Write to Transcend Space and Time

Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi says the best books are "republics of imagination" erasing national and historic boundaries.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination, taught banned works of Western literature as a professor in Tehran. Later, after she was fired for not wearing the mandatory veil, she led a book club for women where illegal works—from Jane Austen to Nabokov—were discussed in secret, behind closed doors. Those books were “essential to our lives,” she wrote in her bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. “They were not luxuries, but necessities.”

In The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, Nafisi argues that works of fiction are no less essential in the United States—even though our intellectual freedom is constitutionally protected, even though Americans aren’t forced to smuggle banned editions in their clothes. In her engaging study of three novels—Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter—Nafisi reveals the ways these works highlight essential aspects of American consciousness. More broadly, she demonstrates how democracy and human rights are sustained, in part, by literature itself.

In her conversation for this series, Nafisi turned to James Baldwin, a writer she discusses in the book’s epilogue. Using a line from Baldwin’s 1961 interview with Studs Terkel, Nafisi explored our responsibility to the arts, the importance of good books for young people, and the transformational power fiction has to make us feel less alone.

Azar Nafisi teaches at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Reading Lolita in Tehran was a New York Times bestseller for over 115 weeks. She spoke to me by phone.

Azar Nafisi: When I returned to America from Iran, in 1997, I hadn’t been here for 18 years—not since I’d been an undergraduate in the 1970s. One thing I love about the U.S. is this: Everywhere I go, red or blue states, ordinary Americans are passionate about reading, about meaning, about connecting. And yet I noticed something here that appalled me: a kind of denigration of imagination in public spaces. The tendency I’m talking about has many manifestations, but we see it everywhere. From our policymakers in education who don’t feel that art, music, or poetry are necessary to a democratic education, to our universities and schools, where students are asked to interrogate books before they have a chance to first connect with them, we are told that the imaginative exercise is not important.

It’s common, of course, to hear people defend books in nations that aren’t free. What I found ironic, as I began this book, is that people don’t seem to appreciate the relationship between books and freedom in functioning democracies. But tyrants in any country, from the Islamic Republic to the Soviet Union to anywhere in the world, understand their enemies: Their enemies are freedom of ideas and freedom of imagination. Tyrants attack these things first, alongside women's rights and minority rights. So when someone in a democracy thinks, “Oh, why does it matter to read? Why does it matter to imagine and to think?”—well, it's mind-boggling to me.

I began The Republic of Imagination in order to explore the ways literary fiction is a crucial force within democracy itself.  The book went through many different forms, as books do; at one point, I had chosen to devote chapters to 24 different writers from all over the world. It took me some time to settle on just four Americans. And Mark Twain was my first choice, almost from the very beginning.

I see in Twain a desire to include many voices and perspectives, to give voice to everyone, not just the privileged, or powerful, or culturally dominant. His whole project bucks against the notion of a single, totalitarian truth. In a bit of writing advice, Twain once said: “Don’t say the old lady screamed, bring her on and let her scream.” This is more than a command to show, not tell—he insists that we give people their voices, let them talk, let their perspective be seen, heard, and felt.

Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has this idea at its core. The main characters are a white urchin child and a black slave—both of whom, in different ways, are repressed by “respectable” society, and continually find their opinions silenced. But they learn to rely on one another for survival. Through this experience, these two outcasts begin to empathize with one another, and start to see each other as fully human.

We see Twain’s commitment to this idea in a biting, outrageous speech he gave to the Mayflower Society, a group of people who gathered to celebrate their status as descendants of that first ship’s passengers. Twain began by deriding the early Pilgrims, saying they “abolished everyone else’s ancestors.” He goes on to dispute the very notion of “pure” heritage. “I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut,” he told them, before claiming that his true ancestors are the Native Americans, the Quakers, the persecuted victims of the Salem Witch Trials and, finally, the slaves.

“The first slave,” he said, “brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel.” By making his main characters a pair of outcasts, Twain dramatized the idea of a mixed, multifaceted national identity famously formulated by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)."

American literature can have its Aunt Sallys and Judge Thatchers, the novel suggests, but it must also contain the story of the homeless orphan, the subjugated slave. It just took my breath away. And I thought, this is my idea of what it means to be an American: to be an exquisite, many-shaded mongrel.

In The Republic of the Imagination, I follow this idea through Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers. And from there, it was very easy to hook up with James Baldwin, the writer I discuss in the book’s epilogue.

