"Reading Lolita in Tehran" author Azar Nafisi.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" author Azar Nafisi.

In the 1980s, Azar Nafisi’s college students in Iran read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and identified with the non-conformist hero of Mark Twain’s novel. The author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” says it’s just as important for American students to read Huck Finn today — even as schools here increasingly emphasize “informational texts” at the expense of novels. Her new book, “The Republic of Imagination,” argues that fiction is essential for global citizenship and empathy for the human experience.

Guests

  • Azar Nafisi Author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books" (Viking, 2014); Fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Read An Excerpt

From The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright by Azar Nafisi, 2014.

Transcript

  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. She first revealed her passion for Western literature in her bestselling memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," describing how she and her students found a form of liberation in fundamentalist Iran by reading forbidden Western novels.

  • 12:07:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINow author, Azar Nafisi, is worried that great works of fiction are being banished from American schools as well, replaced by dry, non-fiction texts and a push for practicality over creativity. In her new book, "The Republic of Imagination," the author says, it's essential to teach important works of great fiction by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, James Baldwin, even in a Democratic society.

  • 12:07:36

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to look at the value of fiction in American education is Azar Nafisi, her new book is called, "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books." She's a fellow at the John's Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and she joins us now in studio. Azar Nafisi, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:54

    MS. AZAR NAFISIThank you for having me.

  • 12:07:55

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Azar Nafisi, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, as a question, make a comment there. You have a deep appreciation for Mark Twain's novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," it's a satire on the antebellum South, set along the Mississippi River. It's the first book you taught, when you went back to Iran, in 1979, after attending school in the U.S. Why do you think Huck Finn is such an important character in American fiction?

  • 12:08:29

    NAFISIYou know, Mark Twain talks about Huck Finn is a book about the conflict between a sound heart and a deformed conscious, in which the heart wins. And I think that that aspect of America that I connect to is about the conquest of the heart. And I felt that Huck Finn was, sort of, the father of new fiction in America, it created a new reality, it was, sort of, a declaration of independence, not just from Europe but from those people Mark Twain called, the Mayflower Tribe.

  • 12:09:08

    NAFISIAnd he tells them, you know, you deprived me of my ancestors and he begins with the Native-Americans, goes through the Quakers, goes through the witches and it ends with the slave. And he says, you deprived me of this. And I am many shaded, exquisite mongrel, and I love that. And I think that that is how great American fiction begins.

  • 12:09:35

    NNAMDIHuck conceals his identity, breaks the rules but we believe him to be good at heart. Why is that relevant, particularly in an authoritarian society and, for that matter, in American society, today?

  • 12:09:47

    NAFISIYou talked about your readers being -- your audience…

  • 12:09:51

    NNAMDIMy listeners being readers, yes.

  • 12:09:52

    NAFISI...being readers, a great deal of them. And the point about both reading and writing and the point about Huck Finn and I think that especially with American fiction, American fiction is the moral guardian of the American reality. With Huck Finn, you notice that he doesn't talk directly about the most heinous thing in American society, which is slavery, he doesn't talk about it directly. But what he does, he goes and questions the worst thing that human beings can do to one another, that is not see the other as an individual.

  • 12:10:32

    NAFISIAnd Huck, himself, lives in a raciest society. So he does have raciest tendencies, but Jim, sort of, resurrects Huck. Jim is the first person after Huck fakes his death and escapes from Ms. Watson and Pap. Jim is the first person who sees Huck. And through eyes of Jim, Huck is resurrected. And through relationship with Jim, he more and more accepts Jim as equal because they're individual whose heart can break. And he says, it is wrong for a father to be separated from his family. It is amazing, it doesn't preach to us, it puts us within that experience.

  • 12:11:18

    NNAMDIYou say the novels true message is that, ordinary people who participate in institutions like slavery are ultimately responsible for them. What do you mean by that and why is that an important lesson?

  • 12:11:28

    NAFISIThey sure are. You know and that is another great thing about fiction, it brings out the complexities that ideology takes away from us. It shows you, people who are very good hearted and decent like Aunt Sally, you know, she's worried about Huck, you know, but she cannot see Jim or an African-American as another human being. And Mark Twain is very clever. There's a scene where she asks Huck, "You weren't hurt were you?" He said, "No, only, you know, a slave was killed."

