The Iranian-American author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) makes a passionate argument for returning to key American novels in order to foster creativity and engagement.
Having taught literature both in post-revolutionary Iran and in America, teacher and author Nafisi (Things I’ve Been Silent About, 2008, etc.) finds in works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers important lessons in combating nefarious trends in the West: insular thinking, bias and a utilitarian mindset. Literature, writes the author, is deliciously subversive because it fires the imagination and challenges the status quo. This can be dangerous in an authoritarian, repressive state such as Iran, but it is necessary for an informed citizenry. In America, however, where Nafisi became a citizen in 2008, she finds that the free access to democratic ideals and institutions have bred a complacency toward and even scorn for what cannot be used for political or ideological purposes, namely the liberal arts. In the character of Twain’s Huck Finn, Nafisi’s first and favorite example, she finds a quintessential American character from whom all others derive: a searching soul and a homeless “mongrel” whose “sound heart” gradually beats out his “deformed conscience.” In Babbitt, from Lewis’ 1922 eponymous novel, Nafisi reacquaints us with a smug, self-congratulatory figure of conformity who (still) mirrors our contemporary selves. In the fragile, childlike characters of McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Nafisi notes the yearning for personal integrity and shared humanity. The author’s literary exegesis lightly moves through her own experiences as a student, teacher, friend and new citizen. Touching on myriad literary examples, from L. Frank Baum to James Baldwin, her work is both poignant and informative.
A literary study that derives its emotional power from Nafisi’s personal story and relationship.