Reading _Reading Lolita in Tehran_ in North America

As usual, I am slow on the uptake, and so although this book was published 7 years ago and I wrote a reflective entry on it a year ago, I procrastinated on posting anything. I had wanted to write an entry on this after my term of being a TA for Women’s Studies, but other academic things got in the way. The first part of this entry is what I wrote immediately after I read it, and the second part is my reassessment and considerations after a year of more work and school. As I listened to the audiobook, some of my spelling may be off.

This is what I wrote right after I read it:

2 weeks or so ago, I got the audiobook for Reading Lolita in Tehran from the library, and I just wanted to see if it merits the praise and popularity it garnered – and also because Susan gave it t my mother for Christmas once, and it’s sitting on the shelf in PEI. So far, I’ve got the last 2 disks (out of 10) to go, and I need to rant about my reaction to it.

Before I start, I need to say that of all the books Nafisi mentions in relation to their lives in the Islamic Republic, I haven’t read any. Maybe this is a part of my reactions.

1) I don’t feel touched. The characters seem real to me enough, but I don’t feel bad for them like I should.

2) I find Nafisi petulant at times. This may not be justified because I haven’t lived through something like that, and I can’t say what changes to one’s character may result. I’ll come back to this later. But what I mean as “petulant” is…she seems to say these things about people, like how the “Little Great Gatsby” professor was someone who constantly worried about himself, and then the example she gives would be that he was worried about being sacked during the time of unrest. I find her statement unfounded. She paints him to be a bad person, but the example she gives seems like a natural worry to have. Also, her saying that the mediating woman professor was ambitious and used people – I find her criticism sort of coming out of nowhere. Yes, that professor tried to make people compromise, but there isn’t a clear connection between that and Nafisi’s statement about her intentions. she does say that it’s hard for her not to “pontificate” but I find that she takes her position to be able to pontificate for granted, like she has a right to criticize those around her and enjoys making fun of them on some level (eg calling the professor “Little Great Gatsby”). I’m not sure exactly where I get this impression from.

3) Not really about the book itslef, but about its literary/media context (got to than ENGD03 [course on Culture and media theory] again). A huge theme, and undertone, running in the book is the unfair censorship of…everything. That many works of the West are banned at Iran at that time. I feel like her book is involved in an equal but opposite problem. How many books, in the West, are from people in the Middle East who are praising such revolutions and praising components of religious fundamentalism? Yet these books which include within them a denouncement of Islamic and heavily religious-based societies are popularized in the West, translated. Same with Persepolis (btw, I never felt a moral superiority or petulance from Persepolis as I mentioned in 2)). although she may not have any control over the context her book is published in, it detracts from her arguements somewhat.

4) (really 2 b) – not just her characterization of individuals but also of organizations. People in revolutionary groups and extremist groups are pretty much always shown in a negative light, either character-wise or physically. Guards, students, etc…she accuses the government of being too black and white but I don’t feel like she gives much gray area either. I noticed this part also in Kingdom of Heaven. Some people said that this film was a fair treatment of Muslims and Christians, but some said it wasn’t — I thought it was pretty fair in a liberal humanist way, but then noticed that no one on the side who wanted war with Saladin was portrayed very well. It’s this sort of exclusive linking of character and ideology that I find disturbing.

On the whole, Nafisi’s narrative voice reminds me of a professor I had once, both positively and negatively – someone with a lot to say, a sharp and discerning mind, but seem to carry on a bit into the extreme ends when they’re trying to make their point.

5) Another thing was when I was reading about romantic relationships that Nafisi’s class was having. I think it was Nassrin, who called off her relationship with Ramin (sp?) because he differentiates between girls he respect and share intellectual life with and girls that he’s sexually attracted to. He categorized Nassrin with the former, and Nassrin felt that a fulfilling relationship should also have physical attraction. I agree with one point, that in a monogamic society he should not have a wandering eye to her sister and other women when in a relationship with her, but I have to disagree that wanting a relationship based on sharing intellectual life and respecting them is a wrong ground for a relationship. She and Nafisi seem to be suggesting that this is inadequate and part of the regime’s education, and on the one hand, it is – but I think it’s not as absolute as they portray it to be. Many of my friends and I struggle with the males in our society all the time because they cannot get past the bodies of women when assessing them for relationships, which is the opposite problem to women of Nassrin’s position. I think we would appreciate someone like Ramin who at least is willing to use other criteria.