  • 12:12:02

    NAFISIAnd she says, "Well then, it was nobody." Something like that. And she's a good woman and yet she's a racist, you need that consciousness and you need to know that in a democratic society, you are responsible.

  • 12:12:17

    NNAMDIYou point to Sinclair Lewis as another important American author, talk about his novel, "Babbitt," a satire on the vacuousness of middle-class American life in the early 20th century. What does the character, George Babbitt, represent today?

  • 12:12:32

    NAFISIWell, George Babbitt is sort of anti-Huck. And I felt that, you know, there's this contradiction and paradox at the heart of American society and we're pulled this way and the other way. And I think that, right now, George Babbitt's mentality, his attitude is what is gaining dominance over that other part, over the heart. You know, when we glorify greed, when we tell our children to go to school in order to be career-ready, when we destroy our public schools, taking away funding and we think people are moochers, if they want great public education and great public health, then I think "Babbitt" is very relevant today.

  • 12:13:17

    NNAMDIWe are Babbitt-izing the society today.

  • 12:13:23

    NAFISIWe use the same language, job creators, that is exactly -- I mean, if -- exactly comes out of "Babbitt," the kind of language we use.

  • 12:13:33

    NNAMDIYou mentioned it already so I'd like to get to it, one of the themes of your book is the value of reading fiction, even as public schools in the U.S. seem to be moving away from novels toward more non-fiction text. How do you think American education is being Babbitt-ized and becoming first and foremost, a path to a career?

  • 12:13:53

    NAFISIIt is, you know, there is American pragmatism, the best of it you could find both actually in the founders, when George Washington said, "We need both literature and science as the basis of our education." When Frederick Douglas talked about, we need to think with our heads and with our heart, with our minds and with our hands. So education, knowledge, no matter whether it is humanities or sciences related to us, what is happening in our public schools is, we're telling children that the only important thing about knowledge is a vocation.

  • 12:14:33

    NAFISIA democracy, you know, a society should provide all its citizens with the opportunity to have a good education. You know, there is -- there should be not one single individual who goes to school, just for a vacation. Your vacation should be you’re your passion, that is the difference between a democracy and a non-democratic society.

  • 12:14:54

    NNAMDIAzar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," her new book is "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books." She's a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, she joins us in studio. You too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What, for you, is the right balance of quote-unquote, "informational text and fiction" for public school students, 800-433-8850? Should students in public schools be educated primarily or merely to find a job, build a career or should there be more to an education, 800-433-8850? You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. Azar, what does fiction offer students that they don't get from non-fiction texts? Why is cultivating the imagination so important?

  • 12:15:42

    NAFISIWell, also, you know, I'm not against non-fiction texts, they level non-fiction texts, I mean, the "Gettysburg Address" is now on the same par as, I don't know, EPA...

  • 12:16:00

    NNAMDIGuidelines.

  • 12:16:01

    NAFISI...guidelines, you know. And they take out the context, they tell students, when you read "Gettysburg Address" you should not be thinking of funerals, you should not be thinking of the history, you should only be looking at the texts, as if it's a multiple choice question. With fiction, you go beyond the appearances. Fiction is the land of Oz, in the middle of the desert. You need to leave reality and to see it through the deep and alternative eyes of others, in order to come back to reality and to be able to relate to the world as well as change the world.

  • 12:16:42

    NNAMDIYou've said that, by de-emphasizing fiction, our education system is buying into an American expectation that life should be easy and as painless as...

  • 12:16:51

    NAFISIYeah.

  • 12:16:51

    NNAMDI...possible. How does reading fiction help people whose lives or help people understand that life is not always rosy?

  • 12:17:00

    NAFISIWell, Huck Finn, itself, take any of the books I talk about in this book or any other great book, take Zora Neale Hurston's, "Their Eyes Are (sic) Watching God," or Saul Bellow's "Herzog." At the heart of it is, I mean, it is not just tyranny of man, it is tyranny of time. We all die. We all lose. We all confront pain. Fiction shows us a way to confront pain, not to evade it. Our children, nowadays, say, we cannot read "Merchant of Venice" or Huck Finn because it is too violent and we will become traumatized. For heaven's sake, you're giving Malala Nobel Prize and this girl, every time she talks about herself, she's renewing that day when she was shot.

