'Lolita in Tehran' Author Goes 'Silent' Azar Nafisi, the Iranian author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, has a new memoir out Tuesday called Things I've Been Silent About. She discusses the domineering presence of her mother and her relationship with her father, a former mayor of Tehran under the Shah.
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'Lolita in Tehran' Author Goes 'Silent'

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'Lolita in Tehran' Author Goes 'Silent'

'Lolita in Tehran' Author Goes 'Silent'

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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Iranian professor and author Azar Nafisi wrote the bestselling memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran." She wrote about trying to teach under the conservative Islamic rules imposed after the 1979 revolution. She was eventually forced out of the University of Tehran. She then held private, secret classes, and one of the books she taught her small group of mainly female students was Nabokov's "Lolita," a book about transgression, among other things. Azar Nafisi has a new memoir out now. It's called "Things I've Been Silent About." Welcome back to Day to Day.

Dr. AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Things I've Been Silent About," "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): It's great to be back. Thank you.

BRAND: Why did you decide to write another memoir?

Dr. NAFISI: Well, you know, to tell you the truth, I didn't decide.

(Laughing) I was all against it, in fact.

I was - I had it all planned that after I finish writing "Reading Lolita in Tehran," I will write a book that I had in mind for a long time called "Republic of Imagination," which was about this subversive role of imagination, you know, in terms of our political and social life. And then, as I was writing the acknowledgements to "Reading Lolita in Tehran," my mother died. And I had always been sort of obsessed with her and my own relationship with her, but her death threw me into a state of panic. And I started thinking about her and about our own relationship and how could I retrieve her in some way, now that she was forever gone. And then a year after my mother's death in December 2004, my father died. And after that, memories kept leaping out and I was drawn to begin at that personal moment when I became conscious of them and then put that within the historical context.

BRAND: Now, your mother is a huge, huge part of your book. She dominates, really...

Dr. NAFISI: Yes.

BRAND: Your book, and it sounds like she dominated your life, or much of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: She did for a long time, yes.

BRAND: What was your relationship like with her when you were a child?

Dr. NAFISI: From the moment that I can remember, the relationship was a very paradoxical one. On one hand, she was very loving and attention-giving. On the other hand, she was also very domineering. I mention, I think, in my book that I said, she was in the perfection business, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: And she wanted me, especially because I was the girl and I was the first born, she wanted me to be perfect in everything. There was no pleasing her ever, and I felt that she kept wanting to shape me according to the image she had of what she wanted to become.

BRAND: You write a very, very poignant line I found in your book, where you say simply, I was perhaps her greatest disappointment. Now, that is quite something to say and quite something to feel, that you are your mother's greatest disappointment.

Dr. NAFISI: I felt that way, sometimes the way she looked at me. But you know, writing this book, I also discovered her vulnerability, that despite her domineering personality, she suffered all her life from a lack, her own mother having died when she was so very young; her first husband, with whom she was so much in love on the first night of their wedding, discovering that he was going to die of a disease that he had never told her about before their wedding. And she always wanted to be a public woman, an independent woman, and that dream was never fulfilled. So, I realized how much she tried to invest in me. And that put a great burden on me, but in some ways, she gave a lot in order for me to become independent and to fulfill her dream in a sense. So, finishing this book, I feel maybe I was not as much as a disappointment as I sometimes feel I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And where was your father in this, in all this? I mean, you write in your book that you were very, very close with him. And I'm just wondering, you have this very intense, tortured relationship with your mother...

Dr. NAFISI: Yeah.

BRAND: And where is your father?

Dr. NAFISI: In many ways, he was almost the exact opposite of her. He was very tender and very gentle. I mention in my book - and I still have that diary he wrote when I was about four years old, where he addresses it to me as his confidant. Obviously, at the age of four, I could not really play that role, but that is the role he cast for me, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: Which was much slyer than my mother's, because my mother was upfront, but my father, by rallying me as his confidant, also made me complicit, sort of creating a front against mother. But also, he was the first person to tell me stories and to show me that other world of imagination, where I could genuinely be free and in control. And so, that part of the relationship with my father is what sort of has remained for me unblemished. And all of his life, his dream was to have a happy family...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: Life something that he never really fully achieved with my mother or even later. But that was his dream and that was where he failed.

BRAND: Hmm. And he was the mayor of Tehran for a little bit and was imprisoned for several years.

Dr. NAFISI: Yes, yes. Both my parents were very politically conscious, and we come from a family where a great many of them were public figures, and my father was sort of a rising young man, and he became actually the youngest mayor of Tehran at the age of 42. And...

BRAND: And this was under the shah.

Dr. NAFISI: That was under the shah, and that was at a very critical period when the shah was implementing, what, his so-called reforms, the White Revolution, it became famous, known as. And that was the time when also they gave the rights to women to not only vote, but you know, enter the parliament. And so, my mother was one of the first women who went into the parliament. And my father was very, very much devoted to his work. He absolutely loved it, but he was a terrible politician, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: He would not sort of enter any form of compromise or speak the political language, and he was very proud of this sort of rebellious aspect of him. But he also paid a big price for it. He was in jail from the winter of 1963 until 1968, and that was a big price.

