Resist Tyranny, Read Dangerously

Azar Nafisi on how bearing witness to the world through literature can be a form of activism

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

When I got to an age where I could read the same books as my mom, she started passing them along to me after she had finished. One of the books she gave me was Reading Lolita in Tehran by New York Times best-selling author Azar Nafisi, a book that I remember not only for the window it afforded into life in Iran, but also for the way Nafisi and her students viewed literature as sustenance, as a way of making sense of the world and asking questions of it. As we did after finishing most books, my mom and I talked about Nafisi’s work; our reading encouraged us to start conversations that we are still having with each other about place, politics, gender, history, race, empathy, and so much more.

In light of the way literature has afforded my mom and I access to the world and to one another, it seemed like a gift, 19 years after Reading Lolita, to receive another set of conversations centered around books in Azar Nafisi’s newest work, Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times. Structured as a series of letters to her late father, Nafisi turns to James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood, David Grossman, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, to illuminate the ways in which literature can push back against various forms of oppression. Ranging from what it means to live life during a pandemic to the importance of paying attention, particularly while living on the cusp of a totalitarian state, to the ways in which bearing witness to the world through literature can be a form of activism, Nafisi writes with empathy. She also offers hard-won hope to readers through her work.

We Zoomed to talk about the power of stories, the necessity of knowing your enemy, the intimacy literature can offer, and resisting irreality. 

Jacqueline Alnes: You reckon with different griefs in this book: the loss of your father, which you describe, “As we say in Persian, your place is empty” and grief for both Iran and the U.S., the two countries you call home. What intersections exist for you between personal griefs and more public instances of loss?

Azar Nafisi: The world and the state that it’s in is one reason I write. Sometimes it preoccupies us so much, so overwhelmingly, that it almost forces us to not live. In Iran, there were moments when I was so overwhelmed by rage that I forgot there’s a life going on around here, and I need to live it—not necessarily enjoy it, but live it. My personal grief had collapsed into that other, larger grief. Writing, for me, is a way of linking the personal to the public, but at the same time, keeping that independence, keeping your voice, and not allowing other voices to drown it. 

JA: Did the rage you feel when you were in Iran mirror the way you have felt in the past few years?

AN: Yes. The rage over here was reinforced because people were so unaware of it. I mention in the book that you talk to people about Iran and they become very commiserative. They say, what can we do?, which is very nice and very compassionate, but at the same time they talk as if it only happens over there. It can’t happen here. Beginning with Reading Lolita in Tehran, but especially with Republic of Imagination, I was talking about the ordeal of freedom in this country. When we say it hasn’t happened here, or it can’t happen here, it probably already has happened. We aren’t paying enough attention to our role as guardians of these freedoms.

JA: A letter that hit home for me in that way was when you were writing about reproductive freedoms and Margaret Atwood and all of the recent Supreme Court decisions. These issues don’t just exist in fiction or other places. 

We aren’t paying enough attention to our role as guardians of these freedoms.

AN: You are a teacher. You know how important knowledge is and how important it is for us to read even our enemies, so that we know them. I mean, how could you know someone, let’s say someone extreme like Hitler, without reading Mein Kampf? We have to read things that disturb us as well as things that reinforce who we are or what we want. When you mentioned reproductive rights and Atwood, every absolutist’s mindset, no matter whether they are in democracies or totalitarian regimes like Iran, the first targets are women, minorities, and culture. They go after these. What you see in Texas is a miniature of what goes on in Iran. I don’t want to say America is Iran, because it isn’t, and Texas is not Tehran, but you see these trends that warn us. Women, minorities, culture: whenever they are in danger, our whole society is in danger. 

JA: About your father, you remember him telling you “that one of the most difficult challenges in [his] life had been to understand [his] enemies, to humanize them.” I can imagine, especially at this point in time, that people might push back on this idea: why should they humanize someone who has taken away their rights or undermined their personhood through policies and harmful rhetoric? What might you tell them? 