6) another thing I started to think about when listening to the audiobook is the status of literature. I absolutely agree that literature gives people a way of looking that is “democratic,” as Nafisi states. But I disagree that literature should always appreciated as literature without becoming a model for actions. Specifically, she decries the regime for stating that Western literature spreads decadence, and hence censored many texts; her argument seems to be that they’re “just words” and have no power to make anyone decadent, even if they portray decadence in the first place. However, this seems to be at odds with her view that texts make people see the world democratically – isn’t that an impact of literature? So even if she disagrees on portrayals of decadence, it seems strange to disagree that words have power of reality and people’s actions.

A more pressing point is the relationship of literature to class and to Communism. I’m not saying that Nafisi disparages lower classes – in fact, the fact that she doesn’t make much distinction between classes or mentions much about it to me is a sign that ultimately she doesn’t even begin to discriminate based on class at all. But I do feel that her perspective on literature reflects a “bourgeoisie” sentiment. What I am saying is that books like Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran reflect the attitudes of only a certain group of Iranians (and this is perhaps a part of my ignorance too – I have a conception that there was a gap between intellectuals and non-intellectuals in terms of their reading in 70s and 80s Iran, and my assumption is based on this). The status ascribed to literature as a remedy to an oppressive regime only applies to well-read people who can use (probably not the best word, but I can’t think of a better one) literature this way. And partly, too, maybe those who don’t read James Joyce and Fitzgerald and so forth don’t have a problem with the regime, or not as much as a problem? I realise this could be a chicken or egg question – correlation or causation question. I’m not too clear on it either.

7) This brings me to a more personal note. I think that despite living in canada and educated by very open and Westernized parents, somehow I also espouse a lot of quasi-Marxist-Leninist values, probably from my brief schooling in China and the fun grade one readers featuring Lenin and so forth. I do believe that Western culture, under certain circumstances (especially rapid introduction to a country) can make people “decadent.” eg, the people I live with, rich Chinese kids who are using their parents money for their international tuitions, who throw perfectly good food away and take taxis to school even though it’s 15 minutes walk away – because their families have always lived well in a capitalist environment and never learned from poverty not to waste, or appreciate the work of production. I also believe that literature is not necessary to a society. This may be from years of my parents telling me that my chosen field of study is useless, but it’s not entirely…well…you can say that X major is useless because it’s useless to you personally or useless to society in general – and although my parents have used the former form of argument, I feel what’s really behind what they’re saying is the latter type of “useless.” Eg, “studying literature is selfish because you aren’t applying your abilities to the needs to society.” (I feel bad for my mother in a way, because I think she’s conflicted without knowing it, because her chosen work is a Scientist and the conflict has never been the crux of any vast decision she had to make; in the cultural revolution in China she pretty much had no options to choose anything related to humanities, because of the political atmosphere. Unlike me, because choosing my goal in careers is a vast decision, whereas societal pressure, direct and indirect, put my mother on the path of science without her having to agonize over her own principles. I feel that she’s conflicted because although she really is a ‘patron of the arts’ and loves music, literature, and painting, she still feels from her Communist training that these are extraneous and unnecessary pleasures.) and so I espouse also, partly, that literature and art are extraneous. So while they can give people a democratic outlook, by my way of thinking, democracy as most people conceive of it is a goal for an individualistic society and strongly only one class of that society. I’m personally torn between agreeing with Nafisi as pertaining to literature and not.

