Banned Books, Metaphors, and Cultural Identity

28 Sep

Saturday marked the beginning of Banned Book Week. Here at LTWF we’re dedicating the whole week to awareness about banned books. We’ve got a lineup of fantastic articles, culminating in our announcement of our banned books-inspired book of the month for October on Friday. This coming Saturday we will post pictures of ourselves with our favorite banned books, and pictures that our readers send us. One lucky reader will even get a giveaway prize!

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What I learned from Azar Nafisi’s

READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Oppressive regimes, such as those in power in North Korea, China, and Iran, ban books.  This is a fact of which most literate citizens of the world are aware.  However, as a woman who has had the benefit of living all her life in the West, I was rather ignorant of the impact a seemingly apolitical book might have on those living in a society where the free exchange of ideas was suppressed as a dangerous evil.  I learned quite a bit about the power of what I and many of my friends might consider an “innocent” book – Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, for instance – and how access to such a book might feed the minds and fuel the souls of the many people who are subjects of governments that fear ideas.

 

Before I discuss Professor Nafisi’s memoir, let me say that I am not ignorant to the fact that my own society is home to many people who would limit my access to ideas they do not approve of.  Here in the United States, a professor in Missouri, as most readers of this blog are well aware, is campaigning to limit access to Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK, out of his misguided apprehension that it will corrupt the morals of young people.  I realize that the citizens of no country can let their guard down and assume that the flow of ideas is truly “free.”  We must all be vigilant.  I have, however, recently been enlightened by Professor Nafisi to the ways in which different books can take on widely different meanings in different cultures.  I have learned that a book that might be challenged in the United States because of its sexual content –Nabokov’s LOLITA, for instance – might contain a widely different message when read by women living under the repression of a government that would deny them not only the right to read the book LOLITA, but the right to read any book at all.

Azar Nafisi was a professor of literature at the University of Tehran at the time of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.  She was expelled from her position at the university in 1995 for refusing to wear the veil.  In 1997, she left Iran for the United States.  But during the two intervening years, Professor Nafisi taught clandestine classes in literature for a small group of students that met on Thursday mornings in her home.  The theme of the class was the relationship between fiction and reality.  They read Persian classical literature, as well as Western classics such as PRIDE & PREJUDICE, MADAME BOVARY, and THE GREAT GATSBY.  But LOLITA was the book that perhaps best demonstrates what the students and teacher came to discover in those intimate classes.

Why LOLITA?  Why LOLITA in Tehran?  Professor Nafisi endeavors to answer this question by quoting from Nabakov’s masterpiece.  This is from the scene where Humbert arrives at Lolita’s summer camp to bring her home.  Her mother has recently been killed in an accident that was, in a way, indirectly caused by Humbert himself.

“Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head… photographs of girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall (‘nature study’); the framed diploma of the camp’s dietician; my trembling hands…”

To many a Western reader, this brief description within this seemingly minor scene might go unnoticed.  But to Professor Nafisi and her students, it holds the key to the book.

Consider the butterfly, or is it a moth?  Humbert couldn’t care less.  The true nature of this creature, pinned to a wall, still alive, matters not at all.  He is indifferent to it, just as he is indifferent to Lolita’s mother’s death, and to Lolita’s own nightly sobs in the arms of her rapist and jailer, because, as Humbert says himself, “she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”

Some Western readers of LOLITA may find it to be a story of misplaced passion.  To others it may be a story of a little vixen who deserved what she got.  But to women living in Iran after the Islamic revolution, LOLITA is more than that.  It is the story of a man’s confiscation of a young girl’s life.

Nafisi writes,

“To reinvent her, Humbert must take from Lolita her own real history and replace it with his own, turning Lolita into a reincarnation of his lost, unfulfilled young love, Annabel Leigh… Yet (Lolita) does have a past.  Despite Humbert’s attempts to orphan Lolita by robbing her of her history, that past is still given to us in glimpses.  Nabokov’s art makes these orphaned glimmers all the more poignant in contrast to Humbert’s all-encompassing obsession with his own past… Like my students, Lolita’s past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else’s dream.

“At some point, the truth of Iran’s past became as immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of Lolita’s is to Humbert.  It became immaterial in the same way that Lolita’s truth, her desires and life, must lose color before Humbert’s one obsession, his desire to turn a twelve-year-old unruly girl into his mistress.

“When I think of Lolita, I think of that half-alive butterfly pinned to the wall… Humbert fixes Lolita in the same manner that the butterfly is fixed; he wants her, a living breathing human being, to become stationary, to give up her life for the still life he offers her in return…

“That is how I read LOLITA.  Again and again as we discussed LOLITA in that class, our discussions were colored by my students’ personal sorrows and joys… And more and more I thought of that butterfly; what linked us so closely was this perverse intimacy of victim and jailer.”

