Few of us in the United States can imagine risking our reputations, our jobs or our lives to read the likes of "The Great Gatsby," "Daisy Miller" or "Pride and Prejudice." But if you finish "Reading Lolita in Tehran," it's doubtful that you'll read another book quite the same way again.
Azar Nafisi's memoir about the book group she facilitated in Iran, filtered through the lens of Western classics, reads like an intellectual underground thriller. As each member of the professor's carefully selected book group arrives in her home each Thursday morning and removes her veil, the women's endangered inner worlds are brought to light.
"One aspect of this book -- an important aspect, because I'm obsessed with this idea is the idea of choice," says Nafisi, who lost her job at the University of Tehran in 1981 for refusing to wear her veil in the classroom. "No matter what kind of place we find ourselves in life, we have a choice, and that is the choice of the attitude we take."
As Nafisi and her students cull rich and varied interpretations of the world through Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" offers Western readers a feel for what it's like to live behind the veil of the Iranian regime that watching the news never will.
"Through books you find a universal language in which to connect. Books dissolve boundaries. We live in a world today where so many limitations are set upon us nationality, religion, et cetera but books create this universal space. Everything is so polarized today. I hope the message or the gift from my book is that it's not just in repressive societies that you come up with the need for compassion, thought and imagination. I hope that it will connect people."
Her next memoir, "Things I Have Been Silent About," due for publication this year, is much more personal, Nafisi says. "When my mother died, family became the microcosm of the whole world. It started with what I had lost by not connecting to her and the context within which that took place. It's the ways in which we impose fictions on reality."
Nafisi has lived in the States since July 1997 and teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Unsure whether she'll ever return to Iran, she feels that, for her, it "will always be a portable world." A world that she can travel widely, through the vast world of literature.
"When it comes to books, I am very promiscuous," Nafisi says, laughing. She can't go to sleep without reading, but keeps herself up at night, compelled to keep turning the page. "Reading is one place we can allow ourselves to be promiscuous."
Azar Nafisi will be the keynote speaker at the WomanKind conference at St. James's Episcopal Church Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. For more information or tickets to the event (Feb. 16-18), visit www.doers.org or call 794-6700. Pre-registration is required by Feb. 8. Tickets for Friday night are $55; Saturday, $80; both days, $100.