APRIL 6, 2022
IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE to heal your wounded heart? At 73, Azar Nafisi is still trying to do so, convinced she can find solace somewhere — perhaps tucked neatly into the transformative pages of the great literature she reveres. Many readers will be familiar with Nafisi, a warm and engaging writer who exploded on the literary scene with Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), which tells of her experiences teaching forbidden literature to female students in Iran in clandestine meetings at her home. Most of the works she taught them were Western classics such as Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and the works of Henry James and Jane Austen. The reckonings that surfaced from the women she mentored during this dangerous endeavor persuaded Nafisi that, even in the darkest of places, literature has an explosive power to change individual lives. The book was an international best seller.
Nafisi is a reluctant memoirist who struggles with her own inner censor, and the shame and guilt that linger, but this hasn’t stopped her from trying to find some peace of mind. In her new book, Reading Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times, she seems to be attempting to find harmony with her dead parents, who still weigh heavily upon her. She no longer lives in Iran, which she left long ago, now living comfortably in an apartment overlooking the Potomac in Washington, DC, where she spends her days writing and reading and occasionally speaking to groups about her strange journey. One senses that Nafisi is an eternal exile, even though she has lived in the United States with her husband and two children since 1997. The new book is structured in the form of letters to her dead father. This setup allows her to speak to him about her regrets: things she wishes she had the chance to do before he passed. But the letter-writing format also permits her to bounce back to the present, sharing with him the things that preoccupy her today.
Her father was a difficult man but one she loved unconditionally, despite his indiscretions, which included leaving her mother for another woman when their marriage collapsed. He also seems to have been rigid in some of his beliefs. But in contrast to her manipulative and controlling mother, he was her lifeline growing up. Her mother was not above reading her diaries and letters and listening to her phone calls. They would argue constantly, her mother saying she had inherited her father’s rotten genes. Yet, in some ways, her mother was highly competent, being one of the first women elected to Parliament under the Shah.
Her father was an ambitious man, an up-and-comer under the Shah, who appointed him mayor of Tehran. He was arrested later by the Shah’s security forces, accused of colluding with clerics the Shah wished to demolish. He was sentenced to a four-year prison term, maintaining his innocence throughout his confinement. Nafisi was already a young woman at this time, but she recalls the trauma it inflicted on her, leaving her with persistent insecurities.
But the shining moments of her childhood still sustain her. She recalls how her father set aside a good chunk of time for her each evening, making her the sole focus of his attention. He would tell her stories about Persian mythology and pre-Islamic history, as well as introduce her to the ancient poetry of Ferdowsi. After hours in her mother’s company fraught with tension and denigration, her time with her father had the thrill of “a brief electric shock. I knew instinctively, even when I was very young, that the moment was sacred. I was being offered something precious and rare: the key to a secret world.” But we also sense there was much about her father that displeased her. He seems to have been oblivious to the suffering she endured during his jail term and often seemed to think of himself first in other matters. She is hesitant to dwell upon his shortcomings, however. Still wrestling with her tendency to remain a loyal daughter, she seems hesitant to betray him. It was his presence in the family home that saved her from utter despair. Nafisi is only willing to go so far in her recollections, and then she pulls back — consciously and unapologetically, understanding the emotional forces that surround such excavations of memory. She explains how revealing deeply personal things is not acceptable in Iran and is always viewed as some sort of disloyalty.
Her father came from a family of religious fanatics but raised his own children in a secular-liberal home. Still, he carried within himself remnants of the severity of his upbringing. He despised the Islamic regime and what it was doing but did not condemn it outright at first. When he heard Nafisi criticizing the Ayatollah for the fatwa placed on Salman Rushdie, he jumped to the Ayatollah’s defense, explaining that he had a right to be disturbed with Rushdie for mocking sacred notions of Islam and displaying insensitivity to the grandeur of the Iranian people. Her father had other blind spots, such as his seeming disregard for the fate of women under the new Islamic regime. In her memoir, Nafisi ignores — one could say whitewashes — these inexplicable lapses, focusing instead on the love he showed her and all that he taught her. As she grew older, she became his confidante, protecting him against the rages of her mother and befriending the new women who entered his life. But there were things she could never bring herself to speak to him about.
