Reflecting on Twenty Years Since Reading Lolita in Tehran
Dr. Azar Nafisi on the subversive power of literature and why her memoir is more relevant than ever.
Azar Nafisi published her memoir in books, Reading Lolita in Tehran, in March of 2003. In it, she recounts her experience of returning to Iran during the revolution and living under the new totalitarian regime until her expulsion from the country in 1997. The memoir centers around seven students of Dr. Nafisi’s, who form a clandestine book club and meet at her house to discuss works of Western literature, including Lolita, Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Washington Square, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice. In honor of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the book, Dr. Nafisi spoke with Penguin Random House’s Abbe Wright on what has and hasn’t changed for the women of Iran since she wrote the book and the extraordinary power of literature to subvert power structures.
Penguin Random House: It’s been twenty years since Reading Lolita in Tehran was first published. How are you feeling about the anniversary?
Azar Nafisi: I always say that books are like your children. You go through so much trouble writing them, you’re worried, you’re anxious, you’re happy, you anticipate their arrival. Then they come into the world and take you to amazing places and connect you to incredible people. A new world opened to me through the readers of the book. I have learned so much from readers’ insights into Reading Lolita in Tehran — the writer doesn’t always see everything. It is amazing that I’m still getting responses from people, even after twenty years of being out in the world.
PRH: Tell me about why you initially wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. What were conditions like in Iran when you were living there and how did that spark the idea for the book?
AN: Ayatollah Khomeini was the founder of the Islamic Republic in Iran and the leader of the Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the Persian monarchy in 1979. After he was in power, his regime started abolishing secular laws, replacing them with strict Islamic laws, and attacking and banning opposition groups. The regime focused especially on forcing draconian laws onto Iranian women, specifically the introduction of mandatory hijab (veiling). Women resisted and protested the regime for the first time on March 8, 1979, the day after the fatwa for the mandatory veil was issued. Tens of thousands of Iranian women came into the streets on International Women’s Day, and their slogan was, “Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western; freedom is universal!” Counter-protestors attacked the women with knives and scissors and threw acid into their faces.
Since then, after the veil was made mandatory, women would go into the streets, showing a little bit of hair, or putting some makeup on, something subversive to tell the regime that they have not converted to its law. I refused to wear the veil. I was teaching English literature at the University of Tehran and was expelled twice from the university, once for not wearing the veil in the early ‘80s, and the second time in the mid-‘90s for refusing to comply with their laws and resigning. They refused to accept my resignation and instead, two years later, they expelled me.
It was around this time in the mid-nineties when I started hosting some of my female students at my house for a private class. Here, we talked about life as women under the regime and discussed controversial Western works of literature, like Lolita, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby. At this time, living in Iran, we felt so cut off from the world. Under the regime, it was very difficult to leave Iran, it was very difficult to get visas to go to different places. So Iranians connected to the world through imagination and ideas, through books, through films, through music, and through art.
When I was expelled, I left Iran with a huge sense of guilt, that I could go somewhere else, and live freely and openly, and millions of my fellow citizens didn’t have the choice that I had. So, I made a vow to myself to talk about the way we live in Iran, to bring it to the attention of the world of people that I met. That was at the root of my writing the book.
PRH: Why was it so important for you to bring attention to the lives of people, and specifically women living in Iran, through your book?
AN: Reading Lolita in Tehran takes revenge on the totalitarian mindset. The totalitarian mindset wants to confiscate your reality. To legitimize themselves, totalitarian regimes obfuscate our history and traditions. Iran’s history goes back 5000 years and Iranians are very proud of their heritage. This regime tried to take away our national identity, our social and cultural, political, and personal identity, and refashion it through its lies, saying that Iranian history is only what they say it was. They use lies to gain power, to rule, to survive and they fabricated something that was not our culture as our culture. The regime changed the age of marriage from 18 to nine for young women. They instituted stoning to death as the punishment for prostitution. They disrobed all women judges, saying women are too weak to judge. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a response to that. It is an attempt to retrieve our stolen identity. I want the world to know that this is not Iran’s culture.
Another weapon this autocratic regime used against its people is to tell them “The world doesn’t care about you, the world has forgotten you, you are alone.” And so, it was important to me to reach the world and become the voice of those who have been made silent inside these countries. I wanted people to know that Iranian women were articulate and that, although they were victimized, they refused to become victims. I wanted the world to know that Iranian women have been fighting for their rights since this regime came to power. Part of the reason I wrote Reading Lolita was to connect the voices of Iranian women to the world that has been taken away from them. And the other part of it was to show hope because wherever there is resistance, there is hope.
PRH: What have you seen that has changed for women in Iran since you wrote the book? And what hasn’t changed?
