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Azar Nafisi is most famous for her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which became an international best-seller and piqued the world’s interest in the silent world in which many Iranian women live. A depiction of the Islamic revolution of 1979, the book shows what life was like in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini and how the new regime changed the lives of Nafisi and her literature students.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
When Azar Nafisi was thirteen years old her parents sent her from her home in Tehran, Iran, to Lancaster, England, so that she could finish her schooling. When Nafisi returned to her birthplace things had changed. She returned in 1979 after the revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini had enforced a strict moral code, and his ideological revolution kept many people—particularly women—from expressing themselves. Women were forced to wear veils and morality police patrolled the streets. According to Michael Harris of the Los Angeles Times, Nafisi has said that ”in the course of nearly two decades the streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined … and sometimes raped or executed.”
The Islamic revolution affected many parts of the world, including America, when the Iran hostage crisis took place in 1979. A group of Islamic students held fifty-two staff members of the American embassy hostage for over a year, until the Algiers Accords were signed in 1981 and the hostages were released.
Finding Solace in Literature
In 1981 Nafisi was fired from the University of Tehran, where she had taught literature, because she refused to wear a veil. She did not teach again until 1987. From 1995 to 1997 she set up weekly secret meetings with seven female students to discuss literature. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is the story of Nafisi, her students, and the books that they discussed during those meetings. The book has been translated into more than ten languages and is in its fifteenth printing. It has won a number of awards, including the 2004 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from Book Sense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, and it was a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. Nafisi says that ”my passion has always been books and literature, and teaching. In the U.S. I teach—and I also write. The main difference is of course that the book that I recently wrote could not have been written had I lived in my homeland.”
In an interview for Newsweek, Nafisi claimed that she is grateful to the Islamic Republic of Iran. ”The Islamic Republic took away everything I’d taken for granted. It made me appreciate the feel of the wind on my skin. How lovely the sun feels on your hair. How free you feel when you can lick ice cream in the streets.” Nafisi now resides in the United States and teaches literature at johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature.
Works in Literary Context
Influences on Nafisi’s work are not primarily Iranian. Instead, they include a broad array of Western authors and works: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), and, of course, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). All of these works deal, in some way, with a character who desires to be liberated and to break free from the confines of society; perhaps that is what draws Nafisi, as an Iranian-born woman in a male-dominated culture, to them.
As depicted in Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, the seven students who meet weekly at the author’s home are all very different from each other. Some are married, some are divorced, some are rich, some are poor. Their personalities and passions vary, they have different beliefs, but they are uniquely bonded by the shared experience of reading these novels together and discussing what they mean in their lives. Nafisi divides the book into four sections. Each section discusses a piece of literature. As readers are taken through the sections they come to know daily life in
Iran, the author, and her students and how these great works of literature fit into their lives; as well as how the pieces are relevant and meaningful in and of themselves.
Works in Critical Context
While Nafisi continues to write, she is most known for Reading Lolita in Tehran, her groundbreaking memoir. Readers and critics became instantly interested in the book, which impresses mainly because of its devotion to literature in a time when many books were banned or discouraged.
Reading Lolita in Tehran
In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani gave Reading Lolita in Tehran a decidedly positive review. Kakutani described it as ”a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students.” Further describing the book as ”a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together,” Kakutani concludes, ”And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction—on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.” In an article for the Guardian Unlimited Paul Allen was equally enthusiastic. He wrote, ”The charismatic passion in the book is not simply for literature itself but for the kind of inspirational teaching of it which helps students to teach themselves by applying their own intelligence and emotions to what they are reading.” “Reading Lolita in Tehran is more than a collection of keen perceptions of the nature of literature—though it is certainly and formidably and beautifully that. It is also a portrait of daily life under despotism,” noted Charles Matthews in the Manila Times.
In a review for Library Journal, Ron Ratliff commented on the lives of Nafisi’s students: Their stories reflect the oppression of the Iranian regime but also the determination not to be crushed by it.” He went on to say, Nafisi’s lucid style keeps the reader glued to the page from start to finish.” In an article for the Star Tribune, Andrea Hoag commented that Nafisi’s memoir is a reminder that a safe, illusory world exists within the imaginary constraints of our great novels, a place where all of us can still take comfort.”
- Harris, Michael. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Los Angeles Times (May 14, 2003) (E13).
- Hoag, Andrea. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Star Tribune (April 6, 2003).
- Huntley, Kristine. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Booklist (April 15, 2003): 1443.
- Jackson, Marni. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Globe & Mail (April 19, 2003).
- Kakutani, Michoko. ”Book Study as Insubordination Under the Mullahs.” New York Times (April 15, 2003).
- Matthews, Charles. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Manila Times (May 14, 2003).
- Power, Carla. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Newsweek (May 5, 2003): 58.
- Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Kirkus Reviews (February 15, 2003): 289.
- Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Publisher’s Weekly (March 17, 2003): 62.
- Ratliff, Ron. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Library Journal (April 1, 2003): 98.
- Sandip, Roy. ”To Be an Iranian Girl—Here and There.” San Francisco Chronicle (June 15, 2003): M1.
- Simpson, Mona. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Atlantic Monthly (May 27, 2003).
- Allen, Paul. Review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Guardian Unlimited (November 3, 2003). Accessed December 10, 2008, from http://books.guardian.co.uk/.
- Birnbaum, Robert. ”Interview with Azar Nafisi.” Identity Theory (March 15, 2004). Accessed December 10, 2008, from http://identity theory.com/interviews/.
- ”Azar Nafisi.” Accessed December 10, 2008, from http://azarnafisi.com/home/.
- Wasserman, Elizabeth. ”The Fiction of Life.” Atlantic Unbound (March 15, 2004). Accessed December 10, 2008, from http://www.theatlantic.com/.
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