  • 12:17:55

    NAFISIAnd yet, you cannot read Huck Finn because it traumatizes you? What kind of America's -- is that the American dream? Is that why we talk about Brazilians, the American spirit?

  • 12:18:11

    NNAMDIWe seem to be living in a society in which people no longer have an expectation of death at all.

  • 12:18:17

    NAFISINo. No. We're living forever and that is why reality, right now, is far more fictional than fiction. And, by the way, when people talk about vocations, you notice, Kojo, they're not talking about teachers, librarians, book sellers, museum curators, as jobs. You know?

  • 12:18:40

    NNAMDIYes. They are not, they are not jobs, they are, I guess, they are not jobs, they are not passions, they are just hobbies, I guess, it might've said.

  • 12:18:47

    NAFISIYeah, they are luxuries, you know.

  • 12:18:50

    NNAMDIYeah.

  • 12:18:51

    NAFISIThey're now luxuries and why -- people are telling us this who send their own children to private schools, who have music, who have poetry. What kind of a democracy are we defining?

  • 12:19:04

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Azar Nafisi, her latest book is called, "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books," let's go to the phones and start with Dave in Le Plata, Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:16

    DAVEHi, Kojo and I'm really enjoy listening to the guest, the speaker there. Some of the points that I don’t agree with is the comment about, we're taking money away from the public schools, all the rich white folks are putting their kids in public -- or in private schools and have these things. And you had a -- an article on last week where we looked at and talked briefly, the quality of education, if you look at the output, is not directly tied to the amount of money that's being put in it.

  • 12:19:52

    DAVEIf you look at the amount of money that's spent per capita on some of the students, in some of the areas, as opposed to other, it does not equate with the quality of education, it does not equate with the achievement and knowledge learned.

  • 12:20:07

    NNAMDIWe did have a broadcast about that last week, comparing the amount of money that was spent in a variety of school districts and trying to figure out exactly how that money was spent and what was the return on that money. But what in your view is the quality of education of which you speak?

  • 12:20:23

    DAVEI apologize, would you just repeat that?

  • 12:20:25

    NNAMDIWhen you say the quality of education, what are you talking about?

  • 12:20:30

    DAVEI'm a firm believer in measuring things and trying to take some of the subjectivity out of it. So, academic achievement, whether it's language skills, the ability to write, ability for critical thinking, mathematic, engineering skills. If you look at how those are assessed and how America performs and you look at various schools, it is not tied to -- it does not equate to how many dollars we put in that.

  • 12:20:59

    NNAMDII think we...

  • 12:20:59

    DAVEThat was...

  • 12:21:00

    NNAMDII think we can all agree on that. But where do you see the arts playing a role in this? Where do you see the arts playing a role in this? Where do you see fiction playing -- reading of fiction in public schools playing a role in this?

  • 12:21:09

    DAVEI think it's tremendously important and I absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with the speaker's point about frankly it's ludicrous and it is very alarming that we would -- we move Mark Twain, "Huck Finn," works of Mark Twain and others because it's too violent. I think that's, you know, ridiculous.

  • 12:21:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment?

  • 12:21:33

    NAFISIYes, I agree with a lot of things that David mentioned. I wanted -- what -- actually, I'm not, you know, sort of polarizing between the rich and the poor when I talk about the quality of education. I'm sorry if I gave that impression. And I agree with you that money is not all. And innovative mind can do so much without money. What I'm objecting to is taking the funding away from arts and music and fiction in public schools today.

  • 12:22:06

    NAFISIIt wasn't the fault of literature that are -- the quality has dropped in our schools. Science and literature go hand in hand. Science and literature are both based on curiosity, on passion, on the urge to discover. We should not segregate them. We should teach them together. And this is at least what the founders in this country wanted. This is what the greatest men and women in this country wanted. We are taking art because we call it luxury out of public schools and we're going to suffer for it.

  • 12:22:44

    NNAMDIOn, therefore, and thank you for your call. We'll go now to Rachel in Silver Spring, MD. Rachel, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:22:52

    RACHELHi, Kojo, thank you so much for taking my call. I am -- I was a high school English teacher for several years, and now I'm a social worker in a D.C. school. And I wish with all my heart that we could teach, you know, and there was this great love of learning. And that was the motivation of all students. And I taught "Huck Finn" for many years and I love literature. But many of my students are reading years and years and years below grade level.

