A Conversation with Azar Nafisi
Random House Reader’s Circle: In Reading Lolita in Tehran, you wrote about how it was not until you returned to the land of your birth, Iran, that you realized the true meaning of exile. Can you explain that seeming paradox, and do you still feel that way almost ten years after returning to the U.S.? Are there layers or levels of exile, just as, perhaps, there are of home?
Azar Naﬁsi: Well, I think there are deﬁnitely different levels to exile. Physical or geographical exile is the most obvious, but I think the most excruciating is feeling exiled or out of place in your own home. For instance, when I went back, I had been dreaming of returning home to Iran since I was thirteen–which meant that the Iran I had created in my mind would already have been very different from the one that actually existed. In addition, I was returning to revolutionary Iran, where everything that I had called home–the streets of my childhood, their names–had changed. Some of the movie houses where I had gone to see ﬁlms with my family had been burned down. Everything that I had considered to be a part of my life and my identity was now being questioned or challenged by the new regime. And I was told that even my faith, the traditions and the religion of my parents and ancestors, had now been conﬁscated and redeﬁned. Everything that had been so familiar was taken away. It was like living in an alien movie.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno says that the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home. One thing that the Islamic revolution taught me is that we should never feel too smug, too much at home. You can lose your home in a war or a revolution or, as we experience it here in America, in an earthquake, a ﬁre or a tornado, or it can just simply be taken away from you. The only way you can truly, permanently preserve your home is to constantly question and redeﬁne it for yourself, to keep it alive inside you. You can preserve it through memory. One reason I wrote this book was to retrieve the home that I had lost, through narrative and through telling the story.
RHRC: That’s really beautiful–can you talk a little more about how the role of reading and perhaps how sharing these stories with these women was a sort of stab to exile?
AN: You know, the ﬁrst time I really had the feeling of exile was when I left Iran at thirteen. The moment that the airplane door closed I realized that nothing I could do would take me back to Iran, to my own home, to my parents and relatives. I understood that the only way I could keep my home with me was by preserving it through memory–because no one has the power to take away your memories–and through maintaining a connection to its language and literature. I had brought with me several books by Iranian poets, and every night I would just open them at random, books by Hafez, Rumi, and this contemporary Persian woman poet, Foroguh Forokhzad, and simply reading these words would bring back to me everything I loved about my country. Ultimately, that was also how I made myself at home, ﬁrst in England and later in America. As I read Dickens or Austen or Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf, their books became ambassadors from the new world that I was traveling to.
So language and literature were incredibly important to me, but when I went back to Iran during the revolution, it was very difﬁcult to publicly communicate what I wanted to say because so many things were censored, so many things were not allowed. Because of this, the books I read with my students became a means of communication, of conveying what we wanted to say to one another. The books became our world, and they became our home, and they opened us up to ourselves. You ask whether, after ten years of living in the U.S., do I feel the same? Yes–I think that this connection to my home and to myself through literature is one of the most constant things in my life, something that I will always have. I haven’t lost Iran; I have Ferdosi and Hafez and Rumi–and now books have allowed me to feel at home in the U.S. as well. In fact, I basically have not changed much at all: in Iran I taught and wrote and was concerned about women’s rights and human rights; my ﬁrst book was on Vladimir Nabokov. Here, I also teach and write, have the same concerns, and my ﬁrst book was about reading Nabokov, among others, in Tehran. Now, of course, I worry about reading Lolita in Washington, D.C., or in fact not reading Lolita in Washington, D.C.!
This reminds me of an anecdote: When my family migrated to the U.S. in 1997, my children were in their early teens, and at ﬁrst, of course, they were not feeling at all comfortable, and they pined to go back to Iran. But my daughter, like me, loves to read, and the ﬁrst work of Shakespeare’s that she read in school was Romeo and Juliet. She was so excited that she came home and said to me, “Mom, listen to these words!” She quoted a line about Rosaline, where Romeo says, “She’s fair she’s wise, she’s wisely fair,” or something like that. When I heard that note of excitement about Shakespeare in my daughter’s voice, I knew she was going to be all right, that she’d found her home. The real home we have transcends ethnicity and nationality, gender, sex, and religion. It is a universal space where we can all live.
RHRC: Reading Lolita in Tehran was originally published ﬁve years ago. If the book is a lens through which Western readers can view Iran and also themselves, how has the perspective of that view changed with the distance of time and intervening events? And how have your perceptions of the book and of Iran changed?
AN: Well, this is a rather difﬁcult question, because a book is like a child. Once it leaves you, once it’s out and interacting with the world on its own, there isn’t much one can do to control it. But in terms of my own perspective on the book and whether things in Iran have changed, I have two things to say. One is that my purpose in writing this book was not to talk about just politics. What I really wanted to investigate was how people cope when they live under an oppressive reality. How do they create for themselves open spaces through their imaginations? That is really the main theme of the book–imagination’s role in opening spaces, in resisting tyrannies of both politics and time.
Essay about Reading Lolita in Tehran: Themes - Women in Iran
1203 WordsJun 19th, 20135 Pages
04 March 2013
Themes Representing the Actions and Thoughts of Women in Iran Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi is very symbolic of the women in Iran, as the ideas of resisting to accept the government, finding a sense of belonging and wanting to live in a fantasy world illustrates their thoughts during a very rough period of time. Nafisi, who represents the women of Iran, displays this via her progression throughout the novel, as it summarizes the struggles that women went through to endure a happy life in Iran. A theme that is repeatedly presented to us in this book is resistance. To be more specific, resistance by women against the new government that has been inaugurated. The new government…show more content…
They had all built up this sense of courage and started using the motto, “it takes courage to die for a cause but also to live for one” (Nafisi 249). This statement made by Nafisi shows their confidence, as it propelled them forward to put up a fight to regain the rights that were lost. As the government tried to demolish their spirits, these women rose up and opposed by displaying their rebelliousness. Resisting to accept the new government is one of many themes that represents the thoughts and actions of women in Iran. Acceptance is another theme in the novel that can be tied to the symbolism of women during the revolution and war. To begin with, many women had trouble accepting the new Islamic based regime that had taken over. This can be seen by the actions of Nafisi, as she says, “We are not with the regime in our hearts and minds” (Nafisi 313). Even after saying this, Nafisi is compelled by the idea of not being able to teach and pass on her knowledge about literature. Women like Nafisi realized how helping the youth prosper would lead to a successful country in the future, and did not want to miss out on the opportunity to help, despite their feelings about the new rules. Not only this, but Nafisi is unable to understand how people around her are able to accept the new rules and regulations of the government so easily, as she struggles to cope with the fact that women were being demoralized. Nafisi, along with numerous women