In the late '70s, a lifelong passion for reading literature became a political act for Azar Nafisi, author of the best seller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. When she finished graduate school in the U.S. and went back to her native Iran, she saw her country radically changed by Islamic fundamentalists, who used the revolution to gain increasing control over creative expression.
"After returning, living under conditions where every single pleasure of life that you take for granted is taken away from you, I realized how much I had depended upon [literature], without knowing it," says Nafisi. "You know, like your hands or eyes -- as long as you have them, you don't think about them. Once they're taken away from you, then you think, Oh my God, how can I continue living?' And so literature became the most important refuge or solace that I had."
Nafisi taught English literature at the University of Tehran during the turbulent, early days of the revolution, when campus life was defined by frequent protests, demonstrations and faculty expulsions. After it finally became law for all women to wear the veil in public, Nafisi refused to comply -- and lost her job.
Colored by literary discussion and an intimate account of friendships, dreams and fears, Nafisi's book describes the harrowing loss of personal freedoms for Iranian women, who became invisible under totalitarian rule, as well as the constant dread of the drawn-out Iran-Iraq war. Woven throughout are reflections on her final two years in Iran, when she defied the authorities and taught a private class to a special group of young women -- in secret, of course -- whose appreciation of forbidden texts by writers such as Jane Austen, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald was only heightened by the harsh circumstances of their lives outside Nafisi's cozy living room.
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita had a special resonance for the group. "Nabokov was really talking about the human situation where the biggest crime is confiscating another person's individuality, another person's reality, under any guise," says Nafisi. "And Humbert, like the clerics in Iran, is very seductive. He uses beautiful language, and he has great references to literature and philosophy, so we as readers are taken in by him. But the truth is that no matter how erudite and seductive you are, still you are not allowed to take someone else's life from them."
Nafisi left Iran in 1997, and admits that she never would have been able to write her memoir if she hadn't moved to the U.S. Now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Nafisi says Americans need to be supportive of people in other parts of the world who are fighting for freedom. "Americans and Iranians should have a genuine dialogue of culture, and we don't have to constantly talk politics," Nafisi says. "We can talk about all the great people who have added to imagination and thought and philosophy -- what makes life worth living."