A Life Well Read – Progressive.org

In October 2016, the two nations to which Azar Nafisi belonged were in critical condition.

His native Iran was brutally suppressing widespread protests while his adopted country, the United States, was about to elect a psychopath as president. So she decided to write a letter to her father, Ahmad Nafisi.

Azar’s father, whom she calls Baba jan, had died twelve years earlier. A former mayor of Tehran, he spent four years in the 1960s in an Iranian detention center for “political reasons” before being cleared of all charges. She poured her thoughts into this letter, and many others that followed. read dangerously continues the conversation Nafisi wants to have about “the subversive power of literature,” as the book’s subtitle suggests. It’s a theme she also explored in her 2003 bestseller, Read Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Bookswhich recounted her experience of teaching a private literature course for young women in Iran, using a curriculum that included not only Nabokov’s book lolita but also One Thousand and One Nights, Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice.

In read dangerously, Nafisi presents the letters she wrote to her deceased father from late 2019 to mid-2020. Here, the reading shelf includes works by James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“You, Baba jan, would love this book,” she wrote of Rushdie’s satanic verseswhich led to a fatwa issued against the author. “It’s not about comforting clichés, but about ideas that question, disturb and attempt to change the world, which makes not only writing but also reading it so dangerous.”

Literature, in Nafisi’s world, is inherently subversive. “What other choice does the king have than to drive the poets and storytellers out of his republic? she asks at one point. “And what other choice does the poet have if not to destabilize the power of the philosopher king by speaking the truth?

Nafisi compares the rise of Donald Trump to that of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran: Trump “has figured out how to captivate the media, and use their obsession with him to his advantage”. Khomeini “also mesmerized people with his talk about God and spirituality.” She also reflects on “what Trump shares with the leaders of the Islamic Republic: cruelty, incompetence and a reckless disregard for the lives of the citizens of his country.”

Writing about Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their eyes looked at God, shares Nafisi, “You, Baba jan, with your sensitivity against racism, you would have appreciated Hurston. Instead of presenting a generalized portrait of African Americans as victims, I believe she wanted to rescue them from the stereotypes imposed on them and restore the individual dignity and humanity that slavery and racism had robbed them of.

One of the remarkable things about read dangerously is the extent to which Nafisi’s father emerges as a dynamic, fully developed character, years after his death. She effortlessly resurrects her intellectual presence, as when she writes, of David Grossman’s 2008 novel, To the end of the country, “Baba jan, I can almost hear you say, ‘But the fictional facts that create Grossman’s novel are as important as the real facts.’ And you’d be right, because in fiction, as in reality, we need to experience the “facts” – in this case, through our imaginations – in order to understand them.”

The book repeatedly cites the example of Baba jan who seeks to understand and not just condemn his oppressors, so as not to follow in their footsteps. “The more they dehumanize us,” writes Nafisi, “the more we have to humanize them.” In discussing James Baldwin – whose landmark 1962 essay, “A Letter to My Nephew”, she notes, was first published in The progressive magazine” – Nafisi muses: “I feel like Baldwin’s writings have lit up my inarticulate anger, reassuring me that my experiences in the Islamic Republic have a universal context.

read dangerously lives up to its bold title, demonstrating the subversive and transformative power of literature. This should spark many book-based conversations between the living and the dead.

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