Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Republic of Imagination with Azar Nafisi

I must confess, going into this event I had not read any of Azar Nafisi's books. Somehow, despite it being on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a hundred weeks, I had completely missed the staggering success of her first memoir,  Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book is Nafisi’s recounting of her time as an English professor in her native Iran, where she hosted a secret book club for a small number of female students, teaching them Western classics such as The Great Gatsby and, as the title suggests, Lolita.


Despite suffering from a terrible cold, the event was hosted by Adrian Harewood, who was content to sit back and let Nafisi be the star of the evening. The audience was enraptured with the author, whose joie de vivre and passion for literature rang out from the stage clear as a bell. Nafisi likened writing a book to falling in love; there is something inarticulate about it, leading you discover something about yourself while writing it. Her love of books was instilled in her by her parents, who she describes as ‘book snobs’. Her father served as mayor of Tehran from 1961 to 1963, the youngest person to hold that post, but then spent four years in jail. Nafisi talks with pride about her father’s charge of insubordination, and with good reason. Growing up in a society that repressed and controlled, Nafisi knows as well as anyone the urge to rebel and to stand up for what you believe in. For her it was literature, and the need to share great literary works with the young minds of Tehran. It is not surprising, then, to learn that one of her favourite authors is Mark Twain – a man that challenged conformity and complacency in his work.


When asked if she found writing her second book,  Things I’ve Been Silent About, a memoir about her relationship with her mother, cathartic, her response was an emphatic "no!" Books shouldn’t be consoling, she exclaims, they should stir strong emotions within us – rage, fear, guilt, shame. Within books, the whole spectrum of human emotion is contained. She believes that books connect us to one another by opening up avenues of communication. The idea for her most recent book,  The Republic of Imagination, was sparked after a conversation with a fellow member of the Iranian diaspora who was waiting in line to get a book signed at an event in Seattle. The man believed that Americans had no appreciation or understanding of real literature, and so Nafisi took this as a challenge to prove that fiction can teach us many things and has every right to live in a democratic society. Nafisi believes that fiction is the ‘moral guardian of a country’ – within the pages of books can lie the shame of a nation, here she discusses the representation of slavery on classic American literature, and says that by being reminded of its guilt, a country can learn how to move forward.


As I listened to the engaging Nafisi talk so ardently about the books she loves and teaches, I made a mental note to add them all to my reading list – great American classics written by authors such as Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, and the controversial James Baldwin. Perhaps, by being raised in England, these authors escaped my radar. Nonetheless, in addition to Nafisi’s own books, which I now cannot wait to read, I think I’m set for reading material for the next long while.