Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)

The Republic of Imagination Reader’s Guide

By Azar Nafisi

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi


Questions and Topics for Discussion


In 2003, with the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Iranian-born Azar Nafisi became a literary sensation. In 2008, she became an American citizen. But long before she took her oath of allegiance, and perhaps even more intensely thereafter, questions about the United States filled and teased Nafisi’s mind: What does it mean to be American? Why are the values of American art, music, and literature so evidently at odds with the nation’s politics? Is America founded as much on heartbreak as on hope? Why, in the midst of cultural wealth and hundreds of millions of countrymen, do so many Americans lead uninspired, lonely lives?

Armed with her Ph.D. in English from the University of Oklahoma and years of teaching experience both in Iran and the United States, and with the encouragement of a wise friend named Farah, Nafisi went looking for answers. To find them, she turned to the sources she knew best: her own experiences; the sometimes tragic life stories of the people she has held dearest; and, above all, the immortal works of American literature that are, to her, as familiar and as essential as breathing.

The result of Nafisi’s quest is her remarkable new book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. In this deeply reflective and often surprising work, Nafisi leads her readers on a personal journey through three great novels of the American canon—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt; and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. In these three novels, Nafisi finds a series of quintessential American struggles: Huck’s inner battle between convention and conscience; Babbitt’s reluctant confrontation with the emptiness of his seemingly prosperous life; and the efforts of a quintet of misfits in an impoverished Georgia town to communicate their anguish, their frustrations, and their fragile dreams.

Those who come to Nafisi’s Republic of Imagination expecting to find only cogent literary analysis will find it, but they will also be pleasantly surprised by how much more awaits them. Woven tightly into Nafisi’s meditations on literature are a host of other fascinating strands. In her chapter on Twain, we share her fascination as she observes the richness of American culture—from Coltrane to Cummings, from the Marx Brothers to Melville—and wonders how that richness can exist in the same place that has given us the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Fox News. As she pays homage to Sinclair Lewis, Nafisi deplores the Common Core curriculum and pleads for a freer, more thoughtful and joyful approach to education. And as she explores the work of Carson McCullers, Nafisi descends deep into the heart of the anxiety, loneliness, and violence that daily fray the fabric of American life. But it is perhaps in the portraits of her own friends that Nafisi’s warmth and intelligence is most evident. We meet her lifelong companion Farah, who fights for justice in Iran and barely escapes death following the Islamic Revolution. We meet Mike Wright, a devoted college activist whose idealism slowly gives way to solipsism and paranoia. And, of course, we form a strong acquaintance with Nafisi herself, whose wise and passionate perspective on America makes for truly unforgettable reading. Brilliantly conceived and lovingly written, The Republic of Imagination is a beautiful place to live.


Born in Iran in 1955, Azar Nafisi holds a doctorate in English and American Literature from the University of Oklahoma and has been a United States citizen since 2008. She is a fellow and lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She is most widely known for her groundbreaking and highly popular 2003 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years and has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Washington, D.C.


1. In The Republic of Imagination you bring together a multitude of nonfiction genres, including literary criticism, social commentary, and personal memoir. As you constructed the book, how difficult was it to get all these moving parts to mesh together?

Perhaps the most difficult part of writing this book was not so much getting the “moving parts” to mesh together as finding the right structure for this particular book. I had resisted the idea at first of bringing in personal stories. The chapter on Huck Finn, for example, was first written more as literary criticism (it was a long chapter from the start, over a hundred pages). But I felt it lacked energy, and heart. For a long time I was in a state of despair, which led me to look over my files and diaries in search of some form of inspiration, and that is how Farah entered the scene.

I had always been fascinated by my friend Farah’s story and in fact I had tried to insert it into both of my previous books. In Reading Lolita my editor vetoed it, and in Things I Have Been Silent About I myself took it out before handing it to her. The strange thing is that I had never thought I would have room for her in this book, and then there she was, like a guiding star. I was reading through my diary of her last two years, especially that last year when we spent so much time together, and suddenly it dawned on me that there was no better way I could talk about the intersections between fiction and reality—how Huck came in my mind to represent the heroism of ordinary people and a certain kind of American virtue—than by telling the story of our conversations. After that it was still very hard to write, and it took me a long time to get it right, but I felt relieved. I knew I had hit on the right form of expression.

