Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran got to the top of my 2016 reading list for two reasons: 1) it had been sitting on my shelf for two years and 2) it met both of my criteria for the year, since Nafisi is both an international author (Iranian) and female. I had read the first few chapters of the book in an undergraduate world literature class and was intrigued enough to buy it, so it was a natural first choice.
In this memoir, Nafisi tells the story of a group of girls that met in her home every
Thursday to discuss literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nafisi was originally a professor of literature at the University of Tehran, but was expelled for not complying to certain political mandates, such as wearing the veil. After she was expelled, she gathered several of the best female students to meet in her home and continue their studies in a more intimate manner. As these women become more comfortable with each, their discussions of books such as Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice, slowly morphs into discussions about how they cope with the regime in which they live.
What I found the most captivating about this book is the way that Nafisi uses the stories of these meetings to passionately argue for the importance of literature. During her time at the University, many students would argue against pieces that were didn’t align with their sense of morality. Nafisi refuses to drop books from her syllabus and instead, tries to show students that there is a place for books that they don’t agree with:
Imagination in these works is equated with empathy; we can’t experience all that others have gone through, but we can understand even the most monstrous individuals in works of fiction. A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice (132).
In my undergraduate capstone class, our professor told us she wanted us to leave the class with the ability to answer one question: Why does literature matter? We read a wide range of criticism—from Plato to Attridge—to help inform our answers. Nafisi answered the question simply: literature is important because it makes us better and it can give us hope for a better world.
It’s the setting of this memoir that gives the message its power. This group of women had almost no freedom. But literature brought them together in their rawest forms. They stripped away the robes and scarves before class began and talked about how these books gave them a new lens through which to view their lives. The well-known novels that the class reads acts as a mediator, not only for the individual experiences of the women, but for the reader and the memoir.