Azar Nafisi's New Memoir Plumbs the Depths of Childhood Pain

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

As the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" was working on her new memoir, "Things I've Been Silent About," she found herself wondering whether she had written them in the wrong order.

"Maybe I should have written this one first and 'Reading Lolita' second," Azar Nafisi recalls thinking. "Because so many of the keys to that one are in this one."

On its face, this does not seem like a good idea.

After all, if the first book you publish in English gets ecstatic reviews, sells a bajillion copies and makes you an international spokeswoman for the power of literature in the face of oppression, the more logical question would seem to be: Why not let well enough alone?

Yet it's certainly true that Nafisi's second memoir, out this week from Random House, illuminates her first.

"Reading Lolita" told the story of the subversive two-year class that Nafisi conducted for a group of Iranian women, beginning in 1995, after she resigned a university position made untenable by Iran's theocratic regime. For two years, before she immigrated to the United States, Nafisi and her students created a sphere of private freedom, peopling it with the fictions of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and Henry James.

So how did she come up with her unusual survival strategy, combating the tyranny of the Islamic Republic through the secret sharing of stories she loved?

One key, as "Things I've Been Silent About" makes clear, is that she had been using shared stories to fight tyranny -- of a more private kind -- since she was 4 years old.

* * *

Nafisi sits for an interview in her comfortably cluttered office at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, her academic home for the past decade. Two hours into an animated conversation, it's hard to imagine her being silent about anything.

Her thoughts pour forth in a nonstop rush of talk, though she'll self-consciously urge you to interrupt if she goes on too long. An Iranian friend once described her as a shy person so passionate about literature that she "teaches with every cell in her body." Introducing her at a panel discussion last year, a Johns Hopkins colleague called her "grandly charismatic through the surprising mixture of resolve and self-doubt, intimacy and reserve."

Shyness. Self-doubt. Reserve. It's true that you can see these things in Nafisi today.

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