2. In this book, you argue that Americans suffer from a unique kind of loneliness. Do you find that this loneliness is chiefly a feature of the current historical moment or do you think it is something inscribed in the American character?

Well, I believe that Americans both suffer and benefit from this loneliness, which has been with them for a long time, perhaps from the very start. In its best sense this particular form of loneliness, the one so often defined and redefined through great works of fiction, appears as what Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her beautiful pamphlet explaining the reasons for women’s disenfranchisement calls “the solitude of the self.” Her basic tenet is that all individuals are born, live, and die in a state of solitude, and therefore each and every one of us is responsible for how we live and die. To her mind all individuals must have equal rights and opportunities to shape their lives, to make choices. What is interesting about this vision is that it does not promote selfishness and greed, it does not claim that we need to live our lives without regard for others, but suggests instead that our social rights, our need to coexist in society, will be fulfilled when every one of us has the means to live life to its fullest.

I think this is what gives Americans their stamina, their joint sense of independence and responsibility. It is a Huck Finn kind of solitude, not Ayn Rand’s more egotistical and narcissistic kind. Huck is independent, in essence a rebel, but he needs to be with others, to feel for others, and to communicate in order to be whole and to have an idea of who he is and what he wants. He is repelled by the conformity of Miss Watson and the violence of his Pap, but it is through Jim that he is resurrected: his moral self is developed in relation to others, both those his heart rejects and those, like Jim, whom it tells him to value, however much society may tell him it is wrong. This theme runs throughout my book, from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz through Babbitt to Baldwin—all of Baldwin’s work is based on this interplay and tension between the heart and the monitoring conscience, between the desire for independence and the need for community. I think it is essential to the preservation of society.

The danger lies in a diametrically opposed interpretation of solitude, one that basks around the cult of the individual, that justifies greed and selfishness, even the current gun violence, and that celebrates the Ayn Randian conception of supermen and superwomen all in the name of American individualism. When this concept is taken to its extreme then individuals do feel, as so many do in modern societies, isolated and without means of communication, like those you meet in Samuel Beckett’s plays and stories or in a different form in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This form of loneliness is in a metaphorical sense a form of social autism.

I mention in the book Tocqueville’s prediction that a time will come in America when individuals will withdraw so much into their own private spheres and lives that they will neglect the public sphere, and, along with that, their civic life and obligations. That, I believe, is a root of the crisis we are facing today.

3. The Republic of Imagination sets out to encapsulate a vision of America by discussing three of its great literary classics. That’s no easy task. Indeed, you initially wanted to articulate your view by writing about two dozen books. Which work did you most regret not having room for, and why?

This is an open wound! And I cannot really choose only one work. I eliminated books as I became more focused on the themes. At first I wanted to begin with Melville’s Confidence Man and to include more works from the twentieth century, from Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and Dawn Powell’s stories to Philip Roth and Bellow, Hemingway, Ellison, Chandler, even Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money. . . . Then I realized my own preoccupation was more and more with this homeless, vagrant American hero whose real ancestor was Huck Finn—not Tom Sawyer but Huck.

During the course of my reading and rereading I realized that the sixties had been in many fundamental ways both a culmination and a new beginning and I began to feel I should not go beyond sixties and include more contemporary authors, that it would require a different approach. So Baldwin from early on seemed to be the right author with whom to close the book. He to me is so relevant today in ways we have not yet come to understand. In a sense, ending the book with him leaves it sort of open-ended. He is the one who both ended and began a new era. He has so much to teach us, and today it is again Baldwin who will be placing Stendhal’s mirror in our path. So the good part was reading all these amazing books; the bad part was returning them to the shelves.

4. In your introduction, you recall your relationship with your father—a relationship greatly facilitated and enriched by reading. You also write quite a bit about the importance of reading in maintaining a democracy. What are your thoughts about the role of reading in a family and in society at large?

