Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a masterful work of non-fiction exactly because it intersects so movingly with works of fiction. If the book were written as a standard autobiography it more than likely would have focused on names, dates, and strictly adhered to a rigid chronology. Reading Lolita in Tehran, however, is not a standard work of non-fiction; it crisscrosses several genres, and in so doing places itself apart from other works of non-fiction as a memorable, personal, and moving book.
The element which makes Reading Lolita in Tehran so unique, its literary criticism and exploration, is also the element which threatens to make it the most inaccessible to readers. Nafisi's commentaries on Nabokov, James, Austen, among others, are thoughtful and at times esoteric, at least for the non-literary crowd. I haven't read Nabokov, which actually was a barrier of entry for me to actually pick up Nafisi's book. There were only a few pages in the book in which I felt like an uninvited guest, as if I had stumbled into a literature class and had no idea what everyone was talking about. The feeling evaporated quickly, though. Luckily, Nafisi spends a lot more time weaving the ideas of her favorite literature into a social commentary of living in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is gripping. It's so hard for me to visualize a place which is so oppressive, especially in regards to some of the smallest and most petty behaviors--a strand of hair out of place, painted fingernails, pink socks. It's unfathomable living in a society which in many ways flaunts sexuality. The insights gained from reading this book are priceless. It's hard to not see people in a nation as one homogeneous group. Reading this book gives the reader a perspective on individuals rather than on national or global events, although there are some allusions to them but it's always in the context of what it does to individuals; what is it like to be a woman in Iran? What does frustration look like for them? What are their passions and interests? And how are they suppressed both by the regime and by their own complicit actions? The book offers glimpses and reflections that are both inspiring and disheartening.
When I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan I kept thinking to myself: "Why would anyone stay there? Why not pack up your things, your family, and your pride and leave?" Reading Lolita in Tehran is another testament to the power of the idea of home. Even with the nearly unendurable hardships faced by people in Iran, most of them stay. They want to reform their home if it's broken, not abandon it. Deciding to leave an oppressive State may not be as easy as we would like to believe. There is a loyalty which seems to grow in people for their homeland, hometown, whatever. This hearkens back to the importance of fiction and literature so as to understand places that are not your homeland and people who are not a part of your tribe. The small group of women who were a part of Nafisi's reading group show how fiction can impact the heart and the mind but may or may not motivate the feet.
I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran as much for its commentaries on fiction and literature as I did for its commentary on the Islamic Republic of Iran. There are dark places and dark people in the world we hope we only have to visit and meet in fiction, but there are a lot of people who live and try to thrive in a world which should be fictional, at least from my sheltered perspective, where the great debates of humanity are the most brutal and bloody. (Azar Nafisi's book is also a great reminder that freedom can be lost anywhere regardless of a nation’s current strength, past successes, or its longitude or latitude). I would classify Reading Lolita in Tehran as a sticky book; in other words, the subject matter, the experiences, and the words stick with you; they linger with you and inevitably affect you. They certainly did me.
Other Topics of Interest:
Why I Read
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories
3 Rules of Book Etiquette