Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, August 26, 2005

Reading Nafisi in the West

On Splinters a couple of years ago, I upset a few people by expressing a certain disdain for the interest and excitement over Azar Nafisi's book Reading Lolita in Tehran. I hadn't read the book, but I had read the many enthusiastic reviews. These were to what I was referring. Yet, in the unfortunately-erased comments, people assumed I was disdaining Nafisi's book too. I wasn't. However, it now seems I would have had good reason.

Dan Green refers to Amardeep Singh's 'terrific blog' on the book and quotes the passage in which Singh describes

the strangeness of the situation [in which Nafisi reads and teaches literature]: here are these women, their lives destroyed by an unthinkably repressive regime, and their most subversive act is... to get together once a week to read photocopied (illegal) copies of Lolita.

Apparently this is extra strange because, in the 60s, Nafisi was a young radical. According to Singh, under the current repressive conditions it's rather improbable and anti-intuitive that Nafisi became a less political reader, rather than a more political one. But she makes a good case for her response: no matter what they banned or who they imprisoned/tortured/executed, literature provided the means to keep one's imagination free and open.

John Pistelli, recognising in Nafisi the familiarly deceptive apostasy of 60s radicals, begs to differ:

[Nafisi's] book is of course not apolitical and you don't have to read the whole thing to know that; everything about it, from its cover blurbs to its acknowledgments page in which the author thanks Paul Wolfowitz, to its credulous critical reception, looks political.

Indeed. One only has to think of the actions of another unthinkably repressive regime to recognise a blindspot in the critical reception. This regime has destroyed many other women's lives in many other nations (though not, as yet, Iran). It's been happening for years and it's happening right now. This does not seem to trouble very much those celebrating the romance of Nafisi's literary resistance. As professional reviewers, they know what can and cannot be said in literary reviews. This is why they are professionals in the first place. So much for a free and open imagination. As Pistelli says: Nafisi, militantly apolitical as she now imagines herself, is actually objectively pro-fascist.

And anyway, what would a literary resistance look like in the West? Reading Ian McEwan's Saturday FFS?

3 comments:

  1. I think we agree on the quality of Nafisi's book, do we not? It is a nice memoir, which has as one of its chief strengths the author's insights on literature (not surprising, considering she is a literature professor).

    That is mainly what I was trying to draw attention to in my post.

    As for whether Nafisi's work is a work of "literary resistance," I'm not sure, but then, that isn't the question I was asking.

    I tend to agree with you that she isn't doing particularly much to challenge what the Bush administration is doing or has done. But I would also say that her not marking herself as an opponent of the administration doesn't change the fact that Iran is a repressive place, especially bad for women. Her subject is her experience of Iran, not America's foreign policy. It's unfair to her to require that her memoir take a strong position on American politics.

    It's possible to question the Bush administration's policies (as I do) while also recognizing that some of what they say about places like Iran is actually true. That doesn't justify invading Iran, of course (and God help us if they start talking about that again).

    I would be wary of quoting John Pistelli -- he's calling her a fascist, though he freely admits he hasn't read the book. Seems pretty egregious to me. The use of the word "fascist" in this case also strikes me as the opposite of "objective."

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  2. Anonymous2:20 pm

    I remember attending a lecture she gave at the national endowment for democracy before her book came out. even at that location there was nothing explicitly political about her ideas, although she did note that most of the Iranian leadership has kids that are enamored of western culture. her own daughter was apparently a big fan of the x-files. so to call her fascist without reading the book is ridiculous. I tend to think she associates with the neocons like Wolfowitz because nobody else seems to care about Iran.

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  3. 'Care' about Iran? Don't you mean Iran's oil?

    And though it's clear you've read John Pistelli's post, you clearly haven't understood. He doesn't call her a fascist but 'objectively pro-fascist'. There is a difference. I shall be posting on this later, when I've got time.

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