AN: For me, both when I was living in Iran and now here, one of the most difficult challenges has been to not become like my enemy. If they deny my humanity and I deny theirs, I become like them. I do not want to become like them. That is how I also fight victimhood, and that is why fiction becomes so important. Fiction is never based on judgment. It is based on understanding. It puts you in an experience and then asks you to judge for yourself. Learning from Luther King, Baldwin, and Mandela, some of the best experiences of humanity and humaneness, we learn that we need to humanize other people. If Hitler burned people in concentration camps, the enemies of Hitler, the Allies, they did not burn others, they created courts. They showed the enemy that they were not them. But they also told the enemy that they would be punished in a democratic manner and not get away with it. 

Trump lives on this kind of polemic. I mention Nancy Pelosi in my book, when she says, “I pray for him.” That was such an outrageous thing to say, but Trump has no idea how to respond to that. Trump is bad mouthing this woman, saying all these things about him, and then she says, “I pray for you.” What are you going to say to that? Don’t pray for me? Whatever you say is not enough to counterattack her treating you as a human.

JA: I thought a lot while reading your book about imagined possibilities, especially the way that fiction gives us the opportunity to imagine alternatives to our current world or to see our current world through alternative realities, sort of like a looking glass. You write that the fatwa confirmed your “belief in the close association between imagination and reality: suppression of one inevitably leads to suppression of the other.” What responsibility do writers have, if any, to shape our reality through their work? 

We have to read things that disturb us as well as things that reinforce who we are or what we want.

AN: There’s this quotation I bring from David Grossman in the book, where he says, if we can imagine, we are still free. The imagination has no boundaries. You can’t jail the imagination; it roams the world. Almost every writer, some more specifically than not, through their work, does what I do. They are witnesses to what is happening in the world, what is happening in reality. Their main goal and their main role is to make visible what is invisible, what is hiding. To investigate, to reveal the truth. If they do, that is when they are true to writing. Otherwise they create merely illusions. There is a difference between an illusion and imagination. Imaginative knowledge is a way of perceiving the world, relating to the world, and changing the world. It is a mindset. Writers have to write with that mindset. They have to be seekers of truth. Look at today: the big lie. You constantly have to fight lies and be sure that you won’t be ensnared by the lies that appeal to you. Writers, the best of them, do that for us.

JA: The lies come from everywhere. From banal things like what yogurt to buy, to bigger issues like how to get the vaccine or should I get the vaccine, to what politician to vote for, there are lies all around. It’s difficult to see through, especially in these times when people feel uneasy or rootless. It’s easier to buy a lie than to see the truth.  

AN: It unhinges you. In the Islamic Republic, there was a word I used, and I’ve been using it since Trump became president: reality becomes irreality. Not unreality, irreality. It transcends reality. The big lie overshadows everything that we do. And as you say, from what yogurt we buy to what politician we vote for, we are dealing with this. That is why I feel like society today in America has become so unhinged. People are afraid. And though truth challenges you, it takes away fear. 

JA: In the book, you have a friend in Iran who comments at one point that Trump is beyond everyone’s worst nightmare. Was it helpful in those years to have someone in a different place able to reflect that irreality back at you, and you to her? 

AN: What an interesting point, yes. We define ourselves through our relationships to others, to the way we connect to other people. That is why the way we connect to our enemies is important, and how we connect to them. They define us. Through all the years I spent in Iran, apart from reading and writing and the people I loved, was being able to connect to people, and to see yourself in their mirror. I remember how thirsty I was to talk to my brother and friends who lived abroad, who weren’t living in Iran. I wanted them to know what was happening to us. I wanted to come out of the solitary confinement I felt I was living. My conversations with people abroad were part of my survival kit. And now, of course, it is listening to friends from Iran talk about it. 

JA: It reminds me of the writer in your book who wrote journals in Iran and later published books. She bore witness the entire time to what she saw, but finally had an audience instead of just a secret diary.

