re writing. But for them, this truth is so dangerous that they want to eliminate you and your book alongside of it.

The fact is that Iranians have poetry very much at the center of their lives—even among people who are illiterate. I mention in several of my books that my father always told me that Iran is an ancient country and it has been invaded so many times, but what maintains our identity as Iranians is our poetry. People in the traditional coffee houses in Iran read poems by the great epic poet [Ferdowsi], whose 1,000-year anniversary of his book was in 2010. Frequently, truck drivers in the back of their trucks have a poem by our great poet Hāfez-e Shīrāzī. When our children are born, we sometimes open the book of the poet Hāfez to ask him about the future of our children. When I was a child and I still couldn’t read, I could recite the poets because my father would teach this classical and very difficult poetry to me. And many of the squares and streets in Tehran and other cities are named after the poets. We have Hāfez Street and the street named after the agnostic poet [Omar] Khayyám, a street name that this regime couldn’t change even though it hated him. We have statues of poets in the middle of our squares. And it’s not just that you see Mark Twain if you go to Hartford, Connecticut. You see the literary statues everywhere.

So, as far as how the Americans view literature study as impractical, that’s something beyond your experience.

Yes, but not just as an Iranian. No. This is as a new American. This is a reflection on American society. The most important job in the world should be the job of a teacher, or the job of a librarian, or the job of a museum curator. These people are the reason we progress, why we move forward. Literature is not just an escape from reality. It is showing you the depth of reality that you cannot see. And to deprive our children of imagination—I don’t know what these people think. They think we can remain a great nation and not be able to think and imagine? And that is what worries me. And they talk about these same founders, most of whom read Greek and Latin? Even George Washington, who was a soldier, talks about having a national university in the capital, and that literature and science are the basis of a nation’s happiness. He doesn’t segregate literature from science. They go together. So we have a lot of problems right now.

How are we to get back a sense of balance?

We should not be defensive because we have nothing to defend. People who are so shortsighted, who think you can have innovation without imagination—those are the people who should be on the defensive, even if they have a lot of power.

You write quite a lot about removing threats to personal freedom in society. What threats do you see these days?

One thing is that the world is in a period of transition in economic terms, as well as the changes in technology and so many other things, which puts us in a very dangerous period. It can also be very exciting. We are creating a new future and this is partly why we have this crisis. It is dangerous if we ignore the legacy that world civilization and each of our nations has left for us. And the great danger I see today in America is that, in the name of the American dream, we worship crass materialism. When we tell our children that they go to college, not because they have passion, not in order to have meaning in their lives, not in order to give back to their society but to become part of Wall Street or achieve success at any cost—then it becomes really dangerous. Money should not be the goal but the means to other goals. And that is not why people like me come to this country.

There is this misunderstanding that if you’re poor, then literature and art, imagination and ideas, become a luxury. This is furthest from the truth. Some of the most amazing people I have met through my books and some of the most amazing places I have been, have been the inner-city schools. People, no matter where they come from, whether they’re rich or poor, want a better life spiritually and intellectually as well as materially. And a lot of times they live in their imagination. This crass materialism and lack of imagination really worries me. Even our president, who is accused of being an elitist, in his State of the Union address talks about science, technology, and engineering, and doesn’t make any mention of humanities and liberal arts , that these fields are interdependent and that we should encourage our children.

That is what worries me most—when learning is talked about as something elitist.  Americans should be very much insulted by that because it suggests that only the rich both deserve and need to go to museums, to have access to books, to be able to read poetry, and not be limited to what is called today informational texts. As if you can have information and use it critically without thinking or imagining. That is the basis of information. Information is not knowledge by itself. And these are simple things which our elite seem to have forgotten. They should go and read their John Adams.

In some circles, it’s elitist to suggest that. People seem to think you’re getting on your high horse.

Yes, and people who are talking about museums or libraries—all these public spaces that the public needs to nourish their minds and their hearts—they talk about all of these things as if the public doesn’t like it. The jewels in the crown of this nation are the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress and the monuments all around. First of all when you go to the monuments, when you read what Lincoln or Jefferson or Martin Luther King had to say, their language resonates with Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. And then when I go to the National Mall and the Smithsonian, crowds of people come and none of these people belong to Congress or the very rich. They’re just ordinary people. To turn imagination and thought into a luxury in a democracy—I can’t understand it. Maybe imagination and thought were a luxury in the Soviet Union or in a country that is under tyrannical rule, where the rulers keep the best things for themselves, but for heaven’s sake, you know, don’t talk about it as if you are a defender of democracy.  

I always quote Frederick Douglass’s speech when he was at the opening of the school in Manassas for African Americans. What he said really stayed with me: “We need to work with both our hands and our heads.” So what he’s talking about in that speech is that the head and the hand go together, and that is what I used to think of as American pragmatism—not the hand alone or the head alone, but the unity. And what we have now is American utilitarianism, and that is not what this country was founded on, and I think the American people should take it back. I mean all these small liberal arts colleges I’ve been going to and giving talks at, they were all built by either religious missions or the farmers. They’re in the middle of an Ohio farm. Or I was at Mount Holyoke or the Emma Willard School, and in all of these, you imagine those women at that time, how hard they worked in order to have one school for girls. It all seems to be in the past. But I hope not.

How does your forthcoming book Republic of Imagination continue the dialogue you’ve been having through your other books?

This feels like the last in a trilogy. When I was in Iran, I wrote a book on Vladimir Nabokov, and I wanted to talk in that book about the relationship between reading Nabokov and the realities under which I read him. But I couldn’t write it because of the censor. I couldn’t talk about it in an open manner, so I wrote a book that was basically literary criticism but I tried to experiment with it. And through that literary criticism I let the reality of Iran at the time sort of shine through. And then when I came to America, I really wanted to talk about this because in Iran I couldn’t do so directly. In Iran I had started this diary in which I had written about the reality of going to a concert in Iran, reading Jane Austen in Iran, reading Lolita in Iran, and beside it I had put my experiences of those books that related to it.  And I was giving talks here about reading Lolita in Iran, and it turned into that book.

Republic of Imagination is based on a comment that a young Iranian man made to me at one of my book signings in Seattle. He said, “These people over here don’t care. They don’t like to read books.” And I asked the question, “Can a democratic society survive without a democratic imagination?” Out of that thought this book came out. My memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, was a sort of farewell to my parents and the country of my birth, the country that I had loved. And it was both a love letter and a bitter love letter as well. And I felt with Republic of Imagination, I was greeting this new country that has welcomed me.  Because of that, I want to talk about what kind of an American I imagined myself I would want to be. And I cannot imagine myself being the citizen of a country that does not appreciate or respect or love imagination and ideas.

I said earlier we shouldn’t be on the defensive. I mention in Republic that when you love a place, you start grumbling, because you want it to be perfect. If you want to call a place home, then you’re concerned about that home. And when I felt in America that I was uncomfortable, that I wanted certain things changed, I knew that I was feeling at home. Everywhere I’ve gone in the world, including America, before I went to the real place, I had an imaginary map of that place. And so I’m talking in this book about that imaginary map and the real one and where they intersect because I think the country that has produced Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson and Ralph Ellison is not a country that could reject imagination and thought. Actually some of the more poetic statesmen, when you read Jefferson or Adams or Lincoln, or when you read John F. Kennedy’s statements on the importance of art and culture on the walls of the Kennedy Center, you think, “God, this country is so poetic.” And we should remember the poetry.

I think it still does inspire people and hopefully we’ll see more evidence of that.

Yes, and that is why we worry. We worry when we have hope because then you want change. So I’m quite hopeful.

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