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Azar Nafisi's new book is on what it means to 'Read Dangerously'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Azar Nafisi says books might not save us from death, but they help us live. The acclaimed author of "Reading Lolita In Tehran" and "The Republic Of Imagination" has written a new work, and it consists of letters to her late father in which she explains how reading authors that include Salman Rushdie, James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood and others has helped her survive - I don't think that's too strong a word - travails, terrors and turbulence. Her book is "Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power Of Literature In Troubled Times." Azar Nafisi joins us from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

AZAR NAFISI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Our times - I don't have to tell you - have recently become more troubled. But I want to begin by asking you about your Baba...

NAFISI: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Your father, who passed away in 2004. He was well-known, the youngest mayor of Tehran. How did you come to address these letters to him?

NAFISI: I had such an exchange with him since I almost was about 3 1/2, 4, when every night he would tell me stories. And that became a way of communication between he and I. So I learned from very early childhood that I can sit in my small room in Tehran and the whole world will come to me through stories. He and I developed this habit of either conversing or writing to one another. And I didn't want to write straight essays, so letters seemed the best way to do it. And my father seemed to be the best person to whom I could now tell my stories. Our roles are reversed.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the authors you mention, and let's begin with Plato, one of the ancients.

NAFISI: (Laughter).

SIMON: And you say at first you were exasperated by him.

NAFISI: (Laughter).

SIMON: But what did you come to find in his work?

NAFISI: From the very first, in Plato, we find the conflict between what we call the poet and those who are in power. That poetry appears in Plato as something that cannot be controlled, that is unruly. So that was the part of the "Republic" that I felt exasperated with, you know? The other aspect of "Republic," which I agree with, is when he talks about how we do not want to be enlightened, how frightening it can become to think because thinking means responsibility. While giving in to a totalitarian mindset, you don't need to be responsible. Someone else decides for you. Someone else defines you.

SIMON: Of course, let me ask you about Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses." It was even more dangerous to read it than you did - than it was to read "Lolita In Tehran." You didn't share the ayatollah's estimation of the novel, did you?

NAFISI: The ayatollah was such a bad reader...

SIMON: (Laughter).

NAFISI: ...Because he wanted to impose his own confirmed views on a book. And the book, as we talked about the poet, is an unruly one. It is not at all anti-Islam. It is anti a way of interpreting Islam because in the novel, those who show Islam in a bad light - the person who shows it is also a schizophrenic who is dreaming a world where it's ruled by what Rushdie calls Jahilia. And Jahilia means ignorance.

SIMON: Mmm hmm.

NAFISI: And before the prophet, they said that the city was ruled by ignorance, and the prophet comes and changes that to knowledge. So to accuse him of being anti-Islam is a mistake.

SIMON: Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale."

NAFISI: Yes.

SIMON: What did you see in her creation of the Republic of Gilead?

NAFISI: What impressed me so much about Atwood was not just - as she claims, she used all facts to shape her dystopian novel. And she shapes these facts in a way that you get the spirit, the atmosphere, of a totalitarian state. She makes it come alive for you so that when I experienced it, I simultaneously was experiencing my life at the Islamic Republic.

SIMON: Got to ask you about Baldwin. You were dazzled by James Baldwin.

NAFISI: Oh.

SIMON: Yeah.

NAFISI: I'm absolutely and unconditionally in love with Baldwin. He comes from a place of confidence. The uniqueness of Baldwin is that through appropriating the English language and English culture, he interpreted it in his own unique way. It was, by no means, uncritical. But at the same time, he believed that there is this realm of culture that is not just political but existential and that we all, as human beings, share this common humanity in the best and the worst sense of the word. His first novel was about an African American boy, but he said that it was only a gateway to becoming a universal writer. The second novel he wrote, his publisher told him, don't publish it, because it was about a white American man who was also gay. And they said, look; you're Black. You have a niche here. Don't give it up. And he said, I told them go something yourself, and I published in London.

SIMON: Yeah.

NAFISI: I empathize with that. When I came here, some people told me that you are a woman and you come from an Islamic majority country, so you can talk about those things only. And I said, you talk about those things. I want to talk about dead white males because literature is always, always about others. Whether we like those others or dislike them, we write about them, and we read about them. And if we believe in diversity genuinely, and if we believe in respect for the other, we do not confine ourselves to just ourselves. Come out of yourself, and join the other. That is the message of great novels.

SIMON: Azar Nafisi - her book, "Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power Of Literature In Troubled Times" - thank you so much for being with us.

NAFISI: Thank you so much. It's always such a pleasure talking to you, always. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE'S "TEZETA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.