Interview with Azar Nafisi

January, 2009

Azar Nafisi More than 25 years ago, the University of Tehran expelled teacher and writer Azar Nafisi for refusing to wear the Islamic veil. Undeterred, Nafisi continued to speak out in her country, advocating women's rights and urging people to use literature as a bridge to cultural understanding and tolerance. When she came to the United States, Nafisi wrote and published her memoirs. Reading Lolita in Tehran stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks and became book club fodder worldwide. Nafisi's second and possibly more personal memoir comes out this month. Things I've Been Silent About is a story predominantly about her relationship with her mother and father, both prominent public figures in Iran. Currently a resident of Washington, D.C., and an exile from her homeland, Nafisi shares her intense love of literature.

Goodreads: What was the genesis for this book? What inspired you to look back into your family history?

Azar Nafisi: To tell you the truth, I wasn't going to write this book. After Reading Lolita, I was going to write the book that I call Republic of the Imagination. I wanted to pursue this idea of the importance of reading and literature in our lives. But I had always been obsessed with my parents, and I had always felt very guilty about leaving Iran, because I didn't know when I would see them. When my mother died, that completely diverted my attention. I became absolutely obsessed with her photographs. I would spend hours looking at them with a magnifying glass. I thought, "How can I retrieve her?" That was the start. But as I began this book, I think I was a little scared of making it too personal. So I was trying to talk about the historical context, and it didn't work. Then my father died in 2004, almost a year after my mother, and I started reading his diaries and memoirs, and I was completely engrossed. I realized that my interest is always in these intersections. Like between reality and fiction. Between the personal and the public. I wanted to write a book that was very personal, but it was placed within a context that was cultural and historical.

GR: Do you have any predictions for how your new book, Things I've Been Silent About, will be received in Iran?

AN: Of course, I think every book is a risk. If you want to get at the truth, you take a risk. But this book is the riskiest because it is so personal. Iran is not a culture that lays open the personal. But after the revolution, people have come to realize the importance of the individual and the personal. The regime has been so repressive in terms of people's personal lives and individual rights. So I hope that people in Iran understand that this is not about dirty secrets. I hope they will read it as a desire to discover some truth and as a celebration of individual lives. I hope that it will connect to the younger generation, because I see them as so much more open than my generation and so much more aware of individual rights. My generation was very ideological. I hope that it will open a dialogue in Iran. I could not write this book in Iran. By writing here, I connect to people over there in a way that I couldn't connect if I lived in Iran. That is my hope, but we'll see.

GR: Reading Lolita in Tehran found a very international audience. When you write, do you consider your audience, whether American or Iranian?

AN: This is an interesting question, because one of the amazing things I've discovered about literature is how without boundaries it is. It is a place where your entry permit is not ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, race, or class. The domain of literature is universal. A poet named Rumi can become a bestseller in America. Or a man named Saul Bellow can become popular with some of my students who have never left Iran. I might imagine a reader, but I don't imagine them by their nationality, religion, or sex. I imagine the reader with whom I can have a communion and share this world. They can be Persian or American, or even French. I think that is the wonder of reading and writing. That is how I was taught to read. When my father would tell me stories, he began with Persian stories, but he never told me that Hans Christian Andersen's stories came from this place or The Little Prince was French. I read them and listened to them as stories. That's how I want my children to react—to belong to the community of mankind.

GR:We all have some things we keep quiet. The title phrase comes from a list with this title in your diary?

AN: I kept changing that title! I wasn't sure about it, because I had used it in my diary for so long. I wasn't sure if I was using it because I was so used to it or because it would have significance for the readers.

GR: Did you engage in a lot of historical research?

AN: You won't believe! My wonderful assistant will tell you. I still have about two bags of books. I started on history, and I started reading memoirs like crazy. I asked friends to send me books—anything that came close to memoir or biography. Then I became obsessed with memoirs of travelers to Iran, and finally I became very obsessed with the form of memoir. That was how I became interested in Obama's first memoir, Dreams from My Father. At first, I wasn't interested in him. I thought he was just another political person writing a memoir. But what interested me once I started was that personal note that I discovered in him. That is rather rare. I mention some of the memoirs that really affected me in my new book. One that I forgot, which I will put in the second printing, is Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. I constantly find that Orhan and I share so many experiences and ideas. His Istanbul was also a very touching memoir.

GR: You mentioned that it was a difficult writing process. But was it at all cathartic?