I think on one level every book I have written, including the one on Nabokov in Iran and perhaps especially my children’s story, BiBi and the Green Voice, suggests the importance of reading in a family and in society. Reading opens the door to that portable wonder world in our backyard, a place of solitude but also of community, a way of withdrawing from the world in order to return to it refreshed and new, a way of fighting habit, conformity, that tendency we have of becoming so used to routine, to rules, that we stop really seeing things, feeling them, touching them. A child sees the world differently: pots and pans become musical instruments, a stick can be a weapon or an imaginary horse, cherries become earrings, the stars hold that Little Prince, and so on and on. That is how we change the world, by seeing it, feeling it, describing it differently, by wandering and wondering, by enlisting that freedom afforded to you only through imagination.

Just consider any great children’s story from any place in the world: the process of learning about the self, about how to assimilate the realities of life and overcome its obstacles, is achieved through an imaginary journey. The Little Prince has to leave his lonely planet to find out why he loves that vain, selfish rose; Pinocchio has to leave home and his good-natured father and creator and pay for his own follies so that he can become truly human. Then there is the dream journey in one of my childhood favorites, Maeterlink’s Blue Bird . . . I could go on and on. The novel, which I think of as the adult version of these tales, is still about a process of discovery and self-discovery: Jane Austen’s characters find the flaws in themselves while subverting traditional norms, as does the mischievous narrator of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, or Tom Jones, or the narrator in Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, safeguarding memories others wish to forget. I could go on and on about how fiction reveals to us who we are and how we are related to others.

If a democracy claims to be based on diversity, on looking at the same world through so many different eyes—if it claims to be based on tolerance, on the ability to put yourself into other people’s shoes; if it claims to be based on change, which requires the alternative eyes of imagination; if it claims to be based on choice, which means the ability to go beyond the surface, to break through appearances in order see the truth—then it cannot afford not to read, not to imagine.

5. You write that as a teacher from Iran living in America, you discovered that people expected you to conform your instruction to a role and a viewpoint dictated by your ethnicity. You’ve found that experience far from pleasing. What do you have to say generally about the politicization of literature in the academic world?

I experienced this not just as a teacher but even more as a writer and an activist. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone was or is like that, but a sizable number of people among our elite today, both academic and political, impose their formulas upon the world. One central theme of this book is challenging and resisting conformity in all its shapes and forms. Ideological thinking is a form of absolutism, of conformity. It makes one feel smug and self-righteous and has little respect either for reality or fiction, both of which are elusive, diverse, and ambiguous. Seneca Doane, the radical lawyer in Babbitt, calls this the “standardization of thought.” Once you begin to categorize everything, to put people and things into different boxes affixed with labels, you risk becoming similar in your attitude to Miss Watson, Huck’s prim guardian, who wants so much to educate him. The danger lurks in society at large and is in a sense amplified in places like academia, whose very existence depends on freedom of thought, on the sacred nature of the profane.

I believe that democracy is not just about the freedom of individuals but also about freedom and independence of different fields of human endeavor, which, while interdependent, have to preserve their independence in order to function properly. The politicization of any field, including art and science but especially literature, is dangerous because it involves a reduction of scope and a diminishing of possibilities. In the case of literature it takes away its essential function, its freedom to roam and to subvert not just political reality but any kind of conformity. And it often takes the form of physical violence: imprisoning, torturing, and outlawing poets. I wrote about how my students in Iran connected to the world through its literature, music, and arts; some could not take this at face value because it did not fit their neat little theories, so there had to be a nasty political purpose behind it, a worship of all things Western. But what I was writing about was not just limited to people like me.

All you have to do is to look at the young people in Iranian universities today—read their blogs, take a look at their works of art, their films, test their knowledge of books and music, movies, art, even fashion and you will see that what I was describing is not at all far from the truth. If the extremists’ view of religion is what the majority of people want and believe in, then why does the regime still after over three decades needs guns, prisons, and torture to implement its vision? When you call a country Muslim, it does not mean that Muslims are creatures from out of space, that they are so different from us that flogging people for their appearance, stoning people to death, does not strike them as objectionable. In Iran as in America, we have very fanatical Muslims, moderate ones, and very liberal ones. We even have Muslims who have become atheists, and others who are secular, and we also have agnostics and atheists and Jews and Zoroastrians and Christians and Baha’is. They are all Iranian, and they all should have equal rights and representation. But then to ideological extremes on the right and left this is really unpalatable. It makes things complicated; it forces us to rethink, to admit that Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, people with different beliefs still share many universal values, have many diverse views of what their culture and religion means. We take away that freedom by turning literature and art into handmaidens of political issues of the day, a few theories that appear immutable—this is true of both the extremes on the right and the left. They seem to be opposed and they are in terms of their political positions and agendas, but not in their ideological stance and polarized and absolutist attitude.