  • 12:23:21

    RACHELSome are in, you know, middle school and barely literate, unfortunately. And I just think that the idea that, you know, education -- you know, that we are working with all of our students with this love of education and love of learning, it doesn't deal with the reality that exists in our schools right now and the reality that school teachers are facing. I have conversations with students, you know, about motivation.

  • 12:23:47

    RACHELAnd it is very vocation-driven because my conversations are like, well, how -- you know, what do you want to ultimately get to and how is this going to help you because they are not motivated to learn at all. So, I just wanted to make that comment.

  • 12:24:00

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because we have had discussions on this broadcast before about how one -- how does one motivate students who have low reading novels. We've had conversations with graphic novelists and found that that has been a great way to get students who are not much interested in reading to read. But if you would address Rachel's comments about low reading levels and how that affects the ability to teach fiction in public schools.

  • 12:24:20

    NAFISIYes. You know, one of the interesting things is that why is it that this is happening now? Because this country has been having humanities and, you know, fiction for a long time. But it is within the past few decades that we're seeing this drop in both mathematics and reading. So the problem is not fiction, I don't think. But the other thing is my two children both went to public schools and my daughter is so adamant that she wants to live somewhere where she -- she says, morally she cannot send her child to a private school.

  • 12:24:58

    NNAMDIPrivate school.

  • 12:24:59

    NAFISIHer husband now, they just got married, he also went to private school -- no, public school. He said that his public school was much poorer than hers and that the best teachers were overworked and underpaid and underappreciated and then they would leave. And so, what we need to do, we need to say what Frederick Douglass that teaching is one of the most sacred job -- any society, that they are the apple of our eyes and we should first encourage teachers to be motivated and find creative ways. I've never had problem teaching literature even when students start saying, why are we reading this? We read this before in high school, you know.

  • 12:25:46

    NNAMDIYou also look at life through the lens of author Carson McCullers and her 1940 novel, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter." What does that novel by Cason McCullers say about loneliness and the difficulty of communicating with others? And why is that still relevant today?

  • 12:26:03

    NAFISIWell, actually that -- that was one of the reasons I chose Carson McCullers is because I felt those mongrels that Huck Finn -- that Mark Twain talks about all gather in Carson McCullers. They're all, quote-unquote, "outcasts." But they're outcasts because they cannot connect to the society, because that society is not responding to the passions they have in them. You know, Mick, the young girl, wants to be a musician.

  • 12:26:35

    NAFISIShe does anything possible to become one, but then she has go work because her family doesn't have any money. Jake Blount is a labor agitator and he becomes more and more radicalized and isolated because nobody is listening to him. Dr. Copeland worries about the future of his people. He's an African American doctor whose people are timid in order to fight. And by the way, he predicted the march on Washington because he...

  • 12:27:00

    NNAMDIBefore it happened.

  • 12:27:01

    NAFISI...tells Jake Blount that maybe the solution is on a march on Washington for the black people. And the only hope for connection for these people coming out of their isolation is to be able to fulfill their passion. And I feel that this is true today as it was then.

  • 12:27:23

    NNAMDIThe fulfillment of passion, just one of the themes of Azar Nafisi's latest book. It's called, "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing with our fall membership campaign. But if you have called to join this conversation with Azar Nafisi, stay on the line or you can still call 800-433-8850. Send email to kojo@wamu.org. What do you feel is the biggest benefit of reading novels? You can also shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:35:34

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Azar Nafisi. Her latest book is called "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books." She's a fellow of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. If you've called 800-433-8850, stay on the line, we will get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. We mentioned it in the break, you're also a fan of novelist James Baldwin. How did he, like his character John Grimes in "Go Tell It on the Mountain" obey his heart and write what he wanted to write?

  • 12:36:06

    NAFISIBaldwin is all heart.

  • 12:36:07

    NNAMDIYes, that's true.

  • 12:36:10

    NAFISII know that he loved James. Twain was not, you know, among his most favorite.

  • 12:36:16

    NNAMDIThis is true.

