Azar Nafisi, the renowned Iranian-American author, is most famous for her book “Reading Lolita in Tehran”. She reflects on similarities between Iran and the United States and on the importance of culture and education in a healthy democracy.
The Iranian-American novelist Azar Nafisi is a controversial figure, both in her native Iran and the United States where she now lives and works as a professor of English literature. She became a household name in 2003 with her bestselling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which chronicled her experience teaching a small group of students about books deemed risque in Iran, such as Lolita and Madame Bovary.
This was followed by Things I’ve Been Silent About, another memoir of her family’s experience in pre-revolution Iran. Her third book, The Republic of Imagination, turned her attention to the US with a look back on the literature that has shaped the American psyche.
Prior to her interview on TRT World ’s The Newsmakers on August 22, Nafisi spoke to Tanya Goudsouzian about the overarching message in her books and how they apply to both Iran and the US today.
The author maintains that governments do not represent a nation and that nations are founded on ideals. The ideals of Mark Twain will certainly outlast President Donald Trump, she says, just as Hafez and Ferdowsi outlasted the Shah of Iran, and will outlast the current regime.
Do you see any parallels between pre-revolution Iran and today’s America?
AZAR NAFISI: Well, I do see parallels in the sense I believe both totalitarian and democratic societies become mirrors of one another and seeds of totalitarianism can exist anywhere in the world, as we noticed in Germany and the Soviet Union. So yes, I do.
I find that people are disenchanted; and they are losing faith in their political leaders; and education is unfortunately at its lowest [levels of quality]; and we are not paying attention to good quality public education, especially in terms of humanities.
The current dominant sort of ideology or viewpoint is one of corporate viewpoint, where making money and material success has replaced having passion and meaning in life. And then we have a populist president [Donald Trump] who is also a little crazy, actually, and who is bringing to the surface all the unsavoury aspects of American culture. He is bringing to the surface our flaws and our faults, and it is very similar to Iran. America and Iran are very different, but what you specifically asked, [yes] I do see these similarities.
What messages should we glean from your more recent book The Republic of Imagination about the state of American society today?
AN: What I wanted to say was that nations survive not just on material success; that America itself was built on an idea – on an ideal. People need meaning in their lives, and they can’t just say ‘I’m gaining $2 million a year so I’m a happy person.’ We should have principles and meaning in our lives. In a democratic society, those principles and that meaning is provided to us by free quality public education, where citizens feel that freedom has a price to pay and you are responsible.
When you are asked to make a choice, that choice should be made with responsibility and understanding. Many people who went to vote for Trump, they didn’t vote for him because they wanted a better, more correct, system. They were saying that we are voting for him because we hate the others. It wasn’t a vote based on the qualities of the candidate himself.
So what I am saying is that a democracy cannot survive without a democratic imagination. Imagination and ideas are not something that you have in the ivory tower, but imagination and ideas give you purpose and meaning to life. And that is why they become more important, both in terms of building a nation and connecting to other nations.
For example, with Turkey, the way I got to know Turkey was not through travel, but when I was a child my father would read me stories by Turkish writers, and that is how I got to know Turkey and have an affection for it. And that is how America should know other countries.
In that vein, do you believe that decades after the revolution, Iranian society today is moving toward a more positive path than American society?
AN: First of all, I believe no matter how bad the situation is in any country, a democratic system is better than a totalitarian one. Second, in America I can still come out and protest. In every protest, I have been active. I have been writing and … In Iran, all these things are banned. If I had done any of these things, I would be in jail at least.
What makes me proud of Iran, however, is its civil society. Iranian women, Iranian youth, the journalists and writers — Iranian people as a whole who are not giving in to what the system wants of them. The system hasn’t changed. The same laws that they brought after the revolution still exist. You know a country partly by its laws. The government is not going on a better path.
But it is true that the people are sort of experiencing a kind of renaissance. Every time I give a talk in America, I say ‘we, as immigrants, we come here and we bring our pain and our loss with us, but we also bring hope and give a gift to you from that other country.’ The gift I bring to America from Iran is how the Iranian people taught me that in the darkest days you can find a way to resist, not violently but by being true to yourself, by women refusing to comply with what the system wants from them.
If I had not lived in Iran, I would not have understood America as I do today. And I think Iranian people can be a model to people in this country, to learn from them, how to fight a system.
What do you think has happened to the America of Huckleberry Finn and the Wizard of Oz?
AN: I think Huckleberry Finn and the Wizard of Oz have been neglected by the political elite in this country, but there is a sentence by Nabokov; he said governments come and go, and only the trace of genius remains. Mark Twain’s name has lived through all sorts of times. Donald Trump will be a footnote in American history but Twain will always represent the American people.
In my country, the Shah came and went, the Islamic regime came and will go, but what will always remain is Hafez and Ferdowsi. And these are the people Iranian people quote today. That is what we need to speak to.