So the adventures of a little boy who is ignorant of politics is still a scathing critique of tyranny. Politicization simplifies, making us feel smug because we don’t question; we already know. Imagination is about complexity, paradox, and contradiction, about ambiguity and doubt.

6. While we’re on the subject of how one teaches literature, it’s evident that you see books as intimately connected with the lives of the people who wrote them. Strangely, this has become a controversial proposition in many English departments. What would you like to tell critics who insist that the text should be studied in isolation, apart from its personal and social contexts?

To begin with, let me clarify one thing: I believe books of poetry and fiction should stand on their own two feet. If we need to know about the author’s life or historical and political life of the era she is writing about in order to enjoy or understand the book, then there is something wrong. In my classes I encourage students to avoid reading biographies, theories, or reviews or to avoid seeking my opinions of the assigned works before first reading and connecting to the works themselves. I want my students to have their own unmediated relation with book.

Having said that, in my writing I keep returning to a theme that has fascinated me for a long time: the interactions and intersections between fiction and reality, ways through which each defines and transforms the other. How does a work of fiction become so organic a part of its multitude of readers’ most personal feelings, experiences, and emotions? Just think how vastly different are the many readers who over two thousand years have discovered Homer, or the Mahabharata? And yet all these individuals, by reading these books, by connecting to them, create a community, unique and universal. So what I am after is discovering the ways through which a great writer transforms her most intimate dreams and personal experiences into something universal and transcendent. It is mainly from that viewpoint that I examine the lives of authors. I believe with Baldwin that life and art are closely intertwined and one cannot exist without the other; therefore it is not surprising that this approach has its fascination for me and that Baldwin and Twain are among my favorite writers, along with Kafka!

7. The three main sections of your book focus, in turn, on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Yet the first book you discuss at some length is actually The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Is there a sense in which L. Frank Baum is even more fundamental to Americanness than Twain, Lewis, or McCullers?

Well, to tell you the truth what I talk about in both the introduction and epilogue is as fundamental as the books I discuss in the three middle chapters. I mention The Wizard of Oz partly because it was the first American book I remember reading. But also because it represents a very powerful myth about America, one that takes a different direction from Huck Finn. Dorothy returns home; Huck rejects it. I followed Huck this time, because I think he is so fundamental to the idea of America. I end the book with Baldwin because he is to me the true heir to Twain—I am speaking here about both his essays and his fiction. He is the “exquisite mongrel” Mark Twain talks about. And because I believe Baldwin’s ideas on both literature and life are so crucial to all times, especially to the times we live in.

8. You return frequently to a strange duality in America: the tension between the beauty of its literature and art and the tawdriness of its politics and economics. Why, in your view, is it so hard to get these two Americas to talk to each other?

Perhaps it is not fair to attribute this only to America. I think this duality exists in every culture and in every country, the tension between fiction and reality. And fiction’s beauty does not reside in the reality it expresses, which is often quite tawdry and terrible, (think of Shakespeare or Flaubert, not just of books I discuss here). That beauty is the result of the way literature expresses reality, illuminates it, recreates it as we readers become Alice wandering through Wonderland. It resides in the way literature expresses our resistance to the cruelty and absurdity of the world. It is the most powerful way of saying no to the absoluteness of death and transience of life.

9. Apart from the fact that your friend Farah was deeply involved in the writing of the section, why did you choose to pair your treatment of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the story of your relationship?

