Winter Words series opens Tuesday with Azar Nafisi
If You Go …
Who: Azar Nafisi, presented by Aspen Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Free tickets are available for students age 14 through 24. E-mail victoria.morris@aspeninstitute .org for more info.
When Azar Nafisi was teaching in Iran after the revolution, classic literature was a source of hope and freedom. When she became an American, she looked to the country’s great novels to better understand the complexities and contradictions of the American character. And now, in the days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, she’s looking to the power of fiction as a uniting force for a divided nation.
Nafisi’s own books grapple with American identity, the political implications of literature and the necessity for fiction in a democratic society, making her talk opening the annual Winter Words author series Tuesday — days before the dawn of the Trump era — particularly timely.
“I find it very terrifying, but also exhilarating,” Nafisi said of Trump’s looming reign in a recent phone interview.
Her books, including the runaway bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and her 2014 follow-up “The Republic of Imagination,” are in part about reading fiction as a form of resistance. Both are hybrids of memoir and literary criticism. “Reading Lolita in Iran” recounts her experiences teaching American literature at the University of Tehran, being expelled from her post and organizing a secret book club for Iranian women.
Nafisi fled an increasingly oppressive Iran for the U.S. in 1997, returning to the country where, in the 1970s, she’d attended the University of Oklahoma. Now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, she became an American citizen in 2008.
Her “Republic of Imagination” examines the essence of America through Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt,” Caron McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and the fiction of James Baldwin. It argues, with passion and wit, that we risk our liberty if we ignore our literature.
“In every book I’ve written since I returned to the U.S., I’ve talked about this problem our society faces,” she said. “This country, anything that makes it so-called great, was based on facing and doing the impossible, having certain foundational values and having a vision. Since I returned to the U.S., I’ve realized that daring and that vision was being gradually replaced by a sort of complacency, a conformity, that I found dangerous.”
American novels through the centuries, she noted, have been critical of such conformity as well as materialism. The country’s fictional heroes, from Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby” to the tough detectives of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet novels, she pointed out, have been skeptical of material success and wealth.
James Baldwin’s work in particular, she noted, is more important than ever at this fraught and politically divided moment in American history — for those on both the right and left.
“It’s not just about political hacks that are destroying our country and the world today,” she said. “He’s giving warning to people who feel that we are progressive, that we are on the side of the victims — that we should not be inflexible and self-righteous.”
During her extensive travels in the U.S. since “Reading Lolita in Tehran” became a national phenomenon in 2003, Nafisi has met diverse Americans (“in both red and blue states”) who believe in the power and vital importance of fiction.
“I found a nation of readers, large and small, old and young, rich and poor, of all colors and backgrounds, united by the shared sense that books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own,” she wrote in “The Republic of Imagination.”
She describes, somewhat facetiously, her hope of a massive march on Washington gathering together these true believers in the power of narrative. This longed-for Republic of the Imagination may not yet exist, but in the coming days, months and years there will be grassroots resistance and she expects to be a part of it.
“I want to be part of the community that is trying to bring about change and be a part of these communities that are now, especially, waking up to what is at stake, what we can lose,” she said. “That is my only mission.”
As Americans, we may take our freedoms and our literature for granted. As an American who also is an immigrant from an oppressive theocracy, Nafisi tends not to.
“You come from a place where you have witnessed how freedom can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye, you become anxious about the preservation of freedom in the country where you live,” she said. “And you are no longer innocent and naive enough to think that freedom is a God-given right.”
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.