Writers at Rutgers Reading Series »


by Kate Flint


Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books has proved extraordinarily popular. Appearing at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for over 100 weeks, it has been translated into over thirty languages. When its author visited Rutgers, we were treated to a passionate exposition of the ideas about the transformative power of literature that animate this work. Literature has the capacity, Nafisi argued, to awaken what Saul Bellow called the “sleeping consciousness,” and to take us directly into the lives and minds of others, enlisting “the alternative eye of imagination.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran is at once a personal picture of life in Iran during the 1980s and 1990s, focusing in particular on the increasing number of external restrictions placed on women, and a testimony to the liberatory, transgressive potential that lies in the act of reading. It also, by way of background, introduces us to Nafisi’s own life: born in Iran, educated there, in England and America (with a PhD from the University of Oklahoma), she returned to teach at the University of Tehran in 1979. Expelled from the university in 1981 for refusing to wear the veil, she taught there again from 1987 to 1995, when she started the informal reading group in her home that lies at the heart of her cultural memoir. In Iran, she also taught at the Free Islamic University, and at Allameh Tabatabaei. She moved to the United States in 1997, and is currently a visiting fellow and a professorial lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. There, she is centrally involved with the Dialogue Project, an initiative designed to promote the development of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world.

Professor Nafisi’s writing has not been uncontroversial. Her detractors have accused her of privileging Western literature and its values above the writings of other cultures, and of presenting an unduly pessimistic picture of contemporary Iran. When she spoke, Nafisi did not engage head-on with such viewpoints. But as a more subtle tactic of rebuttal, she drew attention to the importance of national literatures to an individual’s sense of identity, to Iran’s heritage of strong women, to the importance of discussion and disagreement, and to the importance of ensuring that the societies in which we live allow the freedom of debate—including the freedom to disagree about the value of literature.

She is currently working on two projects, a memoir exploring her mother’s life and the role of women more generally, entitled Things I Have Been Silent About, and a further book about the emancipatory power of literature: The Republic of Imagination. During her lecture, she never let us forget that behind her slogan—“Readers of the World, Unite”—lies a profound commitment to human rights. Reading, in other words, is always, in the broadest sense, a political activity. Her message about the importance of reading as something that can link people together, open their minds, excite their curiosity, and engage their empathy was a salutary one for lovers of literature to hear.


Editor’s Note: Azar Nafisi visited Rutgers on Monday, October 23, 2006. Co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Rutgers College Office of Student Development and College Affairs, Nafisi’s lecture drew a record-breaking crowd: over 750 members of the university community and general public attended. Kate Flint also wrote about Reading Lolita in Tehran in a review essay, “Women and Reading,” in the winter 2006 issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

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