My reasons were based not just on our shared passion for Huck Finn and for literature in general but on our effort to understand, to define what it meant for us to be in a constant state of exile, what it entailed to be an American, and for both of us the answer lay in fiction and history as much as in the present state of the country. Huck Finn provided us a map. He gave us access first to the imaginary and then the real America. For me writing is mainly a conversation on different levels, between fiction and reality, between the writer and the imaginary reader, and in this case between Farah and me. I wanted to capture how the story of our own unique relationship was revealed to us by retracing Huck’s story.

But having said all that, what was fascinating to me was not merely the ideas we shared but the conversation, the passionate life-and-death manner in which we discussed all these things. It seemed to me I could not write that chapter without reimagining my conversations with Farah and the way she illuminated so many things for me about Iran, about America, and about the meaning of Huck Finn.

10. Your examination of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is notably hard on Tom Sawyer, whom you call the “villain” of the novel. Might that be going a bit rough on a character who is, after all, only a boy? And isn’t the villainy in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more a condition of a society than the fault of a single person?

It’s quite right that villainy is in part a social condition, but this doesn’t let characters off the hook. Their individual traits represent not just a particular society’s condition but also a more universal human condition. And all this is conveyed through the characters and their interactions.

Yes, Tom is just a kid, but so is Huck, and yet both in all “innocence” do represent certain fundamental moral and ethical matters. What they each say and do, the decisions they make, especially in relation to Jim, have very serious consequences. Huck decides that to betray Jim means betraying his own heart, and he risks going to hell to remain faithful to Jim. Tom treats Jim as he does everyone else—more as a toy, as a figment of his imagination. And what each believes in and does has serious consequences. What would have happened to Jim if Huck had not torn the letter to Miss Watson or if Tom were not interrupted in his so-called rescue mission?

11. Your chapter on Babbitt contains a scathing critique of the new Common Core. In your opinion, how have the Common Core’s supporters misconceived the purposes of education?

As I mention in the book, the Common Core standards are not the only thing that is wrong with our system of education today, but they help illuminate an attitude toward education as whole that to me is questionable. It is that attitude, which goes further than the standards themselves, that I target in my critique—an attitude that is deeply engrained in Babbitt’s approach to works of imagination. I think he would have been quite at home with phrases like “career-ready” and “informational texts” used by the creator of the Common Core. The main problem is not that we don’t train students to be “career-ready.” After all, to be a librarian, a bookseller, a teacher, a poet, or a museum curator is to have a career as much as to be an engineer, a tech expert, a mathematician, or a politician for that matter. But the creators of the Common Core want to produce more “productive” citizens.

The Common Core is like a straitjacket. Teachers need to be given the freedom to challenge their students and allow them to follow their natural curiosity. But the main problem right now is the increasing gap between public and private schools. No matter how many “reforms” we bring to the educational system without confronting this gap and providing public schools with enough funding and support, we will not improve the quality of education.

In a nutshell: our public schools need proper funding; teachers must have respect, job security, and decent wages so that they will not have to do other jobs in their spare time or, as some among the best teachers do, leave the public schools for the perks of private schools. In fact public schools in the more affluent areas of the country prove how great they can be, and compete with the best privates schools in America. I can testify to this because both my children went to excellent public middle schools and high schools and they turned out to be excellent “career-ready” college graduates. But to achieve this you do not need to reduce and belittle fiction or music or sideline the arts and humanities, segregating them from their natural allies, science and mathematics.

I also object to the process chosen to create and implement the Common Core standards, a process funded and promoted by the Gates Foundation, formulated and implemented mainly by people with little or no teaching experience or background. We are justifiably wary of government intervention in our lives. Shouldn’t we also be suspicious of that of private corporations and wealthy individuals, however well-meaning? Government is supposed to represent all of us and not those who have so much money that they decide to take over certain public arenas.

Change in the school system must come from within the school communities, from educators themselves, and from those who are working closely with them. It is also obvious that I disagree with the definition of fiction used by the formulators of the Common Core and their weighting of the division between literary and so-called informational texts. I am not convinced that this division—and the marginalizing of fiction it entails—will help enhance our students’ critical and analytical powers.

12. To play devil’s advocate for a moment: your book praises Huck and criticizes Babbitt. But Huck’s a liar and a chicken thief who, at the end of the book, flees from social responsibility. For all his faults, Babbitt holds down a job, provides for his family, and connects, however problematically, with his community. If, as you say (and you’re probably right), Huck is the more heroic of the two, then what is it about American life that turns what some might call doing one’s duty into something morally suspect?