8) The book did me a great good, though, which is perhaps not the good that most women in the West would get out of it. Most females who are living in the West would probably feel good about not living in a society like the Islamic Republic because if they were, then they would be oppressed in many ways by many parts of society (family, community, government). for me though, I am glad I live in North America not because what would be done to me but because of what I would do. There is a part in the book where a revolutionary student and ex-soldier set himself on fire and ran down the halls. I wouldn’t go so far, I think, but I would probably be among either the women guards / inspectors who keep tabs on girls who break the laws, keeping them in jail and so forth, and maybe even torturing them, for the sake of maintaining a supposedly higher standard of morality. In such a society, I would become the fundamentalist, or one of the Marxists in the book, who are no better (I had previously taken on the fervour behind the Russian Revolution with admiration, and that was just reading about it).

My thoughts a year later:

Starting with 8): Last term I went through “feminist colonialism” with first year Women’s Studies students over and over again. This refers to the tendency of feminists in the Western world to assume superiority to societies that are seen as more “backward” and in need of “help.” I feel that the majority of Western readers would unknowingly and well-intentionedly take this stance when reading Reading Lolita in Tehran. I just read on the book’s Wiki entry that certain scholars attacked the book for being a propaganda tool for the Bush administration. If it is true that most women reading Nafisi’s book would feel a Western superiority (or at least Western relief), when I would have to agree with the criticism that Reading Lolita in Tehran is a propaganda tool.

HOWEVER. I took a somewhat mind-boggling Asian North American Literature course last term, in which we talked about the debates that went on within the Asian American community over Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. The book was contentious because some Asian American writers felt that it set forth descriptions of Asians (specifically Chinese) as misogynist, which would play into mainstream stereotypes against Asians and hence reinforce Orientalism and Western superiority. The general consensus among the class, other than maybe one or two people, seemed to be that one artist cannot be responsible for faithfully portraying a whole culture, and if she tried, she’s be upsetting someone somewhere down the line anyway, and it was up to readers to take the author’s words as only the author’s words and not representative of an entire culture. I feel both ways about this, as I did about the (over)reaction on the part of Iranian officials regarding the move 300, and didn’t say much. One thing I was thinking, though, was that if readers need to get to a point of reading critically, they need to be taught by writers to do so. So in some senses it is the writers’ responsibility.

How this relates to Reading Lolita in Tehran is that after thinking about this question a lot, I have to ask why academics attacking Nafisi for being a tool of the Bush administration are attacking her and not the Bush administration. If I have learned anything from graduate studies so far is to think beyond the one artist, to think big. My discomfort with the climate the book was published in (as I talked about in 3)) is part of this thinking big, and added to the debate on The Woman Warrior, I have resolved my discomfort – I take issue not with Nafisi but with the sociopolitical climate. In the Consumer Culture course that I am TAing for, we are talking about Identity and Community this week. In times of crisis, people tend to dig in their heels that much harder regarding the self and the Other. Nafisi’s book was caught up in this sort of entrenchment, but that does not devalue her criticisms against the regime in Iran, unless someone can prove that she actively and deliberately took advantage of the political climate, or jumping on the bandwagon. I would think it’s more the case that Nafisi has thought about this deeply and felt like she needed to voice her criticism since living in Tehran, but the political and publishing climate hasn’t allowed chances for her to voice them until post 9/11.

To conclude by expanding out from Reading Lolita in Tehran – It seems that recently many creative works have been caught up in the same sort of debates. I mentioned 300 already, which I felt was using stunning graphics and a heroic plot line to almost subliminally reinforce the difference between East and West. Another example is the films of Deep Mehta, such as Water and Heaven on Earth. One of my friends in the department criticized Water for showing a phenomenon that rarely happens anymore, which people watching would not know, and would just assume that India is a nation that oppresses women. As someone who feels more attached to my ethnicity than my gender, and as someone who still shares some values in Communist social responsibility, I mostly stand on the side of these “conservative” criticisms. I feel that artists cannot just be individualists pursuing individual visions – they should provide a context for their visions (though that is not to say that all literature has to be “useful” in a Social Realism / artistic skills for propaganda sense). The larger burden of providing the context is perhaps not, after all, the job of the artist, but those working with arts and literature, such as academics, curators, publishers, etc. After all, we talked about how Kingston did not want her memoir to be titled “The Woman Warrior,” and it being marketed as a memoir rather than fiction wasn’t something she had much control over.