In another one of her poignant books, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter (2008), she tells a harrowing tale of being abused by a family friend into whose care she was placed when her mother went shopping. He was an elderly man and very religious. She remained silent about this abuse, and other occurrences of a similar kind, for years. When she tried to be intimate with her first husband, she had to force herself to pretend that she was somewhere else. She writes: “I don’t think I succeeded in being somewhere else the way I could when my mother said or did things to hurt me. But I did absent myself from my body. From then on, sex was something you did because it was expected of you.” In this new book, we watch her move in and out of that troubled past, shying away from incidents that are still too painful to dwell upon. Although we understand her reticence, and how it reflects the way we all cope with extreme hurt, we nonetheless wish she could have probed further into such events. In addition, she never ties her past to her present. We know nothing about her second husband, the father of her two children, other than him once being a successful partner in an architectural firm in Iran, before she convinced him they must leave for America for the sake of their children. We also do not learn anything about her experiences of mothering, which seems a peculiar absence considering her own suffering at the hands of her erratic mother. So much is left unsaid.
Nafisi regales her father with news of her present life and experiences. She tells him how horrified she is by Trump and the obliviousness of Americans to the fragility of their democratic institutions. She tells him of the reading she is doing that uplifts her. She describes her affection for Zora Neale Hurston, whose storytelling steered clear of political agendas in order to focus on the forces affecting an individual life. She loves how Hurston was able to write about black people without keeping white people’s reactions in mind. She has nothing but praise for David Grossman, whose books address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without feeling pressured to find a solution for it. Instead, his emphasis is always on understanding the “logic of the narrative of the other.” She marvels at the empathy of Elliot Ackerman, who after serving five tours of duty in Iran and Afghanistan, came home to write Green on Blue (2015), about a young Afghan boy and his older brother struggling to survive after their parents are killed.
There is a thread that connects the literature that moves her: it is filled with empathy and admiration for individuals who grab the reins of their own lives, finding meaning even after horrific experiences. “Great works of literature — works that are truly dangerous — question and expose th[e] dictatorial impulse, both on the page and in the public space,” she writes. She allows herself to think that, if her father were still alive and able to read the works she has access to, he would come to think differently about things he seemed closed to. We sense, though, that this is little more than a pipe dream — the desire many of us possess for our parents to become more open to worlds we have entered that were forbidden to them.
Nafisi has seen how lives can be crushed, but also how they can be restored. Her grandmother came of age in Iran during a time when stoning for adultery, polygamy, and the marriage of girls as young as nine was permitted. Education for women was forbidden. She and her mother grew up in a more moderate Iran, where they were permitted to wear Western dress and attend university. By the mid-1980s, her own daughter was forced to wear a veil and was subject to severe punishment if a strand of her hair fell out of it accidentally.
Nafisi’s new work is a stunningly beautiful and perceptive illustration of how we rethink our lives by looking for the mysteries behind the fault lines that kept us imprisoned. She continues to circle this theme, often retelling stories, sometimes reimagining them in a different way from her other works. She isn’t being duplicitous with us, but rather attempting to find solid ground as the ghosts of her past continue to haunt her. Nafisi is a triple survivor: of child abuse, of the patriarchal manipulations of the Islamic regime, and of her birth family’s unbearable chaos, which left her vulnerable to despair. Yet she continues to fight against the tyranny of her memories in an attempt to gain mastery over them. She looks for the moments of grace offered to her as a child, such as her father’s nightly reading hour, and allows herself to bathe once again in their warm embrace. Ultimately, her story gives all of us hope.
Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in many venues, including The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, The Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.