LOLITA has always been one of my favorite books, but I have never seen it as a metaphor for the oppression of a totalitarian regime.  Not until now, that is.  Professor Nafisi’s memoir of the study of literature in a secret class in the Islamic Republic of Iran has opened my eyes, not only to the various possible interpretations of LOLITA, but to the innumerable ideas that can be contained in a single book.

Banned Book Week has made me feel, in turns, frustrated, angry, and, finally, motivated.  Motivated to be vigilant.  To guard against any threat to the free exchange of ideas.  And for this motivation, I owe a sincere debt of gratitude to Professor Azar Nafisi and her brave students in Iran.

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.

 

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10 Responses to “Banned Books, Metaphors, and Cultural Identity”

  1. Meagan Spooner September 28, 2010 at 12:33 AM #

    Wow. Lolita is one of my favorite books as well, and I’ve never ONCE read it that way. Now I’m wondering how that’s even possible, that I never saw it like that–although I’ve never been accused of reading too much into literature. I’m often a bit too literal-minded. But now I’m sitting here, staring at the computer screen and gaping like an idiot.

    I’ve never been one to read memoirs in the past but this post has definitely gotten me interested. Absolutely fantastic post, Julie. My favorite one yet.

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 28, 2010 at 7:17 AM #

      Thank you so much for the compliment, Meagan! I’m not much of a reader of memoirs myself, but this one is a book that, once you pick it up, you can’t put it down. One thing I must point out is that Professor Nafisi discusses many different classics throughout her story, and each one is viewed through the lens of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It is truly an amazing journey! Read the book; you won’t regret it. Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. kaemccrae September 28, 2010 at 1:45 AM #

    Wonderful post. : ) And I agree with Meagan, this is one of my favorite posts on this site yet. Very compelling!

    And I, of course, also have a love of Lolita – all the better, for this topic. Thoroughly intriguing, and enlightening.

    (It’s late, I’m very sick, and my fingers are getting the better of an overeager vocabulary, apparently. Ahaha.)

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 28, 2010 at 7:20 AM #

      Thank you so much, Kae! Lolita is such a wonderful book, and I think that makes it such a strong choice to open Professor Nafisi’s story, since most of us in the West feel connected to the book and feel like we really “know” what it’s about. Thanks for commenting on the post, and I hope you feel much better soon! 🙂

  3. Savannah J. Foley September 28, 2010 at 12:52 PM #

    Ever since I saw the intro to Lolita quoted on a website for great beginnings, I knew I had to read it. The description of saying her name, and the tongue descending the roof of the mouth as if on stairs stuck with me for years. I think it’s a lovely metaphor to translate to womens’ struggles in Tehran.

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 28, 2010 at 2:55 PM #

      Hi Savannah! You are so right about that opening! It’s even more amazing when you realize that English was Nabokov’s second language! (Although I believe he learned English at home from a very young age. NOT that that fact should take away from his genius.) He is one of my favorite authors and seeing LOLITA through the eyes of the women in Nafisi’s class has made me appreciate the book even more. Thanks so much for commenting! 🙂

  4. Kat Zhang September 28, 2010 at 5:48 PM #

    I, sadly, have never read LOLITA. I keep telling myself I will, and somehow I keep forgetting to do it! Thanks for reminding me once again that I need to read this book! It sounds absolutely fascinating, and I have no idea why I keep forgetting about it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 28, 2010 at 6:38 PM #

      Hi Kat! No worries; all of us have classics that we haven’t gotten to for one reason or another, and you’re still young enough to have an excuse for not having read all major works of Western lit! I think it’s kind of cool that you read this post before reading the book, because now you’ll have a chance to consider the story through multiple lenses. I’m probably going to re-read it myself to see if it feels different to me now. 🙂

  5. jenn fitzgerald September 29, 2010 at 12:49 AM #

    Great post, Julie! I’d heard about Reading Lolita in Tehran but now you’ve made me want to go pick up a copy! It’s always amazing to see how people can read books in such different ways and take completely different messages from them.

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 29, 2010 at 12:56 AM #

      Thanks Jenn! I had also heard a lot about Professor Nafisi’s memoir, but I made ill-informed assumptions about it. I figured it would focus on censorship, not on the variations of meaning books can have. It really is a fascinating book! And you’ll be pleased to know that one of the books Professor Nafisi discusses is PRIDE & PREJUDICE! 🙂

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