No book could be more apt to get me back on my writing horse than Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. While my reading challenge has continued unabated, my personal writing has come to a grinding halt. But Nafisi, as a professor of literature, was the perfect writer to inspire me to get back to my own work.
She not only looped me back into my writing, but her book served as something of a companion and a teacher. As she shared her passion for Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen with her students, so I read along with them. But truthfully, also as a way to avoid spoilers.
I’d read The Great Gatsby before, but never Lolita. It was the first book I read in conjunction with Nafisi’s, followed – by the time I reached Part IV – by Pride and Prejudice. I have watched two adaptations of the book, so I vaguely knew the story, but I relished the chance to explore the book alongside Nafisi.
Although Nafisi has lived in the U.S. for over two decades now, this book is solely set in Tehran, as the title suggests, marking it as the book for the Iranian leg of my reading challenge. But it touches on so much more than reading Lolita in Tehran, or even just reading in Tehran. The social, personal, and political trials of being a woman in Iran are also delved into, and although Nafisi lays bare the suppression and subjugation women face, it is simultaneously a celebration of who Iranian women are as individuals and as a community.
This is portrayed mostly keenly in the reading group she hosts in her home, and I wished more of the book revolved around these. The cherry vodka, dolmeh, and saffron rice they enjoy during these are an equal delight, of course! But I also enjoyed the classroom scenes, particularly when The Great Gatsby is put on trial.
A memoir in books is most apt for any lover of literature. And as a glimpse into the social and political history of a country often homogenised into an oversimplified snapshot, this book will open your eyes through its pages of intimate diversity.
A great novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all the characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic – not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so. – Azar Nafisi