AN: She survived on stories. In the period when she was hiding from the regime, going from one friend or relatives to another, she would listen to their stories and write them down for later on. I found quite a connection because of what she was saying. As I say in this book, I really don’t think I would have survived without reading and writing. This is not a hyperbole; I’m not trying to be dramatic. It’s a very simple observation. Stealing words from Nabokov, I called these books that have sustained me my portable home. 

Reality can be so fickle. Things can change in one moment. You don’t have to have a war or a revolution for things to change. You can have a hurricane or a snowstorm and everything you had is taken away from you. But no one can take away your memories and a book you can find anywhere in the world that you want. Imagination is universal.

JA: Did you feel from the beginning of this project like you wanted to write to your dad?

AN: Literature is so intimate. The letter form brings that to the foreground, especially with my father and our letter-writing tradition. I wish I had appreciated it more while he was alive, but that’s the story of all our lives. I went through a very torturous period before I chose my dad. When I started, I was writing letters to other writers, but I discovered that was too artificial. I couldn’t find the right tone. I was talking with a friend about this dilemma and she said why don’t you find a third person and immediately I thought of my dad. I knew I could do it because writing letters was something we had always done. It didn’t seem forced or artificial. He was the first person in my life who told me a story so I wanted to tell him mine.

JA: It relates to the way you talk about illusion versus imagination. Illusion feels more like writing to all writers whereas imagination is letters to your dad. The letters to your dad are grounded in empathy, show us what has changed—or hasn’t—across generations, and the way you can write about place, politics, books, and art while still telling your current story is really beautiful.

AN: What you just said is really beautiful. 

JA: What, and I know you touch on this in the book, do you imagine as a possibility for our current world?

AN: It completely depends on how we respond to the world, what path we choose. Fiction can become such an amazing guiding force to where our reality goes. Fiction is the most diverse form you can find. The structure bubbles with voices, sometimes in confrontation, a lot of times in relation, and even the villain gets a voice. Fiction is usually about some form of freedom of choice and the protagonist matures through the search for that.

You don’t have to have a war or a revolution for things to change. You can have a hurricane or a snowstorm and everything you had is taken away from you.

I bring a quote from Václav Havel, the first president of post-Soviet Union Czechoslovakia and, more importantly, a playwright and amazing human rights activist. I’m saying it from memory, but he says that hope is not optimism. It is not the conviction that we are going to be rewarded for something that we do. It is the certainty that what we do makes sense, it has meaning, regardless of what rewards you might get. That is the hope I have for this world. I think there are enough people who are fighting right now for their own dignity and the dignity of others, as individuals, as human beings, and I see the hope in them. I see the hope in women in Iran, the way they are fighting, and all over the world, including this country.

JA: You’ve been writing for such a long time, and you have this wonderfully large audience from the success of Reading Lolita in Tehran. In what ways have you changed as a writer?

AN: Writing is always an investigation. You really don’t know what you are going to write until you put your pen to paper and start. When I began to investigate myself, one thing I discovered is that when I came from Iran to this country, I felt very guilty. I had so many privileges coming here, having a job and having friends and family around. There were millions of people in Iran and I felt like I’d left them all. I was obsessively writing for people who would empathize with the plight of Iranian people. At that time, the reformists in Iran won and people didn’t want to talk about human rights. They wanted to talk about other things. I got involved with the political aspect of it, especially living in Washington DC. 

As I was writing Reading Lolita and later when it came out, I realized I’m not made for politics. If I want to connect with people about human rights in Iran, I have to talk to people and talk to them through my writing. That is what became important for me. As years have gone by, more and more, that is the place I feel most at home. For example, instead of political organizations, I work with organizations like PEN or Amnesty International. For me, this struggle was not political, but existential. As a woman, as a teacher, as a writer, as a believer in human rights, I could not accept—and I cannot accept, no matter where I am —certain immoralities, certain lies. I have no choice but to speak about it. That is all I have to give to the world. 

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