Azar Nafisi on How Reading Is Crucial To Our Survival
Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times is Azar Nafisi’s exhilarating examination of the role literature plays in understanding political systems and those who uphold opposing beliefs. Structured as letters to her deceased father, a compassionate man who instilled a profound respect for the art of storytelling in his children, Nafisi writes about authors who have engaged with the darkest aspects of their societies. In celebrating and studying these disparate writers, Nafisi notes how they created humane works that not only deepens the reader’s understanding of their own world, but also makes them more empathetic in the process. Nafisi also reflects on her family’s fascinating history in the letters, including her father’s imprisonment in Iran for political reasons, her own experience as a young professor living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and her observations living in the United States for over two decades. Read Dangerously is a love letter to both family and the transforming nature of literature, and critics have already showered it with praise. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly called it a “stunning look at the power of reading” and The New York Journal of Books hailed it as “a political writer’s brilliant attempt to understand historical and political events, as well as human nature.”
The book is structured as five letters to your father about authors he loved or would have loved. Can you talk about what kind of person your father was and his own relationship to reading?
He was a very gentle and tender person. Of course, like all people who are close to one another, in terms of our personal relationship, we had our ups and downs, and I talk about those in my memoirs. My most joyous memories—of not just my father, but of my childhood—is my father telling me stories. In his relationship to my brother and me, he was also very playful. He seldom told us off, but he would make up stories to give me the message, like saying, “There was this young man who had a daughter who he loved very much, but she did this and this. We learned to communicate through this special language where stories became a way of expressing ourselves or our realities to one another. That aspect of our relationship never diminished. It changed forms. When I was growing up and I could read myself, it changed into my father and I talking about the books that we each read, borrowing books from one another, writing about books. For him—as for me, as for my brother—writing became a way of making sense of the world. I still carry a notebook with me anywhere I go, and I keep making these observations no matter how trivial they might seem. I think I also got from my relationship in my family, because it was so prevalent, both with my father and brothers but also my cousins on my father’s side. Storytelling became a way of living, of relating to the world, and changing.
One of the more moving parts of the book is when you write about receiving a diary that your father kept for you when you were a child.
I was only four years-old when he wrote that diary for me. It was both so joyous and sad when I discovered that diary. I imagined him as a very young man, with all his hopes and all the future that lay still ahead of him. At the same time it was so joyous to see how he tried to create this relationship with his children. At such an age, he considered me fully human, as his equal. That is one thing I also remember about him, that he always treated my brother and me as equals, never looking down on us. He took our comments very seriously. We felt that what we said and how he said it really mattered to him. I mention in the book that he also was very democratic in his storytelling. One night we would be at the same table as our epic poet Ferdowsi, the next night we’d fly to France with the Little Prince, to England with Alice in Wonderland, to the U.S. with Charlotte’s Web, to Denmark with the Little Match Girl. From very early childhood, I realized I could stay in my little room in Tehran, and through stories the whole world could come to me. That was one thing that stayed with me.
The child remains in you. It changes forms, but remains in you. It really is amazing how at this age I have grandchildren, yet the experience of reading for me has remained the same as when my father first told me stories. There’s this sort of hidden excitement in reading a new book. It’s like traveling to a new world. When I was a child, we weren’t lucky enough to have this many public libraries that you have here, so my father told my brother and me how to create our own library, and if we were good kids, he would buy us books as rewards. My brother took that idea so seriously that he created a lending library in our basement and he would bug our relatives and friends to pay a membership fee. He called it The Free Iran. It had that much effect on me.
You write early in the book “great fiction is based on multivocality.” Can you talk about what you mean by that and how multivocality plays into reading dangerously?
I think that the novel by its structure is democratic, and it’s because of that multivocality. The writer has to put herself in the place of every single character that she’s describing. You have to go under their skin and represent their voice and not yours. A bad writer is one who imposes her or his voice upon all the characters, turning the novel into a simple message, rather than actually allowing the readers to experience every single voice and to come to their own conclusions through this experience. Even the villain in great novels gets a chance to put forward his or her voice, so I think by nature fiction becomes subversive. Look at the libraries. They are the most democratic spaces you can go into because they are not based on a nationality or gender or race or ethnicity or religion. Books about all kinds of topics, from all kinds of places, by all kinds of people, live in one space together at peace. You have countries that are in deep conflict and even at war with one another, but books from each of these countries can stay side by side on the bookshelves. The atmosphere is a democratic one. Without noticing it, we become observed in an atmosphere like that. That is why it’s so important to continue talking about the importance of books and, in this case, the importance of fiction.
