Photo by Tom Slocum
Author of two memoirs about her life in Iran, Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About, Azar Nafisi talks about her books, her life in Iran, her parents, the Iranian Revolution, and, of course, the power of literature. [25:05]
Azar Nafisi: Part of the urge to write memoir for me is first of all, whenever I want to express an idea, I cannot express it except through a narrative. And so narrative itself, which is mainly based upon your own experiences, becomes for me a vehicle of talking about the ideas and the passions and the feelings that I have. But memoir, I think it is because of my experiences in the Islamic Republic. Having lived there for 18 years, and, you know, when you live under an absolutist regime, the first thing that happens is the confiscation of your voice, and the fact that now, you're not the one acting out your story or telling your story or being who you are. Someone else tells you that this is who you should be, this is what you should do. And there has been in Iran, as the years progressed, this urge to both read about the past, memoirs, history, and also to speak about the experiences.
Jo Reed: That was Azar Nafisi talking about her memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nations great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the acclaimed Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a vivid portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the subversive power of literature. Her second memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter is, as the title suggests, a deeply personal reflection as Azar comes to grips with her complex and overbearing mother, a woman from a generation who had limited choices, and explores the inspiration she found in her father’s enchanting tales from classic Iranian literature. In the process, she gives us a moving account of her family’s struggle to survive the cultural and political upheaval of revolution and repression in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I spoke with Azar Nafisi about Things I’ve Been Silent About and asked her about her decision to write such a personal book.
Azar Nafisi: I think it was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It was excruciating. And as I will be talking about it today, I didn't want to write it. I wanted to write, after "Reading Lolita in Tehran" I wanted to write a book tentatively called "Republic of Imagination," which was about the subversive role of imagination in terms of our political, social, cultural lives. And my mother died when I was writing the acknowledgements to Reading Lolita in Tehran. And our relationship was a very, very difficult one, and once she was gone, you know, I became even more obsessed with her. I felt as if there was an unfinished conversation that needed to be finished somehow, that I needed to carry on this conversation with her; I owed it to both of us. And then, of course, the most universal experiences come out of the personal. You need to empathize with one single individual in order to understand feelings and emotions and ideas. And through writing a personal memoir, I was very careful to not just talk about me, but to talk about me within a context which went beyond me. And so this memoir is also within the historical and cultural and social history of Iran, within the lifespan of the individuals.
Jo Reed: Well, you come from a very interesting household.
Azar Nafisi: Rather crazy, but that makes them interesting.
Jo Reed: You and your mother were in battle for you immortal soul.
Azar Nafisi: You know, that was the whole thing. She was such a-- all of us are paradoxical, once you get into an individual, but with her, she wanted to control and shape us, especially me. I was the first born and I was a girl. And for me, in order to keep my independent identity, I constantly had to resist her in one way or another, otherwise I would melt into what she was, but I also felt victimized in one sense, you know. And victimization always paralyzes you. The only way you come out of it is to denounce yourself as a victim, to think that you're a free agent. But in the last years of my mother's life, and after her death, I kept wondering, what was it that made her so bitter, because the way she was acting towards me was not out of cruelty. And I realized that it was out of a deep sense of vulnerability that she herself had lost her mother when she was very young and she had the proverbial stepmother, you know. And she wanted to go on-- she was very intelligent, top of her class--and she was not allowed to continue her education. Her best friend to say, "Another intelligent woman gone to waste." And so my mother wanted me to be all the things that she wasn't. She wanted me to continue my education, to be a public person, but at the same time. I feel that she was jealous of the mother I had that she didn't have. So she constantly would put me down while trying to elevate me.
Jo Reed: And your relationship with your mother was exacerbated by her relationship with your father.
Azar Nafisi: Yeah. And that relationship, from the start, was exacerbated because of the fact of my mother's first marriage. That was another loss that turned her bitter and inward. When she was very young, she fell in love with this handsome, intelligent young man who was actually the son of the prime minister at the time, and when she married him, on their wedding night, she discovered that they had not told her that he was afflicted with a fatal disease, nephritis of kidneys. And the doctor has said that he doesn’t have more than two years to live, and the doctor has said, "Let him have whatever he wants." And he wanted my mother, without telling her. So she basically nursed him to his death, you know. And so all of these experiences created in her a sense of suspicion. By the time she got to my father, she already had lost her trust, you know, and by the time she had reached my father, she was frozen in the past. And being frozen in the past is very dangerous, as I discovered through my political experiences in Iran, when you do not allow change. You want to retain a moment that is already gone. That is what she did. She wanted that husband, that life, which in reality she never had, and no one could replace it, you know. And so my father and I, and later on my brother, younger brother, we all became complicit, in order to survive this relationship, like a totalitarian system, you had to lie. You had to lie in order to survive, and then you hated yourself for having to lie.