  • 12:36:17

    NAFISIBut I felt that he was the true progeny of Huck and Jim. I felt that, you know, the whole point about Baldwin -- what interested me a lot -- I identified with him in many ways. But what interested me was he was both very, very concerned about reality and he was a great civil rights activist, as you know. And he was also passionate about writing. He didn't compromise on his writing. He didn't turn into ideologue.

  • 12:36:50

    NAFISIAnd, you know, he had an alternative way of looking at the world. You remember he says as long as you -- as long as you think you're white, I am forced to be black.

  • 12:37:05

    NNAMDIMm-hmm.

  • 12:37:05

    NAFISIYou know? Baldwin is the universal writer and the universal activist. He transcends boundaries, gender...

  • 12:37:15

    NNAMDIIdeology.

  • 12:37:16

    NAFISIIdeology and race and he gets it from both sides. And that shows his strength that he doesn't leave them happy.

  • 12:37:24

    NNAMDIAnd even though, as you pointed out, he was active in the civil rights movement, he saw himself, first and foremost, and finally as a writer.

  • 12:37:33

    NAFISIAs a writer. As a writer. And, you know, I mentioned in my book that when I read Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" for this book, I remembered another book that was published two years before that, which was J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," which got the title of the Great American Novel, I think Baldwin deserves. That book, "Go Tell It on the Mountain," starts -- it opens to us a new perspective on America, a new character and a new language.

  • 12:38:05

    NAFISIHe, like Twain, creates a new language. And we constantly just want to identify him as a gay writer and an African American writer. He was both, but he was a writer.

  • 12:38:20

    NNAMDIA lot...

  • 12:38:20

    NAFISIHe belongs to the world.

  • 12:38:22

    NNAMDIWhich brings up a question, why is Baldwin on the decline in public schools today?

  • 12:38:28

    NAFISIWhy is he? That is a good question. First of all, I noticed, you see, everything now -- and I'm not -- I hate generalizations. Obviously, I wouldn't be sitting talking to you if everything is what I'm saying. It's too much of a -- but the dominant trend today alongside of comfort and vocation is entertainment. You know, we don't want to be bothered. You know, Ray Bradbury used to say, you don't have to destroy a culture by burning books, you just get people to stop reading books.

  • 12:39:03

    NAFISIAnd this culture of comfort, this culture of comfort food, easy, one-night stands with ideas and imagination doesn't leave room for writers like Baldwin. But I think the students, once they get into him, they will not easily get out.

  • 12:39:25

    NNAMDIThis is true. Certainly it was that in my case. Here now is Jeffrey in Baltimore, MD. Jeffrey, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 12:39:33

    JEFFREYI can't believe it. This is so exciting. I am a WAMU pledger, by the way, Kojo.

  • 12:39:38

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:39:39

    JEFFREYAnd thank you so much for taking my call. I want to offer the author, whose name I don't want to flub. But reading "Lolita" and "Huck Finn" in USA as a possible next edition title, "Reading Lolita and Huck Finn in USA." And really that was -- what I called about. I also want to thank you so much for talking about the other authors you've mentioned. I really don't know a lot of James Baldwin, although I love Ralph Ellison and was thankfully given it in my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant school to ready as teenager. And lastly, I've got my notebook and I'm taking -- paper notebook -- and I'm taking copious notes.

  • 12:40:27

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for you call. Care to comment?

  • 12:40:29

    NAFISIThank you. You know, this is the best thing about books. This is the best thing about having a passion. You connect to people you have never met and they feel -- they come to your home, which is your heart.

  • 12:40:41

    NNAMDIIt's been a decade since you wrote, "Teaching Lolita in Tehran." And since then you've become an American citizen, having immigrated to the U.S. in 1997. How do you think Iranian students today would respond to American Literature?

  • 12:40:55

    NAFISIIranian students -- when the world was taken away from it, they connected to the world through the best that the world had to offer. And if you go on some of these sites, Iranian sites -- the youth -- you notice that they know much more about their American peers. They still read, you know, they know the (unintelligible), you know. And what my argument is in this book is that you don't have to be deprived of something in order to love it. That there can be no democracy without a democratic imagination.

  • 12:41:32

    NNAMDIOn now to Matthew, in Ashburn, Va. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:41:38

    MATTHEWYeah, hi. I wanted to call in just from my own little personal experience growing up with reading fiction and what it taught me, which was I had been in a family which pushed really hard for me to learn science, learn math, learn, you know, computer science. Yeah, a very technical oriented education. And what I've discovered on my own -- partially -- I mean, partially because of some of the English lit courses in high school and the fiction I was being asked to read.