AN: I think it was my most painful experience in writing that I have ever had. To be honest, many times (even as close as five months ago) I was telling my publisher that I didn't want to publish the book. I wanted to give up. Memories leap out at you, and you discover things about yourself. For me, it was painful, but I think it was necessary to confront my own flaws. A lot of times it is easy to blame the mistakes you make in life on other people. For me, having such a domineering mother, it was very easy to do it. But I realized how much I was complicit in creating that situation. For example, one of the most painful memories was about my first marriage. You are really not responsible when you are a child. But when I got married for the first time, although I was very young, I should have known better. I had a choice, no matter how much pressure there was on me. And I discovered how easy it is to not confront difficulties. The shame of marrying without love—that was something I had always shunned. I went against all these principles that I had. I don't think I'll ever forget that. I don't like to go easy on myself. I discovered a lot of things about how we are put, both personally and politically, in positions where we have no control over our lives. The good news is that you always can find ways to confront these situations by the kind of attitude you take. For me, writing is claiming control. By telling it from my own perspective, I reclaim it.

GR: Would you say that your father ignited your love of literature and storytelling?

AN: It is very important to my family as a whole, and not just my immediate family, but my father was the first storyteller in my life, and also in the lives of my children. He published stories for children that he dedicated to my brother's children and mine. Storytelling with my father became a way to communicate with the world. He made me feel intelligent and equal to him, although I was just a small child, because of the way he shared it. He would always pause, ask questions, and make me participate in the story. That is how I learned to deal with books—that it is a participatory process. And then I became a teacher. Next to writing, which is a torturous process, teaching is much more fun. No matter how exhausted I am, it is all gone when I go into a class. It is wonderful to look at the books that I have read 55 times (I don't know how many times), because when I teach them, I always discover something new. My students come to it freshly. Teaching has been one of the most satisfying experiences.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

AN: I don't know if my writing habits are unusual, but sometimes they are very exhausting. I cannot really write in an office. I can't write in my office at work. I have to create corners for myself if I write at home. I have found a corner by the window where I can look at the river. My husband goes nuts because I bring all my books and notebooks and scatter them all over the living room. It is really such a mess that he's completely given up on me. But when I get very involved in writing, I don't stay at home either, because at home there are so many diversions. So I pack up and take my laptop and my notes, and I go to places where there are a lot of people, but I don't know them. My haunting grounds are the museums, especially the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has a nice coffee shop. I have become a member just for this reason. I go to the coffee shop and write for a few hours, and then I go look at my favorite paintings. I also do this at the National Gallery, Freer, and Sackler—I write somewhere close by, and then I pay homage to different rooms. One of the best things about Washington is that all these places, apart from Phillips, are free. I think that I am a very visual writer. I feel very close to images. Then I have one favorite Starbucks in the city. So I am very mobile.

GR: Are there books you'd recommend to Western readers who are interested in understanding Iranian culture?

AN: Yes! There are so many amazing books that have been translated from Persian that don't get much attention over here. That is what I'm trying to do with this new book, to try to get some attention for some of the best facets of the culture. When people connect to one another through their culture, they find out how much they have in common. The simplistic notions that politics creates about other people is all negated through reading books.

In the book I mention two of the Persian classics that have been translated by Dick Davis. We as Persians, and also the English-speaking world, owe a lot to him. He is an English-born poet who teaches at Ohio University. He translated the Persian epic, Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, which goes back to 3,000 years ago, gathering all the mythology of Iran and its history until the Arab invasion in the 11th century. It is so beautiful—the sensuality of these stories, the openness, the beauty. All of this goes against all the images that are created about Iran, which is a very extremist, puritanical, dry culture with no love for pleasure and no love for love. The most recent one of Dick Davis's translations that I am so desperately in love with is a romance that was also written in the 11th century called Vis and Ramin, which is a love story in the same tradition as Romeo and Juliet. We have a lot of love stories like Romeo and Juliet, but this one is supposed to have influenced European medieval romances, such as Tristan and Isolde. The woman in this story is such a strong, amazing woman—talk about feminism! If you want to introduce Iran to the world, that would be the best choice.

GR: What are you reading now?

AN: I read so many things! Right now, I'm going back to a lot of books that during the writing of my book I had marked that I wanted to write about later. They are very, very different from one another. From Vis and Ramin I would jump to something like Samantha Power's Chasing the Flame. That book is interesting for many reasons; one reason is that she has written the biography of a very public and political man, but in a way that is very novelistic—giving voice to all the voices, to all the characters, even the bad ones, even the nasty ones. That interested me.

