BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even under a totalitarian regime that seeks to control both action and thought, people are not immune to books. Literature can work like a virus, effecting slow transformations. Literary critic and educator Azar Nafisi is a carrier, so to speak, of that virus, and she exposed her students to Henry James and Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov first in university classes and then in a tiny seminar of selected women after the Islamic Fundamentalist Revolution. Nafisi wrote about that experience and the books that made it possible in her new memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, and she joins me now. Welcome to On the Media.
AZAR NAFISI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now you call it a memoir, but it's also an eyewitness account of a revolution that reached into the most intimate parts of people's lives; it's also a collection of personal portraits - the people who you drew from and who drew from you - and of course it's a book of some of the most passionate and perceptive literary criticism that I have ever read!
AZAR NAFISI:Thank you so much. You know I wanted it to be a memoir in books because I didn't want it to be about me personally, but about my experiences and my life within the context of the Islamic Republic or a totalitarian regime and not just the Islamic Republic, and how these books helped us redefine and open spaces within that reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well it was a revelation to me. I thought I knew The Great Gatsby and Lolita, but now I see what you take from those books depends so much more than I thought on the context of your own life!
AZAR NAFISI: The way different realities redefine these books! That's the exciting thing about them, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about Lolita. The protagonist, Humbert Humbert is a child molester with complete control over his 12 year old ward--
AZAR NAFISI: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- Dolores who he has renamed Lolita.
AZAR NAFISI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Humbert is appealing! He's a sharp wit. He hates our crass commercial culture as much as the most right-minded intellectual does, and Nabokov has us see the world through his eyes.
AZAR NAFISI: Mm-hm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What relevance did Lolita have for the seven young women in your seminar?
AZAR NAFISI:The point about Humbert Humbert is not just that he rapes and keeps Lolita in his prison for almost two years but the fact that he has fallen in love with a girl when he was very young, and she dies and the love is never consummated, and since then he wants to impose his own past upon a living reality -- the living entity that is Lolita -- and that is the greatest crime. And this is what they did to us! They came in the name of the past and told us that you have no right to be what you are; you have to be a figment of our imagination! So my girls really, really identified with the book as a whole.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And partly because Humbert is such an appealing character--
AZAR NAFISI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:-- and there's so much about Islam that is so appealing and so important to those women at that same conflict that they have with the protagonist in Lolita, they, they have to work out through their own government and their own regime and their own faith!
AZAR NAFISI:Yes, you're very right because Humbert uses his sophistication and his love of culture--in condemning Lolita's quote/unquote "vulgarity" -- and he is, as you said, very appealing, and this is true of Ayatollah Khomeini and the regime that came to Iran in the name of Islam. They used Islam not as a religion but as an ideology in order to gain control over the lives of the individual citizens in that country! They confiscated our lives! So, as you say, the girls in that class very much understood the structure of Nabokov's novel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well while you were still teaching at Tehran University, you had a class full of male and female students and some were fundamentalist and some were Marxist and some were still lingeringly westernized-- [LAUGHTER] and one of the most striking parts of your book is when you recount the day your class put The Great Gatsby on trial! What was the point of that exercise?
AZAR NAFISI:One of my Islamist students who was the leader of the Islamist student associations at the University of Tehran, he objected to The Great Gatsby; he said that this is a decadent work -Fitzgerald was - pro the money - the capitalist, imperialists and we tried to kick these people out of our country, and so why are we reading them? I wasn't about to get rid of Great Gatsby because of this guy, and I felt that he didn't act as a reader but as a prosecutor. So I said okay - you're the prosecutor. Let's put this book on trial and see what happens!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:If I recall, your political defense was that if anything Gatsby was not a, a celebrant of commercial culture but something very different.
AZAR NAFISI:The Great Gatsby, when you go into the novel you discover that no matter what Fitzgerald himself was, and Fitzgerald-- did court the wealthy, but his work transcends his own flaws, and the main villains in that novel, if you could call anybody a villain in novels, are Tom and Daisy Buchanan who are the wealthiest, and they're careless people! They create messes that other people have to clean up after them! So-- the greatest sin in The Great Gatsby as in so many great novels is being careless of others - not having empathy towards others - which I think our prosecutor actually was guilty of [LAUGHS] rather than the, The Great Gatsby.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And in almost all the books that you feature in your memoir, the central criminals, no matter how virtuous they were, were criminals because of that lack of empathy.
AZAR NAFISI:Yeah, and that is I think one of the greatest gifts of the novel -- villains are people's who do not see others - who are blind towards other people - whether you were talking about Jane Austen or Zora Neale Hurston! They don't just punish them. They know that because you're a villain, you cannot be simply eliminated. You can be revealed and exposed, but we live all side by side, the way we do in society!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And, and the only triumph that you can be guaranteed is the one that you take for yourself. Like the character in Washington Square who never really triumphed in any of the spheres that she tried in--
AZAR NAFISI: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- but she triumphed in defying the others who would push her into boxes she didn't want to go.
AZAR NAFISI:Oh, I'm so glad you brought her up, Catherine in Washington Square. What matters, what is - specially at the center of James's novels - is individual integrity. And it's usually a woman who is at the center of this issue, and what becomes important is not whether we win or lose but how we lose. The attitude we take towards others and ourselves and the dignity that we preserve becomes the most central issue in the novel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet Catherine is left alone with her embroidery, facing a life of loneliness. It's a hard lesson! [LAUGHTER] It's a hard triumph, I would imagine, for your female students to swallow!
AZAR NAFISI: You're right. The reward you get is not necessarily happiness, but the reward you get is gaining your own self-respect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:How strange it seems that when the stakes were so high at that time in Iran -- when people were killed at random for a slight or imagined offenses - when they were raped and stoned and, and shot at random -- that literature, mostly by dead white guys from another place and time-- [LAUGHTER] should matter so much!
AZAR NAFISI:You know that is the great thing about literature. It transcends your sexuality or race or nationality. Literature becomes universal and property of everyone. Imagination genuinely liberates us from reality and it lets us re-tell our story! It's so important because you know - life is also tyrannical. It's all death in the end. And the only time we can-- triumph over time is when we tell the stories of our moments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that literature has a different role in a closed society than it does in an open one?
AZAR NAFISI:You know we act towards literature in an open society the way we act towards our hands or eyes. They're there, and we take them for granted. But you know - we who come from those other countries would like to remind you about the preciousness of these values and they're fragility. These rights are not God-given, and they can be taken away from us anywhere we live.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
AZAR NAFISI: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Azar Nafisi is author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. [MUSIC]