Review: Read Dangerously; The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times by Azar Nafisi
Written as a collection of letters to her dead father, Azar Nafisi’s new book exhorts authors and readers to write and read outside their comfort zones
Azar Nafisi, bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, recounted how reading an “offensive” book with her students in the Islamic Republic of Iran posed a social threat because the act -- much like Socrates being accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by the use of sophistry -- was an affront to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s repressive regime. In such a milieu, the “deviant” characters in Vladimir Nabakov’s unique story – “the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac” – and the prospect of the reader herself being seduced by a sociopath, posed a threat to order. Indeed, reading books like Lolita, The Great Gatsby and other classics against the backdrop of morality squads and executions, and sharing “subversive” ideas with eager students needed raw courage.
The epigraph of Nafisi’s latest book, Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Books in Troubled Times draws from Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.” Danticat spent the first 12 years of her life in Haiti under the dictatorship of both Papa and Baby Doc. She was therefore eminently qualified to speak on what it means to be an artist from a country in crisis.
Nafisi’s book is a string of letters to her dead father beginning with the bloody November 2019 protests that rocked the Islamic Republic of Iran and ending with the protests over the killing of George Floyd in America during the summer of 2020. The book is curious because, even if the correspondence is fictional, the letters are based on real events. Drawing from Tzvetan Todorov’s 1991 book Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (that reminds us that “telling and reading the story might not change the dire reality, but it makes us understand that reality, and it gives meaning to our lives, no matter how horrendous those lives have become”), Nafisi does not want writer and reader to shy away from reality: “Remember everything, and tell it, not just to fight against the camps but so that, having left something behind, our lives will have had some meaning.” To forget is a sacrilege for “only total oblivion calls for total despair.” Nafisi’s strong pitch for the transformational power of literature is a call to poets and writers to write (and read) outside their comfort zones.
The old art of letter-writing (If we go by the Sumerian storytellers, the world’s first written text was a letter), the epistolary novel, verse letters, and the letter-writing manual have all thrived. Letters were also popular reading material in the 18th century with compendia of letters often becoming best sellers. These could be fictional, real, fictional-presented-as-real and came in all sorts of variations – as love letters, letters of the famous, travellers’ tales and letters of intrigue.
Nafisi seeking moral guidance through letters to her father, who is no more, is reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, where the central character, a young girl, asks her father what she should do about her master’s attempts on her virtue.
Nafisi’s choice in her list of subversive books begins with her first letter documenting what happened with the works of Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses), Plato (The Republic) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451). “Three decades may have passed,” Nafisi writes, “but the issue at the core of the fatwa – the hostility of tyrants to imagination and ideas – is as relevant as ever. And it is relevant not only in dictatorial societies like Iran but in democracies like America as well.” “Great works of literature – works that are truly dangerous – question and expose that dictatorial impulse, both on the page and in the public space,” Nafisi writes, and that’s exactly what puts such writers at great risk, a fact reconfirmed by the recent attack on Rushdie in New York. That the edict against Rushdie was issued from Iran rankles Nafisi: “Had such an edict against a writer been issued anywhere other than my homeland, I would have taken it hard and personally. But the fact that it was delivered by Ayatollah Khomeini, in Iran, made it even harder and more personal.” “A book cannot be killed,” commented Moroccan writer Nadia Tazi on the censorship of Rushdie’s book: “It lives and dies on its own”.
Nafisi’s second letter deals with Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison who wrote on race, gender and oppression, while her third dwells on David Grossman, Elliot Ackerman, and Elias Khoury who exposed “the dehumanization and hatred that are intrinsic parts of war” (Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga). Her fourth letter discusses Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a military dictatorship in a fictional, dystopian land known as the Republic of Gilead, a future space that occupies the land formerly known as America. In many ways, post-Trump America looks no better than either Gilead or Khomeini’s Iran. The fifth, and the final, letter is as much a glowing tribute to James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates as it is to their craft of letter writing, and to the bond she shares with her departed father. In the context of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Between the World and Me by Coates, the story of his own awakening to the truth about history and race through a series of epiphanic experiences written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, touches a universal chord.
Nafisi’s book is perhaps an act of individual soliloquy between a daughter and a father and between the dead and the living. At times, though, her letters read more like a literary essay. The tone is stiff when she quotes her father to himself and when she is self-referential (“When I was writing about Baldwin in The Republic of Imagination…”) and sometimes it appears as though she is speaking to her father from a pulpit (“Dear Baba, I want to tell you about Baldwin’s novel Another Country, from 1962”). But in personal recollections, for instance, of one of her students, Razieh, who belonged to the mujahedeen, an Islamic organization opposed to the Islamic regime and who “talked of Henry James and Catherine Sloper (the protagonist of his novel Washington Square) was taken out one night and executed”, her letters ring true.
“Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, The Proust of the Papuans?” asked Saul Bellow, “I’d be glad to read them.” At a time when creative artists in India are either embedded or too afraid to speak out, Nafisi’s book might encourage individuals to offend sensibilities, and ask hitherto unasked questions despite the costs. This is imperative because, as Nafisi rightly warns us, a pain-averse milieu cannot produce great literature.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is an independent writer. He lives in Kolkata.