Azar Nafisi’s international blockbuster Reading Lolita in Tehran chronicled her surreptitious teaching of forbidden Western texts in an Iran plagued by Islamic fundamentalism. The 2003 memoir is a hymn to the power and necessity of reading.
In her most recent book, The Republic of the Imagination, Nafisi, who will speak at Decatur’s First Baptist Church on November 3, turns her critical eye to the American literary landscape. This book explores her path to becoming a United States citizen and her avid reading of American literature, including such books Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the work of James Baldwin.
While observing colleges’ shrinking humanities departments and as states adopt Common Core curriculum standards that emphasize “informational texts” over literature, she is concerned that the route to imaginative experiences through reading are disappearing. She sees The Republic of the Imagination as a warning and a rally point for those who treasure books.
ArtsATL: Why did American literature inspire you to write The Republic of the Imagination?
Azar Nafisi: Any kind of great literature inspires me. I focused on American literature in this book mainly because I was living in America and there were things happening around me that I wanted to write about. Arts funding was being cut. Book stores were closing. I needed to raise these issues and understand them. I also wanted to connect with Americans who were passionate about American literature and, like me, concerned about the future of books in this culture.
I discovered America first as a child through its books. Reading The Wizard of Oz was formative for me. When I began working on Republic, I started with 24 books, but I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to all of them, so I selected books that fell within the limits of what I wanted to talk about. Certain books, quite justly, have become iconic. You say “American Dream,” and people always think of The Great Gatsby. I thought it would be fun to bring in books that people might not readily think of.
Nafisi: I would never be presumptuous to tell people that they should read one thing and not another. I wanted to share with people what has all my life given me so much enjoyment and pleasure but at the same time has been my portable home.
Ever since my childhood, I learned that your real home, what you call your home and the country that you call your home, can be taken away from you — if not through wars and revolution, then through hurricanes or other environmental disasters. Everything you call home could go up in smoke.
You need a home that you can take with you. I traveled to America in my imagination before I came to America in person. The way I first made my home in this country is through its works of imagination.
ArtsATL: You mention in your epilogue that you are a “promiscuous reader.” How do you choose what to read?
Nafisi: A lot of times, when I pick up a book, I’m not sure what I am getting myself into. I always remember Alice [from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] who was curious enough to run after that white rabbit, not knowing where she would end up. That unexpectedness is also wonderful for books. I read new books by beloved authors or books recommended by a favorite reviewer. I take suggestions from friends. Sometimes, though, the most amazing finds are accidental. You go into a bookstore to find one book, and the bookseller introduces you to something different. I’m diverted by these accidental connections that I very much enjoy.
ArtsATL: How do we change course? How do we revive a passion for great books in a population occupied by Instagram and YouTube?
Nafisi: In America, change has always come from the grassroots. People take things into their own hands. They do not wait for the elites to effect change. With reading, too, we need to take this notion of “We the People” more seriously. I have a slogan that I use: Readers of the World Unite. I think readers should do two things.
First, we must become more active. We must be the guardians of these wonderful institutions and not let them disappear. Second, I hope that we will create a national conversation. What kind of America do we want to be? What kind of America do we envision for our children?
Our great leaders — Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. — were all lyrical people. This country cannot afford to lose its artistic soul.
For more information on the lecture, sponsored by Georgia Center for the Book, click here.