Ah! Yes, there’s the rub! From the very first page, Huck alerts us that this story is going to drag us kicking and screaming out of our comfort zone. You remember the way Huck spells civilization? In his world it is subverted into “sivilization.” The whole book is about the hypocrisy and cruelty of conformity and the ways in which language is used to ensure and justify it. After all, you live in a world where the slave owners are the respectable people and the law protects perfect strangers’ owning and selling of children down the river. It is a world where decent, churchgoing families kill one another for a reason they don’t even remember; they go to church on Sundays, but they don’t forget their guns. It is a world in which, if Huck and Jim do not wear their disguises, if they do not lie and cheat, they will not survive. The same is true of Babbitt, of course. We all experience this in a totalitarian society like the former Soviet Union or in a democracy like the United States, where for example the billionaires become “job creators,” the unemployed “moochers”—one can go on and on. In Iran it was not just a matter of lying about your political and religious beliefs in order to survive but about minute aspects of your everyday life. Each time I walked into the street, I had to negate myself and appear in a garb that was alien to my body, to react and interact in public in a manner unfamiliar to me. I had to be what I was told I should become. So whether I wanted to be or not, I was a liar. And we know that all great fiction—from Pride and Prejudice to Madame Bovary, Confessions of Zeno to The Clown to My Uncle Napoleon—is subversive by nature, subversive of respected norms and values, all in one way or another writing the word civilization with an “s.”

13. Your chapters on Twain and Lewis are named after characters. But your chapter on McCullers is named for the author. Why the change?

The truth is that we could have named that chapter after one of the characters in the book, but then that would have been only to preserve the formal unity. In both Huck and Babbitt the books were named after the central character because they were about that character. But in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, we have in fact six main characters, counting Singer. So it seemed reasonable to name that chapter after the creator of those characters, who had to “become” each one of them, by imagining them and getting under their skin.

14. In your epilogue, you point to an interesting duality between J. D. Salinger and James Baldwin on the subject of innocence. Whereas some might regard Holden Caulfield’s desire to preserve innocence as one of his most appealing traits, you find this desire troublesome. You prefer the attitude of Baldwin’s character John Grimes, who demands knowledge instead of innocence as his fundamental condition. Why do you find Holden’s love of innocence misplaced?

I do understand and empathize with Holden, but I believe with Baldwin that we cannot afford to remain innocent. Implied in the idea of innocence is abdication of responsibility: If we don’t know, then we are not responsible; we don’t need to speak out, to act. Within this context innocence has been and still is responsible for too many crimes, too many terrible events not just in the world but in our own backyard. No one can be protected the way Holden wishes he could protect his sister and other children. The only protection is to face the world, to know the world, and to challenge the world. I take issue with innocence because knowledge always involves a lack of innocence, knowledge comes with pain, with the desire to do something about what we know—it is both joyous and anguish filled. As Baldwin reminds us, it has always been and will always be associated with the Fall. Who wants to live in paradise when you can take that glorious fall through the skies?

15. You’ve suggested three books as a means for beginning to understand America. Are there three Iranian books that might offer a similar window for Westerners on that country?

The Book of Kings written a thousand years ago by the great epic poet Ferdowsi; Faces of Love, a selection of poems by three seventh-century Persian poets—the great Hafiz, a woman poet, and the obscene poet Obeid Zakani; My Uncle Napoleon, hilarious and tender, a beautiful and humorous love story, perhaps still the most beloved and popular novel in Iran. All three have been translated, with superb introductions, by the great British-born poet and translator and lover of Persian literature Dick Davis.

16. We would imagine that the mass popularity you achieved with Reading Lolita in Tehran has somewhat changed your definition of success. As you go forward, what does it mean to you now to succeed as a writer?

For me, as it is I believe for any writer, the most important thing is to be able to write, to write well, to write better, to live long enough to write your next book. In my case I am not sure if I write well or better, or even if I will live to write my next book, but I know that success at its best provided me with the opportunity to pursue my passion and to connect to those who share similar passions.

