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?


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