January 2009

Azar Nafisi

Silent no more: recalling life in Iran
Interview by
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In her beloved and powerful memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi wrote about using literature as a source of strength while she lived under the oppressive government of Iran. Now she returns with a new memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, in which she opens up even more about her life, from her complex relationship with her mother to how she survived long-ago sexual abuse.

Honest, introspective and at times painfully direct, Things I’ve Been Silent About is a compelling follow-up memoir, one that exposes the cost of family secrets. Nafisi recently talked with BookPage about her decision to open up her life to millions of readers.

You are incredibly honest in your memoirs, which is all the more striking since discussing personal experiences is considered taboo in Iran. How has your family reacted to the very personal details you reveal about life in the Nafisi family and in Iran?
My family has been very supportive. This does not mean that they do not have their anxieties and reservations, but they, specially my immediate family, have been considerate of my work and me to such an extent that I often went to them to seek encouragement and consolation. My brother has been amazing. I know how difficult this has been for him, but he provided me with information, with photos and documents, without interfering in the story in any way. 

As the title suggests, you write honestly about a lot of painful experiences in Things I’ve Been Silent About, including the sexual molestation you suffered as a child. What made you decide to share this and how difficult was it to write about?
At first I avoided writing about this and other painful events in my life; this was almost instinctive, perhaps from a desire to protect myself. But while an author is and should be in control of her book, every book, like a child, has a life of its own; it will also bring in its own rules and norms. The events I chose to talk about were the ones that were most pertinent to the main themes of my book. I have avoided mentioning individuals and incidents that were not integral to my story and this one was such an integral part of the story. One of the main themes of this book focuses on victims and authority figures, on ways through which we do or do not overcome our victimhood and the choices we make in relation to it. This event was in many ways crucial to the development of these themes, not just in personal terms—it resonated on so many different levels, cultural, social as well as universal.

You write, "If at home I was subdued into compliance, at school I quickly developed a reputation as a difficult child." How much of your childhood self do you see in yourself now?
That self for better or for worse is still alive and kicking—in some ways I remain a "problem child!" Looking back, more than anything I was reacting to authority figures, and although now those figures have changed, my reaction to authority and authority figures has in some ways remained much the same. I am instinctively suspicious of them, especially when it comes to political authorities and ideologies. On some level I believe with John Locke that "All authority is error." I don’t mean we do not need a system that helps create and maintain order or one that holds us all accountable, but I am wary of people and systems that try to take away your power of questioning. I believe now my reactions are not as impulsive as they were in my childhood, they are more measured and I hope I have learned to base my life not on reaction to others, be they authority figures or not, but on my own actions.

You’ve written, "I left Iran in 1997, but Iran did not leave me." Do you think you’ll ever return there?
Well, every time I write or talk about Iran, I feel that I have returned. When I was physically in Iran there were so many restrictions that I, like some others, tried to act as if we lived somewhere else. But to return to your more direct question: I do expect to return for visits if for nothing else. I consider that my natural right.

Newsday said Reading Lolita in Tehran "reminds us of why we read in the first place." Why do you read?
I read for the same reason that I write: I cannot help myself. It is like falling in love, there must be a number of reasons why one falls in love, but when it comes to explaining them, one can feel tongue-tied. I think the basis for both reading and writing is a sense of curiosity, the desire to know, to go places where you have never visited before. There is a sense of incomparable freedom and liberation in our ability to respond to this urge.

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