This idea of being of mixed origin was central to Baldwin, who called himself “a kind of bastard of the West.” Not by choice, but by force, he had been uprooted and deprived of all his ancestry. When the racists told him, you're not of us, you’re not like us, you’re not American, Baldwin said—no, you bloody bastards. You took everything away from me. I can't go back to Africa. I'm not an African and yet you don't allow me to be an American. I become an African American.

For Baldwin, to be black and American was to be painfully aware of the complicated, mixed nature of one’s heritage. “When I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa,” he said,

And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine.

Baldwin took the best from what was offered to him, and the origins didn’t matter—jazz and the blues, or Shakespeare and Bach, he took what he wanted. And this expanded the literary America.

We need to remember this. Because one thing this country does, which I very much resent, is categorize you. If you are a great writer, you’re not really a great writer—you're a great African-American writer. When I came to this country, someone told me “Oh, you're a woman and you come from a Muslim-majority country. You've got great chances to go into Islamic studies and Women's studies.” I said, “You go into Islamic studies and Women's studies. I want to talk about white males.” You know? The academics who told me that did so without realizing that literature is about the Other. It is so boring to constantly talk about yourself! And that is the message of fiction—you can’t talk only about yourself. You to understand and give voice to everyone, even people unlike you, even the villain—because even if you're fighting the villain you need to understand him first.

In the 1950s Baldwin broke this barrier. He refused to be called a Negro writer. He refused to be called a gay writer. He simply said: “I am a writer.” That is the only stance that gains respect, to be accepted for who you are. Writers must refuse to submit to simplistic categories, even though we still have this tendency in our culture to tag everyone by a certain name.

And yet, though Baldwin was very faithful and very fierce in his essays and activities, and in his fight for civil rights and human rights, he insisted on something that I think is crucial. We should revere and celebrate differences and the particular, he said, but we must never forget that the particular is very dangerous if it doesn't become universal. Yes, we are different. Those differences are fascinating, worthy of exploration. But writers, all of us, share a common humanity—and this common humanity contains the best and the worst. No people, no nation is exempt from this. I think that is a great, great contribution.

We need literature to remind us how like each other we are, despite our differences. Baldwin spoke beautifully about this:

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.

In reality, in this very pragmatic sense, we all have limitations. There are borders within all of us, things that make us unalike. We come from separate nations. But when you read literature, you enter a republic of imagination that transcends time and space. So you are an African-American boy living in New York City, and you discovered that the person who best expresses you is a man who lived in Russia and has been dead a hundred years. That gives you a sense of hope, a sense of connection and camaraderie. It is one of those moments when you're glad you're human. This is why so many people will say that one book changed their whole life. Or writers talk about how reading a book made them want to become a writer.

One of the greatest things my father did was when he read a great deal from Persian stories and our epic poets especially and Iranian mythology but he mixed it with all sorts of things. So at the same time that I was thinking about Iran, I was becoming familiar with Pinocchio's Italy or Hans Christian Anderson's Denmark. He installed a sort of cosmopolitanism in us. Not by taking us to foreign places, but by bringing those books to our home. I never lost that. It’s why, when I came here, it seemed so obvious that I should be talking about other people's books, even though a lot of people would tell me I am a Westernized betrayer of my culture if I do that.

I believe that when you teach a work of fiction, you should not bring all the baggage that comes with it. You should not fill the minds of the students with the background material. Let the students first connect to the book. Even if that connection is negative, even if they hate it—that reaction belongs to them. Then once they connect to the book and they form their impressions of it, then it becomes so exciting to read about how Mark Twain came to know so much about African-Americans, how his own childhood was in terms of his relationship with the slaves. What do other people say about Mark Twain, and what are the controversies? All of that should come after the initial connection.

If I love a book, it first strikes my heart. The mind comes in later, as I start to articulate why it is I like it. Both experiences are joyous, but you need that initial emotional link. It’s why I don't like theories that espouse interrogation as our primary method of engaging with books. It's as though Alice—instead of just running after the white rabbit and jumping into the hole—would first say, Why is this rabbit white? Why is it running so fast? Should I be following it?

That way, she would never get to Wonderland.

Fiction, literature, all art, connects us to our past, explains our present, and predicts our future. Without that universality, we would be very savage to one another, even more savage than we are now. That is why it becomes so dangerous when our elite, in terms of our education policy, deprive our children by reducing the role of literature. We must give our students the opportunity to, for example, read The Little Prince in the 21st century and connect to that Frenchman who has been gone for a long, long time. This experience has heartbreaking power, and is beautiful.