  • 12:42:04

    MATTHEWBut more on my own, as I read on my own outside of school, was I found it amazing how much fiction allowed me to better understand people and relate to people. And, you know, become much more empathetic, sympathetic to others. And the idea to me that this is being taken away from kids I find quite appalling. I mean, it wasn't -- not that it was that big, you know, not that it was pushed that hard even when I was in school.

  • 12:42:28

    MATTHEWBut it's mindboggling to me that we have a society now in which a key component, I think, of being a better person, being better global citizens, understanding other cultures is being taken away from us. I mean, that -- at least taken away from our kids.

  • 12:42:45

    NNAMDIGlad you mentioned other cultures because Azar Nafisi you studied American literature and that's what you've taught, both in Iran and here in the U.S. But what other countries, what other cultures are producing literature that you admire and that should be taught to American students?

  • 12:42:59

    NAFISIYou know, Kojo, I mentioned in my book that when I was very young, about three or four years old, my father would read me stories. And he was very democratic about it. We'll have Iranian stories right by the Turkish stories, like, by the Arabic, like, by "Pinocchio" from Italy, "Little Prince" from France, "Little Match Girl" from Hans Christian Anderson. So from very early childhood I learned that the Republic of Imagination is a space where everybody's equal.

  • 12:43:29

    NAFISINobody asks you, are you a Republican or a Democrat, you know. Nobody asks you when you go into a bookstore or a library, who did you vote for? You know, what color skin do you have, you know? So that -- and the reason I talked about American fiction was because I graduated in America fiction, but I have from Flaubert and Jane Austin to Pamuk and Nagib Mahfuz, the Republic of Imagination is one place.

  • 12:44:04

    NNAMDIWhat can fiction tell us about what's going on in the world right now, in the Middle East and Africa and in Iran?

  • 12:44:11

    NAFISII'm so glad you mentioned it because the previous caller also was talking about it. I'm wondering how could we have great policy makers who have no idea about the ancient cultures of Turkey or Lebanon or Iran. How do we talk about a religion, Islam, when we think that there is a monolithic religion called Islam, where everybody looks the same and acts the same, while there are numerous ways of looking at this religion as it is with -- it's like saying that all Americans -- the majority of Americans are Christians.

  • 12:44:53

    NAFISIAnd so from tomorrow all Americans should wear crosses and go to one church, let's say Southern Baptist. So the whole point about it is that even our policymakers know nothing or very little. I always talk about Iran. I say, go to our epic poet Ferdowsi, who wrote 1,000 years ago. And look at the women there, who not only chose their wives, they chose their lovers.

  • 12:45:26

    NNAMDIThese are cultures that people can understand so much better through reading fiction that emanates from those cultures. I think that's what -- well, let's hear what Martha, in Arlington, has to say for herself. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:45:40

    MARTHAOh, hello, Kojo. I love your show. Can you hear me?

  • 12:45:43

    NNAMDIWe hear you very well.

  • 12:45:44

    MARTHAI'd like to thank Azar Nafisi for leading me and my book group to read "Lolita," and "Great Gatsby," and all those wonderful books in your first book. And now you have given us a program for the next year.

  • 12:46:01

    NAFISIHow lovely of you.

  • 12:46:03

    NNAMDIShe is assigning your book reading group topics for the next year. Now, you're going to be reading "Huckleberry Finn," won't you?

  • 12:46:09

    MARTHAAgain, and again.

  • 12:46:12

    NAFISIBut you guys have to be in touch. You have to tell me what you think of these books.

  • 12:46:17

    MARTHAOh, we will. Wonderful.

  • 12:46:18

    NAFISIAnd I think all good book groups should get together, keep our bookstores and libraries alive.

  • 12:46:26

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Martha. Are you optimistic that fiction will regain its rightful place in American schools?

  • 12:46:34

    NAFISII think, you know, stories have been with us since the dawn of history. That is how people describe through Greek and Roman mythology to Bible and Quran and Torah. Every -- they described what was not describable. They articulate what was not articulatable. So no matter how people would try to deprive us of fiction, fiction will remain. Totalitarian societies should teach us that. Hitler burned books. Stalin called Fitzgerald and Hemingway decadent and put the best poets in gulags. Fiction stayed, Stalin died. This is how it's going to be.

