Azar Nafisi is an enthusiast. In the epilogue to her new book, she states that she began her analysis (but, really, celebration) of American literature intending to write about 24 books. She ended up choosing three: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” In these works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers, she finds the essence of the American experience, filtered through narratives not about exceptionalism or fabulous success, but alienation, solitude and landscape. Her argument is compelling, but more than that, her pleasure in these works is contagious.
Nafisi is best known for her bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which she wove together reading and memoir and produced a compelling argument about the role of literature in repressive societies as an exercise in freedom and self-realization, especially for women. In The Republic of Imagination, she asks whether reading in the United States — where no books are banned by the federal government (although some are censored by school districts and libraries) and the greatest threat to culture is indifference — is an equally political act. Her authors would have said that it is, but the tide they are rowing against is not usually that of the government, but the much more sluggish, heavy current of cultural norms such as racism, consumerism, conformity, prejudice against gays and casual cruelty in the name of individual rights.
Threaded through her reading of Huckleberry Finn is the dramatic and sometimes devastating tale of her friend and fellow Iranian American Farah, who, like Nafisi, returns to Iran from the United States when the shah is deposed, expecting to work for positive change. Perhaps the most sobering line in the chapter is this one: “ ‘Within four years of that day,’ Farah said, ‘All but one of my friends who came with me on that plane back to Tehran were dead.’ ”
In the chapter on Babbitt, Nafisi discusses conformity and questions the apparent indifference of American politicians to the development of critical thinking skills, curiosity and empathy. Noting that it is writers, musicians, teachers and artists who are imprisoned by totalitarian regimes, she asks, “Why do tyrants understand the dangers of a democratic imagination more than our policymakers appreciate its necessity?”
Nafisi understands that perhaps in this day and age the United States is a republic in imagination only. In her discussion of McCullers’ eerily prescient depiction of a small Southern town where violence and foreclosure are the norm, where a child shoots another in the head by accident, where dreams die, where no one can connect, where all political ideas are the preoccupations of rejects and weirdos, she sees real possibility in the fact that McCullers’s characters finally take responsibility for themselves.
Will Americans be as willing to take to heart a book that puts us on the spot and asks of us the same serious questions that Nafisi asked of the regime in Tehran? We are more spread out than Iranians, more thoughtless, more susceptible to the marketing of ignorance, perhaps. But read it. It will do you good.
Azar Nafisi appears at 11:30 a.m. Sunday and at 3:30 p.m. on the panel “Do Monsters Live in Our Laptop?” in Chapman Conference Center at Miami Dade College.