Wedge of Allegiance

A&E2Azar Nafisi on American identity and misguided individualism

Sometimes it takes someone who chose to be a citizen to show us what’s important about the American experience. Azar Nafisi took the oath in 2008, after the release of her bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which told her story of teaching American literature to Iranian women at the risk (for everyone involved) of detention and torture.

In her new book, The Republic of Imagination, she takes on American literature in its own backyard, propelling us through works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Carson McCullers and James Baldwin, and reminding us that they too were rebels, who gave voice to the American Dream—and still do.

It’s not a dream about wealth creation, political dogma, or 15 minutes of fame, she argues. It’s about curiosity and wanderlust, our willingness to question ourselves and our sometimes spectacular willingness to fail. It applauds us for wrestling with our demons and forgives us for falling short, even as it demands that we do better.     

I spoke to Nafisi last week, in advance of her reading and talk Oct. 28 at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz.

Writers currently talk about our “cult of individualism,” as if we’ve turned a healthy pursuit into an affliction. How do you see the state of individualism in America right now?

AZAR NAFISI: What I see dominant today is the narcissistic type that claims it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You see it very much in corporate America, the way they talk about success in terms of money and greed. The books I write about argue that there is another side to American individualism. Take Huckleberry Finn. He’s the quintessential American hero, but he grows into a moral individual through his relationship to Jim. Jim’s companionship shows him how wrong it is to take away from a human being his choices, his children, his family. Because of Jim, Huck changes and makes a moral stand. I wanted to talk about how this is the kind of individualism we need, not the kind we see being talked about by a lot of our elite.

The book business is wrestling with individualism, too. Amazon has argued that readers are best served by looking out for their own interests, but in practice this seems to be narrowing our choices. What’s the best response to Amazon’s argument?

It’s not only the task of writers, publishers, librarians and retailers to define what the fate of books should be. Readers also have a responsibility. If their responsibility toward the act of reading and the world of imagination is simply moral comfort and to save a few dollars, we all lose. Amazon and e-books are here to stay, but our lives are not just based on efficiency and comfort. They’re also based on the enrichment of ideas, and for that you can’t have monopolies. Books need to be exchanged by people who love them, and those communities can’t disappear. Are we going to live our lives sitting in a room, ordering things? Humanity is about sensuality and connection.    

Connection seems like a challenge, since we so often self-segregate into groups that share our beliefs. How can literature bridge the gap between people who don’t see eye to eye?

The point of a democracy is to contain many different voices, and some of the most democratic places in the world are bookstores, libraries and museums. Because we live in a polarized society, we see irreconcilable differences rather than the fact that no matter who we are or where we come from, we share things that are universal. That’s what literature represents, the best of our common humanity. We can’t travel to every household or inhabit every culture, but we can understand them through great books and poems, music and art. It’s amazing how much we have in common, and much less amazing how different we are.

Azar Nafisi will be appearing at Peace United Church, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Tickets can be purchased online or in-person at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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