Clutching on to fragile pages, I fought my urge to tear up publicly on the subway, for I’d appear to be a mess to surrounding strangers – as if I didn’t sufficiently resemble a trainwreck, with my unkempt hair, in the paper-thin shirt and running shorts combination I wore to bed the night before. (I was making a short trip home from college and hadn’t felt the need to change.)
It seemed my anxiety and lack of sleep had conjured up a lethal concoction for extreme emotional volatility, a ticking time-bomb that had finally been set off by the book I held in my hands. And hence for the rest of the journey, I was relegated to alternating between spurts of reading and deep heaving to console myself. Immersed in meandering prose not quite dissimilar to the streets of Tehran themselves, it seemed that for the twenty minutes that I was seated in the train, I had been utterly consumed by the frank beauty of Azar Nafisi’s memoir
I picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran several days ago, having chanced upon it on a trip to the bookstore to pick up the week’s copy of The New Yorker. I didn’t find the periodical, but alas, I left the store triumphant with three new books and a much slimmer wallet.
Remembering a previous encounter with the book – or was it just the title – through a casual mention in a conversation with an English tutor, I browsed its first pages, and upon reading Sontag’s review, decided that I must purchase it (though that might’ve had to do with my long-standing admiration for the essayist instead.) Following years of having shelved memories of it in the depths of my mind’s archives, my relationship with the book thus began.
The memoir opens with a Breakfast Club-esque introduction to its central figures, seven of Nafisi’s “best and most committed students” – all women of varied backgrounds, some traditional and others outrageous, with a deep commitment to literature (1). The women are literally unveiled in their characterisation, for in Iran where a standard dress-code is enforced, that which lies beneath the superficial is, perhaps, the most telling; one’s hair colour or style of clothes becomes as synonymous to their identity as their history. More importantly, however, their removal of religious garments bridges the gap between a culture that is so often exoticized and our own, thereby drawing myself and other readers into Nafisi’s narrative, and into the book club that sets her story.
As the group began to gather in their professor’s living room for their inaugural meeting, I was overcome with a curious sense of belonging – particularly so as a fellow student of literature – to a community of characters whom I only had access to through the print on my pages. In these pages, Nafisi details the sensitive and oppressive climate within which they were operating, juxtaposing the complete, uncensored freedom literature demands against the restrictive Islamic Republic, if only to illuminate her students’ dedication to the subject. She writes:
I wanted to teach a handful of selected students who were not handpicked by the government, who had not chosen English literature simply because they had not been accepted in other fields or because they thought an English degree would be a good career move (10.)
Their passion was indubitably infectious, spurring an instant urge to delve into a library and devour all the works one could never conceivably read in a lifetime. Yet, what eventually drove me to the verge of tears was, rather, the timeliness of the reminder of my own love for reading and literature. Whilst the study of the subject encourages one to be critical, such critique is oft contrived to the point of being didactical; instinctual sentiments are forcibly “justified” by mundane theories that cannot possibly explain the inexplicable, whereas the most imaginative works of the greatest minds are reduced to mere text. There is, evidently, much to gripe about the way literature is studied academically, but most frustrating of all is how its methods very quickly lead individuals to disillusionment. To be taught a predesignated approach of hacking away at a text to distil its “meaning” has, perhaps, engendered a certain anxiety surrounding my fears of not being able to match up to those better at doing so. After all, how could one possibly claim to stand up against centuries of canonical tradition?
However, the memoir reiterates the importance of literature – a truth that appears to be increasingly sidelined in competitive academia – that is, that one’s experience of literature is essentially subjective and personal. “The novels were an escape from reality,” writes Nafisi, but “Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities.” To be reminded of this fundamental significance of reading and of the privilege I’d been afforded in my ability to read freely and widely where others aren’t proved to be a necessary relief from my doubts of why I’ve chosen to do what I do.
Of course, to be able to indulge in the intricacies of the author’s language didn’t hurt either. Where words are picked and hung as if they were pearls on a necklace – most deliberately and carefully – to conjure images so salient they are impressed onto one’s imagination almost instantaneously, sentences are woven so beautifully in this book it reads like a masterclass in writing. My favourite passage occurs early in the memoir, when Nafisi exquisitely sets the scene for most of the novel –
From our second-story apartment…we could see the upper branches of a generous tree, and in the distance, over the buildings, the Elburz Mountains. The street, the hospital and its visitors were censored out of sight. We felt their presence only through the disembodied noises emanating from below (8.)
How anyone writes so brilliantly, I simply cannot fathom.
Beyond my self-indulgent concerns, there, ultimately, remains an innate societal importance to a book pointedly titled Reading Lolita in Tehran. Dealing with weighty issues of gender and politics, “Reading Lolita in Tehran” trials religion and society the same way Nafisi and her students approach the novels they read – the latter seemingly alluding to the lives of Iranian women after the revolution. As Nafisi’s students challenge canonical interpretations of the texts they read, and particularly of the patriarchal figures that commonly preside in these Victorian novels, they, too, turn their critical lenses to the similar authorities that govern their lives. Through literary allusions, Nafisi cleverly entwines into her narrative questions of power and politics. The result is a nuanced view of post-revolution Iranian society that neither condones the country’s old regime nor condemn the systemic oppression of rights under the new.
For, as Auden declared, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”, Nafisi seeks not to upheave the status quo but only to make sense of it through literature, and maybe, by that, better the lives of herself and her students.
As she writes, “I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women.” She continues with this poignant claim, “We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.” Fiction, in the case of the women in Nafisi’s narrative, is thus not merely portrayed to be an escapist apparatus but also one that empowers women to understand themselves and the situations they are unfortunately enmeshed in, such that they will eventually be able to find a way out. Words that I too often take for granted are, thus, transformative to the lives of others.
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.