It began with the stories her father told her.
“Before I understood what ‘country’ meant, I had a definition of it through the stories that I heard,” says Azar Nafisi, Executive Director of Cultural Conversations at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. “So I was this four- or five-year-old kid living in a country named Iran. But I had already traveled to Pinocchio’s Italy and Huck Finn’s America. And the world was mine, and the world was in my back yard, without me physically going anywhere.”
Nafisi says that literature has given her not only a better understanding of the world, but also of her own country.
She is most widely known for her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), which spent more than 117 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and has been translated into 32 languages. Though their subjects are different, both books offer powerful evidence that literature, particularly fiction, is both transformative and reflective. In a world of increasing political polarization and clashing ideologies, Nafisi says that fiction affords us the luxury of hearing, really hearing viewpoints that differ from our own.
“What fiction does [is help you] put yourself in the mind of each and every character,” says Nafisi. “And some of the characters you create, you don’t like. They’re the exact opposite of you. And in order to draw the readers into the story, you need to put yourself in place of the villain. So for one moment, when you are in the world of fiction, you are trying to understand rather than oppose.”
The subtitle of the book hints at Nafisi’s belief in the reflective properties of fiction, namely, that literature often echoes the zeitgeist of a culture. She uses three classic novels as her lenses to explore America—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers—homing in on the books’ unifying themes and implications.
“What I felt is that each of these novels embodied the contradiction that is at the heart of the American Dream,” says Nafisi. “On one hand, there is that crass materialism, that violent conformism. In Huck Finn, you notice that from the Sunday School-going Miss Watson, to the lovely Aunt Sally, there is so much violence. And these people go to church with their guns, and slavery of course being at the heart of that violence. So on one hand you have that aspect of it, the conformity. On the other hand, you have this individualism, the kind of person who listens to his own heart, who has to do the right thing despite what society has been brainwashing him with. Huck believes that if he doesn’t give Jim up, he’ll go to hell.”
But instead, Huck listens to his gut, even when society tells him he’s wrong for harboring a slave. It is this kind of individualism, a conviction that springs from the heart, that she suggests is an organic, fundamental component of the American Dream.
Nafisi says that Babbitt is the symbol of what happens when one part of the paradox wins over the others. In the book she observes that Babbit’s conflicting ideals—his “desire to settle down” and his “urge to be constantly on the move,” his fixation on living up to a certain material standard, and his incessant desire to distill life into a measurable and myopic enterprise—reflect significant elements of contemporary American culture. She maintains that the fictional story of George F. Babbitt paints a Truman Show-like picture of the emptiness of such pursuits, when they’re at the expense of all others. Nafisi writes, “Babbit’s god wants to sell, not to kill; its main weapon is seduction.” Though Babbitt was written in 1922, its message has a hauntingly familiar refrain.
Among many other provocative themes in her book, Nafisi’s choice of novels seems to present a time-lapse view of the American Dream gone wrong. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter powerfully illustrates, and in a strange way predicts, the loneliness and isolation that often result from living in Babbitt’s consumer society. Nafisi writes that the main characters are “…too wrapped up in their own obsessions to see or hear one another, but their distractions give them no entertainment or comfort.”
Nafisi believes that literature provides a place where possibilities grow. Not only does it give readers an opportunity to better understand the world and listen more objectively to characters they oppose or dislike. It can also be a powerful messenger of hope.
The Republic of Imagination “is about hope, but not optimism,” says Nafisi. “Because hope means the potential. The greatest stories are the ones that not only reveal our present state of mind or affairs, but they also reveal to us how or what we could or should be. That kernel of an ideal at the heart of even the most tragic stories gives us hope. Also it is hope in the face of death. Because stories are the conclusive evidence that we have lived.”
Laura Jenkins is a writer and photojournalist based in Austin.