Azar Nafisi on Imagination as Politic

A Review by Marija Vasiljevic

Renowned Iranian author Azar Nafisi recently read from her new book, The Republic of Imagination at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, MD. In a politically and socially charged discussion, Nafisi focused on imagination and the concept that literature has the power to liberate. Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, emphasized that a passion for books has the power to transcend race, gender, economic status, etc. In that way, bookstores and libraries are the most democratic of places. She mentioned that in a bookstore there are “warring factions on shelves side by side, the best ambassadors of the world.”

Nafisi linked political ideology to the act of reading and learning through literature. She noted that knowledge is power, explaining that for millennia, slaves, women, etc. were not allowed to read or write to prevent these groups from ascending. Her discussion of the importance of reading reminded me of a point made in Hopkins’ Introduction to Fiction and Nonfiction course: that to be a writer, one needs to first be a reader. In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi considers several works of literature, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. To me, it seems that Nafisi herself is first a reader, then a writer.

To be able to discuss America in her recent book, she spent months preparing by reading all about U.S. history, and by immersing herself in American literature. Her discussion is relevant, shedding light on events such as the police shooting of a black youth in Ferguson, Mo. and similar conflicts. At one point, she said “if we are not empathetic, then it is because we cannot put ourselves in their shoes.” By reading various works of literature, one can learn from people’s experiences all over the world, which ultimately allows one to have true empathy for others. Through the eyes of characters in various settings, we are able to better understand human differences and struggles.

Another point she made, which I found relevant to our course, was the role of voice in a novel. Nafisi said it’s important to give a voice to everyone in the novel, even the villain. If you do not give the villain a voice, the reader will know you have cheated in some way. And to allow people to think for themselves, the writer should consider a story from all sides.

Overall, Nafisi highlighted the importance of literature today. People need to continue to read, to explore various experiences, and to question the world around them. It is only in this way, through imagination, that we can truly be free.

— Fall 2014 IFN Writer Marija Vasiljevic

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