Azar Nafisi: ‘Books are representative of the most democratic way of living’

Viv Groskop in The Guardian:

AzarAzar Nafisi, 58, is an Iranian writer and professor of English literature. She lives in Washington DC and became an American citizen in 2008. In 1995 she quit her job as a university lecturer in Tehran and taught a small group of students at home, discussing works considered controversial in Iran at the time, such as Lolita and Madame Bovary. Her 2003 book based on this experience, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks and won a string of literary awards. Nafisi’s latest non-fiction book, The Republic of Imagination (Viking), is described as “a passionate tribute to literature’s place in a free and enlightened society”.

What motivated the latest book?

In the last chapter of Reading Lolita in Tehran I talk about how my students were uncritically in love with this world they could not connect to physically – the west. I wanted them to know that this was an illusion. That there were serious critiques of any system, no matter how wonderful. When I came here [to the US], I realised how the ideal of freedom is being eroded. One canary in the mine is the denigration of ideas.

What do you mean by this? What are the signs?

The inequalities of the education system [in the US]. You are also experiencing this in Britain. Where public schools [ie state schools] are virtually being dismantled. Where children are deprived of music, art and fiction more and more. And where all the privilege goes to the private schools. This is not the America I want my children to grow up in.

Why is fiction in particular important in solving all this?

The importance of ideas and the imagination is that they really defy borders and limitations. Books are representative of the most democratic way of living. There’s a James Baldwin quote about feeling all alone and isolated until you read Dostoevsky and you discover that someone who lived a hundred years ago connects to you – and you don’t feel lonely any more.

The premise of this book is that “to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life”. In what way can fiction help us with this dilemma?

Fiction confronts a great many things that we cannot fully confront in real life. Fiction is the ability to be multi-vocal and to speak through the mind and the heart of even the villain. In doing that, it forces us to face the pain of being human and being transient. It’s what Nabokov talks about: “The conclusive evidence of having lived.”

More here.