AN: Well, what hasn’t changed is the regime’s violence, especially against women. Now we’re dealing with the fact that women are getting killed by just going to protest and demand their freedom of choice. So that hasn’t changed. But one thing that has changed, which is very important, is that Iranians, especially women, have no more fear. Although the regime is at its most violent, they still go into the streets, they still refuse to wear the veil, and they still think and dance, which is forbidden. They have changed. They are not afraid of this system. And they now have discovered their power. It is the regime that is afraid now. Their extreme violence comes from fear. They have nothing in their arsenal but violence, there’s no other way to communicate. The veil has become the most obvious sign of the Iranian people’s attitude toward the regime. That is why the regime is becoming so violent about it because they know that not wearing the veil means not wanting the regime — the veil has become a symbol of freedom. This fight is about freedom of choice, a fight against a totalitarian system, and not a fight against religion.
PRH: You’ve said that in some ways you felt that Reading Lolita in Tehran predicted what’s happening in Iran right now. Tell me more about that.
AN: One reason Reading Lolita is still relevant is because the movement you see in Iran today has been built over the past 44 years. The women who are protesting in the streets today are the granddaughters and daughters of those women who protested in the streets 44 years ago. In telling the story of the women’s resistance in Reading Lolita, it gave hope for change. It binds together those women who, for 44 years, came into the streets, showing their hair, putting makeup on, being jailed, or being flogged, only to come back into the streets and do it again. The generation I wrote about in Reading Lolita planted the seeds of this uprising we see today. And that is why Reading Lolita is a hopeful book.
The other thing I hope to do with Reading Lolita in Tehran is inspire readers who live in democracies to understand that these freedoms we have, that we take so much for granted, are very precious. People in other parts of the world, like Iran and Ukraine, are sacrificing their lives for it every day for these rights we take for granted. What I wanted to do through Reading Lolita and my other books is to tell people, “No one is immune.” That is what literature tells us. Literature puts a mirror in front of us and says that we can be where those people are right now. Don’t say it can’t happen here because it has already happened here. We had slavery in this country and fascism and communism in the 20th century. Reading Lolita tells us that these freedoms are fragile, and literature safeguards them and makes them endure.
PRH: How is literature able to ignite political change and subvert power structures?
AN: Literature is always about the truth. Literature is an investigation. James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, talks about the fact that writers are here to disturb the peace. They disturb the peace by pulling us out of our comfort zone, making us look at reality in the eye, look at the truth in the eye. And the truth is always dangerous. That is why totalitarian systems kill for it. Look at Salman Rushdie. He, as well as the Iranian women who are protesting today, have nothing. They don’t have any guns. They don’t have any weapons. Their only weapons are their words. And the only weapons of the Iranian women are their peaceful protests. So why is it that a man like Ayatollah Khomeini, who is so powerful, who has a militia, the army, and nuclear weapons, is so afraid of the man whose weapon is words, that he must eliminate him physically? The Iranian regime has eliminated many writers and poets, from the very start. They have imprisoned them, censored them, tortured them, and killed them. The regime is terrified of words because the truth is dangerous. It is dangerous for us as readers because once we know the truth, we cannot remain silent. If we remain silent, we become complicit. Totalitarian regimes know that the truth will destroy their carefully built fabrications, lies, and propaganda.
And it’s not just in Iran. In America, books are being banned. They are being criminalized. Taken off the shelves in libraries. This is the same thing.
PRH: You discuss Lolita, of course, and Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice in Reading Lolita in Tehran. If you were to do this book club today, would you change any of those titles?
AN: I didn’t have access to many titles when I was in Iran. I mainly found the books we discussed in my father’s library and my friends’ libraries and my own collection. Initially, I was worried that because they live under such repression, my students might idealize the West too much after reading Western literature. I felt that the best way to prevent this would be to teach them about the great works of art in America, because the greatest fiction that America has to offer is also the best critique of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald was fascinated and captured by the rich, but The Great Gatsby becomes one of the great condemnations of the rich — they are careless people, who don’t have empathy for others. I wanted my students to know that everywhere in the world, even in democratic countries, we must fight for equality. However, if I were doing the book club today, I would add some writers like James Baldwin, for example. I’m now doing interviews both in Persian and English on James Baldwin so that we can reach the Iranians inside Iran who don’t have access to him. Margaret Atwood told me that her books are published in Iran. I asked a prominent translator in Iran about Atwood’s books, and she said that The Handmaid’s Tale has been reprinted 11 times! So I would add that as well. I like to say that these books belong not to the countries where these writers were born, but they belong to the readers who take care of them and read them. Iranians risk a great deal to read these books and when they do, it’s a kind of freedom. We don’t deserve freedom if we don’t fight for it every day of our lives. Iran reminds us that totalitarian regimes can happen anywhere. We need to be vigilant, no matter where we live, always nurturing freedom, and defending democracy.