BRAND: How did that affect you and your political consciousness or your sense of your place in Iran?

Dr. NAFISI: Well, my father's jailed especially, but also the way my parents were, always made me feel politically suspicious of whoever was in power.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. NAFISI: You know, and I think that I have kept that in a sense. And to be politically active, not in the sense of wanting to ever myself become part of any political group or clique, but there were certain values, certain principles, that became very important. And I felt that that is the main thing, not to compromise those principles, not to be, as my father used to say, not to be ashamed of yourself. But it's really, really, I think, changed my world forever. I could never ever again trust anything. If my father, who, one moment was one of the most popular mayors Tehran ever had - I was in Switzerland at the time, and you know, we would see his picture with General De Gaulle in Paris Match, or with the king of Denmark, with the chancellor of Germany; you know, he seemed to be top of the world - and the next moment almost, he would be in jail. If that could happen so easily, then I realized that anything could happen and you cannot trust at least the political life.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Azar Nafisi, coming up, we continue our discussion. She talks about the sexual abuse she had been silent about and how that influenced her view of Nabokov's novel "Lolita."

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: There's more coming up after this.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Back now with Day to Day and our conversation with Iranian author Azar Nafisi. I spoke with her about her new memoir.

The title of your book is "Things I've Been Silent About," and one of those things that you've been silent about until now was being sexually abused at a very young age. You were six years old, when a cleric who was visiting your house molested you, and you allude to other men also abusing you later. How did you come to terms with that, and how are you able to write about it?

Dr. NAFISI: He was not a cleric; he was a very religious man.

(Laughing) He was maybe worse than some clerics actually.

You know, after writing this book, I realized that there are many things in life that you do not necessarily come into a closure, but you can confront them and understand them. And in confronting and understanding it, the pain becomes more tolerable. You can turn the pain into something positive. What happened, that molestation and others that you mentioned, for a very, very long time made me, again, ashamed of myself because, -of course, I really don't think that I should have felt that way because I was so very young. I feel much more ashamed of having married when I was in my late teens to a man I did not love, because I think that I had a choice there. But when I was young, I did not have a choice.

And to tell you the truth, I still feel so very, very sorry for that little girl, you know, for her utter helplessness. And that has made me really empathize with children and with situations where human beings become like children in terms of becoming utterly helpless. If anything good came out of that incident, was realizing that you need to empathize with these situations, and you need as much as it is in your power to try and prevent such things happening, not just child molestation, but being put in a position where you have no choice.

BRAND: I mean, it's interesting that your previous book was ostensibly about the book "Lolita."

Dr. NAFISI: Yeah, you're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Well, I'm just wondering, I mean, do you see yourself personally in Lolita?

Dr. NAFISI: I must have. This is very strange. Yes, I must have, because you know, a lot of people, especially women, tell me that they can't read "Lolita;" it hurts them so much, you know? And sometimes I think they feel that maybe too much credit has been given to Humbert Humbert, and that's what makes it intolerable. To tell you the truth, from the very first time I read "Lolita," my sympathies were so much with Lolita. I completely understood what she was going through, the fact that she had to comply, but she was so hopeless and helpless, and in her own very tender way, she tried to carve out a life for herself which was completely different from the life that Humbert Humbert have forced her into.

So, I think that I realized at least - and I don't know, people have different experiences and reactions - but I had a soft spot because I knew that this book is not a celebration of pedophilia. It is not just a condemnation of that act, but it goes beyond that and it condemns all acts where we impose ourselves upon another human being. And of course, the sexual act becomes the most symbolic. And I wanted to give voice to this not because this happened with a religious man or not because it happened in Iran. As I mention in my book, this could happen anywhere in the world. This is not an Iranian or a Muslim problem; this is just a human problem. And it becomes symbolic of so many other cruelties that we impose or inflict upon one another in life.

BRAND: You write that through fiction, it's possible to turn anguish into a thing of beauty, and certainly Nabokov did that with "Lolita." I'm wondering if you accomplished that, do you think, with this memoir. Have you turned your own personal anguish and sorrow into something that you can now say is beautiful?

Dr. NAFISI: You know, it would be very difficult for me to say that. Definitely that is what one as a writer would hope. But it would - this is the place where the writer is helpless, because the readers would decide whether you have done that or not. But that was my aim partly. I felt that you see, with writing, you impose a form of harmony upon the chaos of life, and with writing, you make all those moments that are so fleeting enduring. So, you're sort of challenging the transience and fickleness of life. And there is always an enduring aspect to beauty; it is both transient in real life and enduring in art. And I hope I have been able to have enough distance from my own personal experience to also achieve some beauty. But I can tell it in Nabokov or Zora Neale Hurston...

(Laughing) Far easier than I can tell it about myself.

BRAND: Well, I think you have.

Dr. NAFISI: Thank you, thank you.

BRAND: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, and it's been a great pleasure.

Dr. NAFISI: It's been a great pleasure talking to you, too, and I hope I will listen to your program forever and ever.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Azar Nafisi. Her new memoir is called "Things I've Been Silent About." It's available in bookstores tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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