You begin the book discussing Rushdie, Bradbury, and Plato and end with Baldwin and Coates. What went into deciding how you were going to group certain authors together and the journey you wanted the reader to take?
To begin with, I wanted to show the different aspects of totalitarian and democratic mindsets and how they confront one another. I began with Rushdie and Plato because I felt that so much of what a poetic mindset, as opposed to a totalitarian one, is given to us in Plato’s Republic. His republic is very hierarchical. He wants order, so he tells people the noble lie about the philosopher king who will be ruling over the republic and different segments of the population, where each of them are regimented into a category. In such a regimented and ordered universe, the poet becomes uncomfortable and restless because poetry, unlike that sort of hierarchy, is unpredictable. It brings ambiguity. It brings uncertainty. It questions not just the world, but us. It’s in search of the truth, so therefore against the noble lie that Plato advocates. I thought that that was a good place to start, to begin with this clash between the poetic mindset and a politicized or ideological mindset that has existed in different forms since that time.
Then each chapter picks on one or two aspects of this totalitarian mindset versus the democratic one. In the chapter on Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, we have the issues related to racism and sexism. Then the third chapter is about war. That chapter links later to Baldwin’s chapter because war is the extreme of divisiveness, the extreme of polarization. We have writers that themselves experience war, all three of the writers I talk about, David Grossman, Eliot Ackerman and Elias Khoury, they all have experienced extreme times. They have experienced war and conflict, and yet they are so generous-minded, even towards their enemy. They do not react to war by more war, but they react to war by bringing more unity and peace, by observing their antagonist’s humanity, even as they fight him. So I thought that that was an important aspect of what I want to say in this book. Of course Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale explains what a totalitarian society is. She creates the atmosphere of totalitarianism so we experience it as we read the novel. I wanted to end with Baldwin because I think that although he died over three decades ago, he’s still so relevant to what is going on in this society today. On one hand he considers himself as a writer to be a witness, which is what Atwood and Grossman also believe, so a witness cannot remain silent, they have to speak about injustice. At the same time, he does not sacrifice his writing to politics. He’s not a political writer, he’s a humane writer. He supports artist’s rights to free speech, to freedom of choice, but he does not base his activities, both in writing and in his civil rights activism, he does not base those upon hate. It is so difficult to experience such terrible, terrible injustices and yet not be filled with hate. But hate as Baldwin says, is very dangerous, because it makes us want to destroy everything. In destroying everything we also destroy ourselves. I wanted these ideas, one or two aspects of each of these ideas, to be sort of absorbed through the stories that I tell my father.
You write about how Baldwin was so curious in his writing and he would write to discover what he didn’t know rather than confirm what he believes.
Yes, that is so true. He’s really amazing. First of all, for him, knowledge is so important. All of these writers, because they are good writers, they don’t start with their already pre-conceived notions. Writing for them becomes a process of understanding and discovery and finding out about things you don’t know. It is fighting against ignorance. Baldwin says that ignorance allied with power is one of the most pernicious enemies against justice. So for him, the process of writing and reading is the process of leaving your ignorance behind and gaining true knowledge. I thought this is what we need today and that is why I wanted to end with Baldwin. The other thing is that I ended with the demonstrations and protests around George Floyd. What I wanted to say by describing those demonstrations is that we are on the cusp of change. We are in a transition period. We can go either way. We can either become more totalitarian or we can become more democratic. It depends on what kind of an attitude we take towards these circumstances. So my hope lies in us taking the right steps, but we’ll see. We’ll see.
What role does reading dangerously play during times of political upheaval and unrest?
Sometimes during the times of upheaval people withdraw from life. There’s this fear of all the things you thought were certain and safe all of a sudden become unsafe. All these spaces become unsafe, so it is easy to retreat and to become inactive. I feel that reading and writing, especially during these times, activate us. They give us new blood, they bring experiences to us from all parts of the world. They show us that we’re not alone, that these troubled times we’re going through aren’t new. People have been through this many times and they have survived it. If we also face up to it and try to understand what is happening, we too can survive it. So I think specifically during these times, knowledge, and therefore reading and writing, becomes crucial to our survival.