Then I'm reviewing books for my class that I will be teaching at Johns Hopkins University. I'm going back to classics, because I'm going to begin with two of my favorite books of all time: Huckleberry Finn and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I always teach them together. Both of them in different ways are about freedom. Not freedom just in political terms. The protagonists in both understand freedom in its most existential form, which is very personal and individual. And because they want to be free, even from their own demons and weaknesses, they can affect other levels of freedom, social and political. I find that fascinating.

I'm also reading a book, The Library at Night, by one of my favorite writers, Alberto Manguel, who writes about reading all the time. He wrote a bestseller, A History of Reading, and his other book is The City of Words, where he poses the question: Can reading change the world? And that is something that I'm thinking about writing next.

GR: We hope that we're changing the world too. Did you know that we have more than 1.7 million members worldwide? That's a lot of people connecting through reading. There are even 90,000 members in Iran— our largest, non-English speaking group on the site.

AN: That is so amazing. That just proves what I was trying to say in Reading Lolita—how amazingly involved people are in books. People constantly find ways of connecting. If it is banned in Iran, we need support for those people who just want to connect to the world.

This is also the time for people who really care about books to come together. I dream of having a march on Washington, through which we will discuss humanities, liberal arts, culture, and the act of reading. This is my obsession right now. We are bailing out various industries, but do we understand that if we don't have imagination, none of them are going to work. Without vision, the United States will not be able to survive on economy alone.

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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Bahareh (new)

Bahareh Thank you for the great interview. I guess I could be considered part of the "next generation" in comparison to Mrs. Nafisi and I can assure her that we are all looking forward to her new book. According to the difficulties in finding the books in Iran, I was wondering if such books could be purchased online and received as an ebook.


message 2: by Milan/zzz (last edited Jan 21, 2009 06:16PM) (new)

Milan/zzz Great interview indeed! Thank you so much.
I've read "Reading Lolita" and just wish-listed "Things I've Been Silent About"


message 3: by Isabella (new)

Isabella This interview just made my day at the office a little bit more bearable. Thank you


message 4: by Susan (last edited Jan 22, 2009 03:48AM) (new)

Susan I really enjoyed this interview with Azir Nafisi. For itself - for information which will lead me on to translations of other persian/iranian literature -but above all as an expat who writes a little I found it had a few things to ponder on iro some of my own self-defining questions. Which may be helpful as I try to write about sensitive personal issues.
Sometimes I do find Good Reads so overwhelmingly "american" ~I really enjoy these more international moments.


message 5: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Great interview. I will recommend to my Iranian mother and sisters. They enjoyed the first book.


message 6: by Khadija (new)

Khadija Excellent personal interview like I was having coffee with her. I can relate to her habit of changing writing venues. Thank you Ms. Naziri for inspiring another female writer from a developing country who lives between the East and West and always wrote for geographic audiences..no more now.


message 7: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. In our current state of economic turmoil I feel it is very important to pull together as a world community. Works such as this that move us in that direction are very important. I think the idea of promoting creativity is a great one too!


message 8: by Mehdi (new)

Mehdi Great interview. Creative minds attract pepole of the book.I hope to be considered part of the "next generation" as Mrs. Nafisi said.I hope to purchase "Things I've Been Silent About" online or received as an ebook. Thank you Mrs. Nafisi.



message 9: by Judith (new)

Judith I would love to read her books - maybe they are at the library. But I'd also like to know, as a convert to Islam, why she stopped wearing her veil.


message 10: by Mehdi (new)

Mehdi Judith wrote: "I would love to read her books - maybe they are at the library. But I'd also like to know, as a convert to Islam, why she stopped wearing her veil."
Hi,She stopped wearing her veil, because she understood the value of their revolution would obscure if they lost their purpose of making the revolution and considered these troubles as results from it.



message 11: by Jessica (new)

Jessica C. I dream of the last thing she said too. A parade. I dream of the words that I think, but not dare utter gain motion or momentum by the act of me breathing.During a relieving exhale I tilt my chin upwards towards the gigantic sea of blue, because I wonder to myself, "Really beautiful, heavy, nasty, light and magical thoughts it's time for me to deliver you to a container none the less, but in this age of few words and more violent action you must demonstrate the gentle nursing of your touch back into society. That container which will explode." I am excited to read the book about the Persian Kings, so I'm going to go finish Madness in America and Golding's Paperman. Can't wait to gobble the book whole.


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