March 07, 2013
|Director of Winter With the Writers Carol Frost talks with Azar Nafisi, author of the bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran. (Photo by Scott Cook)|
writer, Azar Nafisi has penned two memoirs, the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things
I Have Been Silent About, which chronicles her life growing up in. She is
currently a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. On Thursday, February 28,
Nafisi gave a reading and taught a master class at Rollins as part of the
Winter With the Writers Literary Festival.
You currently teach in the U.S. What do you feel is the best attribute of the American school system?
The first thing not just I but my daughter discovered was this sort of freedom students have to express themselves. When you live in a totalitarian society, students are taught that they are nothing. That what they have to do is listen. That they have to exactly follow authority. Here, they are given the opportunity to be anything, and I think that’s freedom of expression. I enjoy it when my students come up to me and say, “We hate this book. Why are you teaching it?” Or they come to me and say, “We disagree.” There was no feeling except for the fact that they felt free to express themselves and that created a space where we could have a real class rather than one in which I was the ultimate authority. The ultimate authority is in fact the texts.
What do you think is the greatest flaw in the school system?
When you think about your childhood—the books, the films, the places you’ve been—they create you in a sense. We have become so utilitarian, we don’t teach our children what is the point of being an individual and independent and to not have choice. All the choices end with making money and being successful for yourself. Money used to be a means to an end and now it has become both the means and the end. I’m really scared of the system that doesn’t pay attention to substance and that doesn’t bring up children to face the difficulties that might plague them. And the privatization of schools is allowing very, very wealthy people to send their children to school wherever they want to, but the majority of Americans cannot and the country will suffer. The people who do not have the money will suffer.
Is there anything your American students lack compared to your students in Iran?
One of the things that I miss about Iran is how much reading a book meant. In Iran, a book is not just a book. People give up a lot in order to read Great Gatsby. I miss that intensity. I miss that involvement. I miss that appreciation. I always look at it with sadness that over here we have the chance and sometimes we don’t take it. Our children are encouraged to just feel comfortable. They’re encouraged to have a different kind of solitude. The solitude of a writer is in order to connect to a world. The solitude of a person who just wants success at any cost is eliminating a world, not connecting to one.
What piece of Iranian literature would you recommend to an American reader?
My favorite, which for some people may be difficult, is the book Vis and Ramin, which is this medieval, 11th-century love story. It is very sensual. They talk of love making and the fact that the woman finds joy in it and she chooses to take part in it. The book explores the growth that individuals find through love.
Another book that I love, that I always recommend is a book by our epic poet Ferdowsi. He also comes from the 11th century. When the Arabian conquerors of Iran came about, Iranians felt a loss of identity. Ferdowsi started to go thousands of years back to the beginning of Iranian mythology and he revived the Iranian identity through the stories he wrote of Iran, right up to the Arabian Invasion. Ferdowsi’s poems are read aloud in coffee shops. Illiterate people know them by heart. I think that is a window into Iran.
The last book is a modern classic. It’s called, My Uncle Napoleon. It is about this young boy’s love for his cousin. It is that tenderness of the love and the innocence of it, as well as his uncle who believes that the British are after him that shows the phobia of Iranians about foreigners. So it is a very loving satire on that national characteristic as well as a very tender love story. I think these would be good introductions to Iran.
One of your students in Reading Lolita in Tehran says she has a pathological love of words. What is your favorite word?
There are so many. In that book I talk about the word upsilamba. For me upsilamba is always in flight. I don’t completely understand the meaning. Words in poetry are meant to make us feel we don’t completely understand.
What is the most difficult part of writing for you?
The real torture of writing is that you are inventing a world. You know even in the writing of a memoir you cannot recreate all the facts. You have to select and combine, so you are recreating a world for which you are responsible. And certain frustrations come because that world is within your grasp, but it isn’t. You constantly think you’ve done it, but you haven’t. And you don’t want to live in this world, you want to be in your own world.<
What is your advice for young writers?
First of all writing, even at the best of times, is a difficult and solitary existence. Most writers get rejection after rejection. You have to have a core belief that you want this. That is the first thing. You have to have a passion. It’s like when you decide to have a child and you know your life will be changed forever, but you accept the responsibility. The second is never feel too cocky about it. We might have talent, but as Sinclair Lewis said, here I am working like a Ford mechanic. It is a chore. The joy comes out of how much you give. And like conceiving a child and bringing it into the world, the labor pain is the worst pain in the world. After that pain, there is such a high. Something happens. What you bring into the world always come with pain, but that is the thing that makes you joyous. Nabokov wrote to his friend after finishing one of his books, “Mother and child doing well. Expect roses.” I think that you should go into that profession only with love.
When I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran, everyone told me I was stupid. My best friends told me, “You’re writing about dead white writers. No one likes to read about these people.” I said, “I’m not writing for those reasons. This is what I want to write.” And I did not believe the book would sell more than a 100 copies. The only person who believed in it was my editor. I was shocked. I’m still shocked. But it was the love that brought it. And that is the reason to go into writing.
By Issy Beham
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