Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Azar Nafisi on the power of imagination

Tonight at the Spark speaker series, Azar Nafisi urged us to recognize the transformative power of imagination.

Imagination and investigation

Imagination frees us from seeing the world as it is, so instead we see the world as it could be, or as it should be. It is imagination that gives us hope in the darkest of times.

The power of imagination lies at the core of her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, which chronicles women's struggle to reclaim their Iran from a regime imposing its own radically different vision on the populace. As that book illustrates, imagination can be a subversive act because it leads us to question things. "To genuinely feel subordinate is to never stop questioning," she said. In contrast, smugness is the absence of questioning.

Imagination and questioning lead to investigation, and Nafisi believes the urge to investigate differences lies at the core of culture and reading. This is the subject of one of her books-in-progress, The Republic of Imagination — a metaphysical state in which differences are celebrated, but simultaneously the overwhelming commonalities that link us all are recognized.

Cultural diversity

Nafisi urged us to envision the Iran beyond the headlines. It's a nation of more than its male-dominated, Muslim regime. Iran is the birthplace of classic poetry from the likes of Rumi and Omar Khayyam, and it is a land of great beauty and diversity.

In fact, she paralleled "the hidden Iran" to the global perception of the United States. Both nations are led by regimes that at least outwardely rely on their faith for political direction, but the people and their culture are much more complex than might be indicated through mass media. Nafisi's comment that "no religion can be democratic if it takes over a state" was met with fervent applause.

Never complacent

Paradoxically, Nafisi thanked the Islamic Republic for helping her learn never to feel complacent. When she returned from foreign studies in 1979, she found a drastically changed Iran. She didn't feel at home in her own home, which though unsettling at first proved beneficial because it prevented smugness.

While a happy (if not complacent) resident of the United States for nearly a decade, she still hopes for change in Iran — if not a change in regime, at least a change in mindset. "Every culture has something to be ashamed of," she said, citing slavery, segregation, and the slow extension of suffrage to women among blemishes on American history. "No culture is exempt. But every one has the right to change."

Change comes through challenges. She urged us to raise our voices when the government acts against our principles: "Any act of barbarity, any act of brutality, implicates all of us. No one can be silent." We need to constantly challenge and be challenged, lest we risk what Saul Bellow termed the atrophy of feeling.

Nafisi encouraged everyone to keep our eyes open for challenges to freedom and democracy, ending with the call to action: "Readers of the world unite."

Join the discussion

For more on developments in Iran, Nafisi recommends She plans to start a new online book club by summer. Details will be posted at

What are your thoughts on imagination and culture? Do you think imagination is alive and well in America today? Are diversity and questioning celebrated, or at least generally accepted?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Nafisi to speak about imagination and culture

The Austin American-Statesman published an interview with Azar Nafisi yesterday. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran offered a preview of Wednesday night's Spark event:
I want to talk about the importance of imagination to culture and the way in which it transforms our reality and our interpretation of it. I want to link that to my experiences in Iran, a society that is culturally suppressed, in order to create a form of dialogue between the two systems and cultures. There is a way literature reveals our universal aspirations.
Read the full interview, or find ticket information for Nafisi's speech.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The power of book clubs

A book discussion group helped Azar Nafisi better understand changes in her native Iran, and how the fundamentalist regime was oppressing women and intellectual freedom.

While most American book groups likely deal with less weighty issues, they still play an important role in many of our lives.

No one knows just how many Americans belong to book clubs, but memberships certainly total somewhere in the millions, especially with the popularity of Oprah's Book Club.

According to Elizabeth Long in Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, our groups share the same fundamental purpose as Nafisi's: "they have no larger or more social mission than to gather [primarily] women together for the companionable discussion of books, ideas, and experiences."

What role do book groups play in our society? Are they part of community building? Do they serve a purpose beyond just socializing?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Azar Nafisi to speak March 29

Our third speaker is Azar Nafisi, author of the bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.

After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, Nafisi taught Western literature at Tehran University, Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai University. Her opposition to mandatory veils and other repressive measures applied to women eventually forced her out of universities and persuaded Nafisi to leave her native land in 1997.

But before leaving, Nafisi gathered seven promising students for informal weekly discussions of literature from the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jane Austen. For two years, they secretly met in Nafisi's home and shed their robes and veils to engage in animated, uninhibited dialogue on books, art, culture, gender, morality, oppression, and so much more.

These experiences provide the foundation for the part memoir, part literary criticism, part social commentary Reading Lolita in Tehran. Read an excerpt from the Middle East Quarterly.

Nafisi is director of the Dialogue Project and visiting fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Join us at the Paramount Theater on Wednesday, Mar. 29 to welcome Azar Nafisi to Austin. Individual event tickets are now available.