Tuesday 31 May 2016

Devouring Books: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran hits so many of my personal hotspots and interests that it's difficult to know where to begin in reviewing it. Do I start with the feminism? Or do I dive into the fact that it's not only a memoir, but also a work of literary criticism, based around autobiography? Or do I recount the ways it reminded me of Persepolis, but also the ways it was even better than Persepolis?

I think, instead, I'll start with Margaret Atwood (bear with me). The cover of my copy has a quotation from Atwood, suggesting that this is a really good book. A general marketing ploy, of course, to get people who read Atwood's work to try a book by an 'ethnic' writer they might not be aware of, and I'm sure it definitely works on that level. However, the more I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, the more I was reminded of The Handmaid's Tale and how you read the latter thinking that women's freedoms could never be removed in such a way, and then read the former and understand that it has already happened, in Iran. I think it's really interesting that we (and by we, I'm really just speaking for myself) think of Iran as being incredibly oppressive and sexist towards its female citizens and that's how it's always been, when in fact this oppression is incredibly new, and in fact Persia, as Iran used to be, was previously one of the most advanced places for women to live in the world.

This kind of history becomes evident in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is memoir about a lot of things- about living through the Iranian revolution, and about living after it, and dealing with what is left behind for women. Nafisi recounts what living in Iran was like before the revolution, of her childhood considering her grandma almost a relic for wearing the veil, up to an Iran where wearing the veil is non-compulsory, and refusal to do so leads to either corporal punishment, and sometimes death. The memoir begins with Nafisi's story of the reading group she set up, having been fired from her university for general disobedience and not being a puppet of a woman, and it is made clear from this group that, although Nafisi can remember a time of freedom for women that is hard to shake, her students can only hear stories of those times, with no sense of what it is actually like to have personal freedoms. I found myself almost wanting to choose which was worse, but eventually decided that there was no point- both scenarios are terrible, and both to me seem unbearable.

Reading Lolita in Tehran would be good and interesting and immensely readable even without the literary criticism it contains, but with the literary criticism it becomes something else entirely. It makes complete sense that Nafisi, who is, after all, a doctor of English, should tell readers about her life through books, because in a certain sense, her life has been books. For this book, what it means is that we get solid literary criticism (from an Iranian, sometimes revolutionary perspective) about the works of Nabokov and Henry James, as well as a look at Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby and the ways in which they're relevant to life- to all lives, really. It's the kind of writing that made me rethink some of the ways I felt about The Great Gatsby, for instance, and made me want to read Invitation to a Beheading so badly that I ordered a fancy copy from Amazon only to find that I already had it on my shelves (the perils of a book hoarder!)

It didn't quite make me want to read James, but that's only to be expected because I have tried and I'm sorry, but I can't.

This book, then, is something of a reader's delight of a memoir, but it's also interesting in a historical sense and if you have any interest in feminism at all. I was gripped by it in a way I am not always gripped by non-fiction (even memoirs) and it made me want, in that dangerous, slippery slope sort of way, want to go back and just do a damn phD already, if only so that I could, maybe one day, write a memoir as good as this, with literary criticism as compelling and relevant to my life as Nafisi manages to make it to hers. If you care about history, if you care about revolution, if you care about feminism, if you care about books, you're probably going to care about Reading Lolita in Tehran quite a lot.


  1. OK so this book is clearly nothing like what I thought it was, since I failed to pay attention to the fact that it's called a memoir and figured it was a tear-jerker a la A Thousand Splendid Suns. Bu I care about feminism and books and history and revolution so HEY maybe I should read this one

    1. HEY you definitely should! It fully looks like the cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns so I see what your brain was doing there haha (I should read it? I definitely own it...)

      Anyway! Yes feminism and books and history, you will love it!