Once a week for two years, Azar Nafisi clandestinely met with seven of her most dedicated female students in her home in Tehran, Iran, to study Western titles by authors like Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark and Vladimir Nabokov. These book club meetings, or ‘class’ as she refers to the group, serve as the basis for Nafisi’s New York Times bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.
Before forming the secret class, Nafisi taught literature at University of Tehran and Allameh Tabataba’i University. She moved to the U.S. in 1997 and now serves as a visiting professor and executive director of cultural conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of John Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Nafisi recently spoke at Powell Hall as a part of Maryville University’s St. Louis Speakers Series.
LN: Please share some of the highlights of your background.
AN: I went to college in the U.S. and studied literature. Those were very important years in my life that shaped a great many things that I later pursued. Two days after my dissertation in 1979, I was on my way back to Iran, and my timing was not exactly good, because that’s when the Islamic Revolution was.
University of Tehran was where I started my teaching career, but because of the way the regime had cut me off from the rest of the world, I felt that I could still ‘be in the U.S.’ through what I loved most: literature. We returned here in 1997, and ever since, I have continued doing what I was doing in Iran: teaching and writing about literature.
LN: How did you come up with the book club and how did you choose the titles?
AN: Part of it was from my frustration. I had already been expelled from University of Tehran for choosing not to wear the veil. Then when I returned to teaching, it became more and more difficult to focus on my teaching, because every day when I went to my class, which I loved, I had to also think about the way I was dressed, as well as the things I would say in class. I was almost treated like a mischievous child who was always called to the principal’s office. I was constantly called by the authorities and told that my behavior was not according to the rules. It became very disruptive. I thought it would be wonderful if I could teach in an atmosphere where there were no rules or limitations. That’s when the idea for the class came to me.
I chose books that seemed in some ways connected to my students. When I was teaching, I started most of my classes with Alice in Wonderland or One Thousand and One Nights because I felt that those two stories revealed a great deal about the relationship between fiction and reality. I also chose from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov). We would read the books and discuss them, but they also would write about themselves and how they related to one another.
LN: Which title do you have the fondest memories of exploring?
AN: One of the most memorable was Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, because the book is focused on this young woman who is both a free spirit and a writer and poet. I wanted my students to know that fiction was subversive— not in a political way—but in a way that questioned our habits, the way we look at ourselves. And when you take a writer like Austen, who as we say is ‘conservative’ in many ways, you see that the subversive elements in her novels are women. Lolita was memorable because it’s about individual freedom. And my students reacted in a very heartbreaking way to Lolita, because I feel Lolita was a metaphor for the way the Islamic regime was imposing its own fantasies on all Iranian women.
LN: Can you update us on the whereabouts of your class members?
AN: With a culture like Iran and its totalitarian system, one of the tragedies is that people disperse around the world. Azin, who at the end of my book was divorcing her husband, is now married to an American. When Reading Lolita first came out, I was giving a talk at a bookstore in San Francisco, and Azin was sitting in the front row. Mitra went on to Canada with her husband and went to art school. Sanaz is in Germany, is married to a Persian and has two children. The youngest, Yassi, did an amazing thing: She went to the U.S. and got her Ph.D. in anthropology. She has since returned to Iran and has gotten married. Mahshid never left Iran. And lastly, Manna and Nassrin are both now in Washington, D.C.—and they’re fantastic! They are no longer students—they are good friends.
LN: What are some of your thoughts about what is going on in Iran today?
AN: On the one hand, things are very bleak on every level. Never in the history of modern Iran has the economy been in such shambles. What has always given me hope is that this society is amazingly resilient, from the cultural aspect to women fighting for their rights. A lot of people ask: What can we do for Iran? I usually tell them that the best way you can respect and help its people is to try and understand them and to not be taken by this propaganda that shows only one side of a system. Read the books, the literature, the history and see the movies.