I had just graduated from college when I returned to Iran and had not written anything but terms papers and a dissertation. I believe I came of age once I started writing my first article and then my first book in Iran. I realized how amazing a book is in connecting you to people you want to be connected to, people sharing similar ideals and aspirations. But the problem was that, like other writers in Iran, I was constantly handicapped by the censors, by the inability to express all that I wanted to. This created a sense of constant frustration and anger, preventing me from writing what I desired. After my first book was published in America I felt the same amazing feeling of connection, but also the freedom to express myself, to give myself no limits except the limits of form and structure. I had found a way to communicate not just with Americans and Europeans, or Turks, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, but also with the people in Iran. There was this amazing community of readers that lived in so many different places, from so many diverse backgrounds. In that sense success was and is a privilege.

But of course there are quite a few “bad things” about what we call success, among them the demands on your time and multiple temptations diverting you from your work. I really mean it when I say I have never considered myself as a “success.” Or to put it more precisely, I have never taken what is called success seriously in myself or others, so I hope that in itself will provide some form of immunity.

  1. What does Azar Nafisi understand best about America? In your view, is there anything that she misunderstands? Discuss you answer.

  2. In the first paragraph of her introduction, Nafisi offers the assertion (through someone else’s voice) that Americans “don’t care about books and such things” (p. 1). Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is the case, and what can or should be done to change it?

  3. What are Nafisi’s thoughts on the idea of “home”? How does she express these ideas in her discussion of her three books?

  4. Nafisi quotes Carson McCullers for the proposition that “Americans are the loneliest [people] of all” (p. 29). Is she right? If so, what makes us so lonely? How might your answer to this question differ from one that Nafisi might give?

  5. Nafisi fantasizes about organizing a march on Washington to proclaim her “Republic of Imagination” (p. 27). What might this march look like? Would you consider joining it? Why or why not?

  6. Echoing the judgment of Ernest Hemingway, Nafisi regards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the ancestor of all subsequent American fiction. What arguments does she offer to establish Twain’s novel as the quintessential, inescapable American story? Does she persuade you?

  7. Nafisi writes, “The United States is a country founded as much on broken dreams as it is on hope and promise” (p. 115). She offers both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the life of her friend Farah in support of her assertion. Is America unique in its dual capacity for hope and tragedy? Discuss your answer.

  8. In her section on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nafisi also narrates her own story of becoming an American citizen (pp. 111-115). What reflections on the subjects of identity, both personal and national, does this decision lead her to? What, if anything, is Nafisi able to perceive about America that a lifelong citizen might not see as readily? In your view, does her becoming a citizen give her more of a right to criticize America than if she remained legally Iranian?

  9. Nafisi regards Huck as an archetype of the “successful failure” (p. 141). The financially secure but morally cornered George F. Babbitt might contrastingly be seen as a failed success. To succeed morally like Huck, must one fail by worldly measures, and vice versa? Why do at least some people, Nafisi included, seem to regard this as the great, inevitable American trade-off?

  10. What is Nafisi’s concept of the ideal education? How is that ideal ignored and disserved by David Coleman’s Common Core?

  11. Nafisi asks, “Are we all becoming Babbitts now?” (p. 169) Well, are we? What does it mean to be a Babbitt? How does a person become one, and why does Nafisi see such a transformation as a fate worse than death?

  12. Nafisi quotes from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone” (p. 262). But isn’t America somehow about standing on one’s own? And if so, is there a fatal quality woven into our national identity? (In answering this question, you may wish to consider the connection that Nafisi suggests between American loneliness and our endless epidemic of mass shootings (p. 278).)

  13. Nafisi sees a parallel between the quiet desperation of McCullers’s characters and America’s current malaise. Yet McCullers’s book was set in the Great Depression, whereas, despite the crash of our economy of 2008, contemporary America still looks and feels, for the most part, like an affluent society. Has America changed more than Nafisi recognizes or are our current discontents part of the same narrative?

  14. Nafisi’s epilogue is chiefly concerned with the life and writing of James Baldwin. What, according to Nafisi, does Baldwin have to teach us about the leap of faith that is known as being an American?

Back to Top