Jo Reed: Azar, you’re very clear that your mother's history and your story are meshed with the history of Iran.
Azar Nafisi: Yeah, and this book for me was, I always liked to say, both a mourning and a celebration. In one sense, it was a reckoning with my parents and a declaration of independence. And when you declare your independence, you cannot do it without paying homage to what you're declaring your independence from. And it wasn't just about my parents; it was about Iran. It was about a country that, like the first love, no matter where else you go and what other loves you discovered, that first love always stays with you, you know. But it was also a first love that I felt in so many ways had betrayed me. You know, I had left Iran when I was very young and all my life I wanted to go back home, and I went home and home was not home. And I always quote, Adorno, the German philosopher, who used to say, "The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home." So in a sense, it's good not to feel at home and to be restless, and I've learned that now. I want to be an outsider in a sense, to never feel completely smug and complacent anywhere. But in another sense, that was not the Iran I knew. That was not the Iran I had grown up with. That was not the Iran that my father had told me about in the poems that he would read to me at nights. That was not the religion I knew. It was a political ideology that had confiscated the religion and traditions, and in that name, it was ruling over us and I felt very alien and very alone.
Jo Reed: Let's put this in a historical context. You lived in Iran with your parents under the rule of the Shah….
Azar Nafisi: Before the revolution. And then I left Iran when I was very young at the age of 13, and then I returned to Iran after my studies where finished, and that happened to be the summer of 1979, when the Islamic revolution had happened, and of course, at the time, none of us knew what will happen. Like all revolutions of its kind, it had a few surprises in store for us. And, you know, religion for me had so many different faces. My grandmother, my paternal grandmother, was an orthodox Muslim, never took off her veil, but she was the kindest, most flexible and gentle woman I had ever known. We, her grandchildren, or my mother who never wore the veil, we would go swimming in the pool in our bikinis, and here she was with her veil, you know. And my mother, who claimed to be a devout Muslim and who went to the pilgrimage, actually, she never wore the veil. She was a very modern woman, like this country. Muslims came in all shapes and forms. And then there were Zoroastrians, which was the religion in Iran before Islam. If the history goes back to 2,500 years, half of it was Zoroastrian. Then we had Jews and Christians and Baha'is and agnostics and atheists. People forget that. All of a sudden, these people come and say, "No, everyone is Muslim." But that Islam is the way they interpret it. It's like saying that this country's Christian majority and all of you from tomorrow will act the way Jerry Falwell's version of Christianity is you know? Who is more Christian, Michelle Obama or Sarah Palin? Who's to say that Mr. Ahmadinejad's Islam is the genuine Islam? That is the right they took away from us, the right to choice. They confiscated everything that we had, including our religion.
Jo Reed: One way you subverted this was by reading, and through literature. And you document that so beautifully in Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Azar Nafisi: For me, literature is like blood in your veins. You don't see it, but if it stops running in the veins, life stops. I never imagined I could marry anyone who would not read. My brother and I used to be taken to these parties we hated by our parents, and we always went there in torn up jeans and a book under our arms, to show people, that is what we cared about. And my father, ever since I was a kid, he would tell us stories and he would tell us later on that this country is so ancient, Iran, and it has been invaded so many times. And the only thing that gives us identity as an Iranian is our poetry. And in this new book, I talk about our epic poet, Ferdowsi, who actually, 2010 is the thousand year anniversary of Ferdowsi, which we're going to celebrate all over this town, I hope. And Ferdowsi, after the Arab invasion of Iran in the seventh century when, for the first time, the Arab invasion force the Iranians to even change their religion, so their sense of identity was lost. He wrote a thousand pages of poetry, weaving in Iranian mythology, going back to 3,000 years ago until the invasion of the Arabs. And he said that, "I will be immortal." It's like Nabokov saying, "Governments come and go. Only the trace of genius remains." And so ever since I was a kid, literature was a place I would go where the life I could not control would become controllable. I think literature is a resistance again both the tyranny of time and of man.
