There’s one Vladimir Nabokov quote Azar Nafisi always comes back to when she’s thinking about literature: “Governments come and go. Only the trace of genius remains.”
The professor and award-winning author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” described books as the one thing that connects people from all walks of life. They start off as strangers whose names you don’t know, but they soon become intimate friends who elicit great emotions and feelings from a person, she said.
“Every time I talk about books, it’s a celebration of not just imagination, but a celebration of life. The whole idea of poetry, music, art and films—anything to do with ideas—is a resistance against the transience and tyranny of life,” she said.
Ms. Nafisi shared her profound passion for the written world with students at the George Washington University on Tuesday during the semester’s final lecture of the Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series, sponsored by the English department’s creative writing program. This semester, the series has brought literary heavyweights to campus, including George Pelecanos and John Banville.
Books offer a profound opportunity to open doors and imagine life not just as it is, but how it was and could be, Ms. Nafisi told students. They bring not just optimism, but a subversive way of thinking that allows readers to rebel against monotonous ways of thinking.
“The first thing a totalitarian mindset takes away from you is the past, and if you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you are,” she said.
She drew from the example of her home country, asking what the audience thought of when they heard the word “Iran.” Guests responded with images of dictatorship and a government-controlled state, which Ms. Nafisi countered by explaining the myriad faces of Iran and Islam that also include a love for peace. Society today often reduces culture to just one aspect, she said.
“The point is the acceptance of variety and not generalizing people out of existence, and that is what literature teaches you to reject. That is why literature is so revolutionary,” Ms. Nafisi explained.
Ms. Nafisi shared she recently became an American citizen, because the United States is a democratic country made up of immigrants. Democracy, however, presents its own challenge: It gives individuals a choice and ultimately makes them responsible for their decisions.
“If you don’t define yourself, it is our humanity that is at stake. The ordeal of freedom is very serious. Life in a democracy is far more difficult because you are responsible,” she said.
Following the discussion, Ms. Nafisi answered questions about her new book, which will examine imagination in a democracy. She also posed several questions to students about how they view society, the media and literature.
“This was our last reading of the season, and we’ve had some great people. It’s been a fabulous lineup thanks to luck and a few connections, and Ms. Nafisi was a great way to end the series,” said Lisa Page, acting director of creative writing at GW.