  • 12:47:20

    NNAMDIHere is Marcia, in Washington, D.C. Marcia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:26

    MARCIAHi, Kojo. I hear something from your broadcast almost every day -- well, at least a few times a week -- that makes me want to call you because it relates to our experience. But I just listen and this time I couldn't just listen. Well, what an extraordinary discussion since I even called. I was saying that it related to Children's Studio School because for these now 37 years of our life, we have used -- this is like we were born together, we were working together when you were writing your books because everything we do is based on imagination and invention and curiosity.

  • 12:48:14

    MARCIAAnd the poetry of life so that we only engage highly developed artists and architects, writers, visual performing artists to be the teachers, not additional teachers, to children so young. So anyway, we have -- this is how we've worked and children have grown into being all the -- everything that anyone else, you know, the career -- we don't talk about that, but they become international economists and develop…

  • 12:48:46

    NNAMDIAnd fiction and art plays a significant role in all of that.

  • 12:48:50

    MARCIAYou sum it -- you know how to summarize.

  • 12:48:52

    NNAMDIAzar Nafisi?

  • 12:48:53

    NAFISIWell, I'm so glad that you brought this up, your last caller. All I wanted to say is that I'm sure that the majority of Americans -- and I never dare to speak on behalf of people, but in this case I think I'm positive. Majority of Americans don't want their country to be known to their children and to the world as only a military complex. Our military power is not our real power. The power in every culture, in every culture comes from its history and it comes from its imagination and its mind. And American people, if they want to keep that, then they should really pay attention.

  • 12:49:36

    NNAMDIOur public schools should be allowing kids to explore their imagination through fiction. Here is Robin, in Washington, D.C. Robin, your turn.

  • 12:49:46

    ROBINHi. Thank you. I am thrilled to have to thank both of you for the program, in particular Ms. Nafisi. My children are half Persian and as the mother -- and I'm American, I have learned so much about the richness of your culture and the strength of the women within the Persian culture. And I want to thank you for illuminating a lot of our literature for us, as Americans, but also for being such an articulate voice for -- as an Iranian woman. I just wanted to thank you because I think it's so important that more people in our own country here understand the diversity of views coming from Iran.

  • 12:50:28

    NAFISII very much appreciate you saying that. Part of the reason I wrote "Reading 'Lolita' in Tehran," I wanted Americans to understand ordinary Iranians. And to see how various they are. I suggest that people look at Persian art, listen to Persian music, read Persian history and, my God, the most sensual thing of all and most probably you know about it, is eat Persian food. Talk about sensual. Pomegranates and walnuts and duck. My God, yes. Persian, that is another…

  • 12:51:06

    NNAMDIOn Wednesdays on this broadcast we usually discuss food and I think you've just given us some other ideas for -- Azar Nafisi is speaking about her new book, "The Republic of Imagination," at Politics and Prose, here in Washington, on Friday, October 24th, at 7:00 p.m. That is at Politics and Prose, on Connecticut Avenue, Friday, October 24th, 7:00 p.m. What are you working on next?

  • 12:51:29

    NAFISIAh.

  • 12:51:31

    NNAMDIAre you thinking about writing a novel, by any chance?

  • 12:51:33

    NAFISIWell, I'm -- novel is so high in my, you know, that I don't dare. But I can never just articulate an idea without a narrative. But right now this is my obsession. I want to talk the rest of my life about the importance of imagination.

  • 12:51:55

    NNAMDIAzar Nafisi, she is the author of "Reading 'Lolita' in Tehran." Her new book is called, "The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books." She is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:52:08

    NAFISIThank you. And, Kojo, may I say something?

  • 12:52:11

    NNAMDII'm going to let you say it after a short break. She's not leaving us because we're coming back and we're going to be talking a little bit more about our fall membership campaign, in which Azar Nafisi has been chosen to -- so to speak -- play a role. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour – August 18, 2017

Friday, Aug 18 2017Leaders in our region grapple with the debate around Confederate symbols after Charlottesville. We speak to D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (At-large, I), chair of the Education Committee and U.S. Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.)