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James Barcus “The Republic of the Imagination” A Lecture given by Azar Nafisi
Jandy Stone November 1, 2006
Professor Azar Nafisi is the author of the best-selling book Reading Lolita in Tehran, a captivating mixture of memoir, social history, and literary criticism set against the backdrop of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the fundamentalist ideology that has governed Iran since then. Nafisi earned her advanced academic degrees in the United States, but returned to her home country teach English literature in Tehran, until the radical Islamic government forced her out of her university position for her refusal to wear the veil. Undeterred, she gathered seven of her brightest female students to study “forbidden” books like Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James’s Daisy Miller, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in her home. She eventually decided to leave Iran and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
In her lecture, Dr. Nafisi spoke of the importance of the imagination as a place of freedom and equality, especially in the politicized modern world. Her vision of a
“republic of the imagination” is a space where people of all countries, religions, and political stances could gather and find that they really do have something in common, their humanity as revealed in the great literature of all cultures. Literature, paradoxically, is universal because it is particular—by focusing on the individual, literature highlights characteristics of human beings that allow the reader to empathize with the character, to walk in their shoes, and to form a connection with a situation or culture that they would not otherwise have been able to experience. The extreme forms of politics, on the other hand, generalize and dehumanize, emphasizing not what is universal among all humanity
ENG5304 Bibliography and Research Dr. James Barcus
Jandy Stone November 1, 2006
but the differences that separate one entire culture from another—hence misleading terms such as “The Muslim World” or “Christian Europe.”
Dr. Nafisi speaks exactly like she writes in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is to say, with a marvelous sense of her audience. She held a group of 200 professors, students, and laypeople for an hour, garnering both laughs and tears through her very witty, very human sensibility. References to recent events and media frenzies which often seemed off-the-cuff (I do not know whether they were or not) made the lecture current and relatable. She barely used any notes, and came across very conversationally. She even included points and references from the luncheon she had had earlier that day with some teachers and students. When she referred to her book, it was in a way that increased the saliency of her point for those who had read it, but did not leave those who had not read it in the dark. Her style of speaking really reinforced the points she was making, as well, as she made it very easy to empathize with her, and through her, with the horrors she saw before she left Iran.
At this point in my life, there are few people I would desire to emulate more than Dr. Nafisi. She is able to clearly indicate the importance of literature and the humanities in a world that no longer values them as highly as other disciplines, and she is able to do so in a way that appeals not only to academics and aspiring academics, but to anyone willing to listen to her.