Jo Reed: I was hoping you'd say it so I wouldn't mispronounce it, that's the "Shana--?"
Azar Nafisi: "Shahnameh."
Jo Reed: Say it again.
"Shahnameh," Ferdowsi's "Book of Kings."
Jo Reed: Yes.
Azar Nafisi: "Shahnameh." You talk to every Iranian, it is impossible for them not to have. It's like Bible. And it is not just elite; actually there are traditional coffee houses in Iran, where you have special people who sing "Shahnameh" to the beat of music, special music that is with "Shahnameh." And in these coffee houses, because it began with oral history, people would come and tell the stories of "Shahnameh" and in the Smithsonian and in the Met, there are these fantastic books, because in Iran, many of these books of tales and poetry came with illustrations, with miniatures. And there are such amazing illustrations, so it is both visual and oral as well as written. That is where we all agree. And of course, this regime, when they first came, in Iran, many of our streets were named after our poets. We had Khayyam Street, who was the agnostic poet, talk about wine and women, Hafez and then we had a Ferdowsi Square, and there was a statue of Ferdowsi in a square. And one of the things they wanted to do was bring down that statue and they couldn't. They could not change the name of our streets, the poets, and they could not bring down the statue. And in the end, they were forced to even acknowledge and have celebrations of him, which was always half hearted, because they hate him. And this year I heard that they almost closed down the celebrations of Ferdowsi. But this is how a people survive. They survive through music and art and literature. This is the best of humanity, and it's always universal. For me, since childhood, I read Mark Twain, side by side with "Pinocchio," side by side with "Little Prince," and side by side with "Shahnameh." For me, that was a republic of imagination, that I needed no passport based on my nationality, you know.
Jo Reed: You come from a family of storytellers. Your father one kind storyteller, your mother a little bit different. Tell us about your mother's stories.
Azar Nafisi: Yeah. Now when I think of it, and all through the writing of this book, her stories are the ones that break my heart every time, because her stories-- my father was very articulate and my brother is also, and I'm a writer. My mother was very inarticulate, and so there were stories that she would repeat almost verbatim each time, as if she had memorized them. And those were the snippets from the life that she had idealized. One was the story of her dance with her first husband, that, "The first time I saw him and he asked me to dance once, twice three times." One was those and one was the stories she would create about us and herself that never happened. And that is where I would say that it seemed like a totalitarian mindset, where she would turn me into someone that I wasn't, and even talk about incidents that had never happened. She said, "Do you remember that day when I said something to you, and you acted this way?" I had not. But she would not accept it.
So the tyrannical instinct is on one hand molding this person into that ideal. And yet, the things that I accomplished which she acknowledged, but then she also put me down for it, because she could never become that, it's that ferocious relationship where you both want to get away but there is an immense sense of empathy in me, for the waste, for the woman she could be.
Jo Reed: Your mother wouldn't come to America with you.
Azar Nafisi: No. She wouldn't come to America, and partly of course, both my parents were very courageous politically and socially. I mean, that I admire them almost unconditionally. People would think that they are crazy for the way-- but my mom would say, "I will never ask these people--" and she meant the government, "-- for a passport." And I said, "Mom, this is not asking them or begging them. This is your right." But she said, "No, I will not carry their passport." And when she would go out in the mornings, she was very proud of the fact that she would say things like, "You might not see me come back," because she would get in the bus on purpose, in the bus, and she would start badmouthing the government. So she loved it. She would always say, "I might not get back home." And when I came here, and I would be giving the talks or writing about the conditions in Iran, she was always supporting. She always sent messages through people who would come here, to tell her, "how proud I am that she's telling the truth." And she would say, "I know that I won't see her, because of that, and I'm very alone, but tell her that I'm very proud of my children, because they're standing up to these people." So there was that side to her as well, that I wished I had cherished more. We always thought about her as eccentric, but these eccentricities were very beloved in fact.
Jo Reed: Reading Lolita in Tehran was one of the many books that was banned in Iran. What I found surprising, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the books that are banned.
Azar Nafisi: No, there isn't. You see, the most frightening thing about this regime, like any regime like this, is the arbitrariness. You never know. When I wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran some people would say things to me, "No, you're not telling the truth, because they're not doing that now." I said, "That is the whole point. They don't do it." I mention in Reading Lolita that living in the Islamic republic is like the month of April, that there are showers and thunderstorms one moment, and then a little bit of sunshine and then rain. So you never know. And that is how they rule, that you're never sure. You're never sure that if you come out of the house, and you have no makeup, you wore the veil properly, they might get you. Or you wonder, you go out of the house, you have makeup and you look like what they call a harlot, and they don't get. Books, it's the same. Or they banned, like for example, from Othello they banned Desdemona, Laurence Olivier's film. They banned Desdemona from most scenes, and they banned Othello's suicide, because they said masses are depressed if they watch someone commit suicide. On the other hand, the book was there. People could read Othello. It is very arbitrary.
Jo Reed: You wrote, "Living in Iran is like having sex with a man you loathe."
Azar Nafisi: Someone told me Martin Amis had said this was his favorite quote. Well, I felt dirty, because the horrible thing about tyranny is how they make you complicit in the crime they commit against you. Because I am the way I look right now. Even my appearance is not under my own control, so when I go into the streets in the morning, I have to, as Eliot would say, "put on a face to meet the faces that I meet." And this face is not my face; the way I'm veiled is not me. The revolutionary guard who would arrest me if I don't look like that knows it. I know it. Everybody else knows it. So you become a lie. You are being someone whom you are not. It's in the same manner that people are scared to talk in public about certain things, because there will be consequences. Vaclav Havel in The Power of Powerless talks about the same system in communism.
Jo Reed: The Czech writer who became president.
Azar Nafisi: The Czech writer who became president of Czech--
Jo Reed: Of Czechoslovakia.
Azar Nafisi: And Havel talks about how like the greengrocer has to put something very pro system in his shop window that he does not at all believe in. So what they are teaching you is that you can be against yourself, you can negate yourself, and that is the only way you can survive. And that is one reason I wrote Things I Have Been Silent About, it is much easier to criticize others. It's much easier for me to talk about Mr. Ahmadinejad, but it is far more difficult to see ways through which I myself become complicit, and to admit. For me personally, and that is why personal life becomes so important-- personally, when I married my first husband, no matter what excuses I could bring, that I was very young, my father was in jail, my mother was driving me crazy, yet that act of marrying a man that you really didn't love, and justifying it to yourself, for me was an act that was dirty. And actually, I think that's where I got my metaphor for the Islamic republic, from my first marriage.
Jo Reed: Azar, I think you've answered this implicitly, but I want to end by asking you to talk quite explicitly about what you see as literature’s power and joy?
Azar Nafisi: I think that reading is one of the most sensual things we can do, because the whole idea of imagination is to evoke your senses. Our colleges and universities nowadays have turned the act of reading into a theoretical obscurity. But the whole idea of reading was, as Primo Levi says, and he says, "I write in order to reconnect to the world, to humanity." That is why we read and write. And for me, reading awakens your senses, because it constantly puts you in the experiences of others that you have not experienced before. The act of holding a book in your hand, touching it. It's a very tactile experience. Then the fact that you don't see those scenes, but you create them in your mind's eye, is a very, very satisfying experience for a reader. And the fact that it makes you connect to the whole world. It is always about another. Even when you identify, it is about that stranger within you that you hadn't known. Unfortunately, the kind of political correctness that we have in this society nowadays, it teaches you that you should read and write about yourself. The most boring thing in life, I should read and write about you, or the stranger in me, and you should read and interpret me. I mean, this is how the world should run. And so for me right now, the most important mission is to ask the question that I asked today: who will bail out imagination and thought? What will happen to a country that, as Saul Bellow says, "has lost its love of poetry and its soul?"
Jo Reed: And on that we'll end. Azar Nafisi, thank you so much.
Azar Nafisi: Thank you.
Jo Reed: It was a pleasure.
Azar Nafisi: It was gorgeous talking to you.
Jo Reed: That was Azar Nafisi, she was talking about her memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts from "Elixir of Life" composed and performed A.J. Racy and James Peterson, used courtesy of Lyrichord Discs Inc.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes. Just click on Beyond Campus and look for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Next week, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, talks about the impact of The Great Migration on American culture.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Excerpts from "Elixir of Life," from the album When the Rivers Met, composed and performed A.J. Racy and James Peterson, used courtesy of Lyrichord Discs Inc.