Monday, February 21, 2005

Reading Lolita in Tehran on President's Day

In her Wednesday, February 16 entry, Anne writes of attending the Muslim wedding of one of her work-study students and coming to understand the way time unfolds at that event.

Today we have a snow day. Technically it was a holiday anyway (President’s Day), so I had already planned to stay home. But the snow changes the pace even more. I padded downstairs later than usual this morning, my copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran tucked under my arm. We begin discussing it in my Intro to Lit course next week. I have been frustrated at times by how slowly the book proceeds. Nafisi lingers for paragraph upon paragraph on small points about The Great Gatsby and quotes extended passages by Henry James. I lose patience. But I love the moments Nafisi brings readers into her living room to meet Mahshid, Manna, Mitra, Azin and Nassrin. I follow along as she prepares the tea, sets out the creampuffs, and peels the oranges in chapter after chapter.

There’s a sense in which, as I read Reading Lolita, I begin to understand that some of what I appreciate about the book is its recognition of the value of epochal time, particularly in learning to be with others whose politics, backgrounds, and beliefs challenge our own. It is in this sense that Neal and I saw Anne’s article and Julie Bokser’s article (on pedagogies of belonging) speaking to each other, and we were intrigued.

Nafisi seems less successful in capitalizing on epochal time in her classrooms, at least as they are portrayed in the book. I find myself looking for points of entry as I consider how to access epochal time with my own students in our discussions of this book. I grinned as I flipped to the last few pages of the Random House edition, which contain “A Reader’s Guide” with “Questions for Discussion.” Take question 2, for example: “Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation upsilamba (18). What does the word upsilambamean to you?”

What must Nafisi think when she sees her memoir--about the power of literature to transform and transgress, to subvert and affirm, to comfort and to displace—stripped down to these twelve essential Random House questions. What kind of statement is this about the power of imagination that is at the heart of her own experiences? And what does it say about our own readiness to listen—really listen—to each other?

Beth Boquet


At 5:21 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

I haven't read Reading Lolita in Tehran, so I went to to check it out. Among the information I found there was the following list:

Citations (learn more)
This book cites 11 books:

Pride and Prejudice (Oxford World's Classics) by Jane Austen
page 171, page 258, page 304, and page 305
Daisy Miller And Washington Square (B&N Classics Trade Paper) by Henry James
page 194
Dean's December, The (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics) by Saul Bellow
page 283
The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding by Ian Watt
page 236
Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov
page 289
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
page 3
Culture and Imperialism by EDWARD W. SAID
page 290
Modern Psychological Novel by Leon Edel
page 236
Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
page 339
More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow
page 312
My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad
Back Matter

and now I want to read all of those books as well. Amazon's strategy is right on target. It's got me thinking about why we read what we read and how time and circumstances change our perceptions. Lo-li-ta. Now that I have a fourteen year old daughter, I find the book more disturbing than ever. This leads me to ponder censorship, something I generally abhor. Then again, I once threw a book of Anais Nin's in the trash because I was appalled at the parent/child/incest/rape erotica it contained. I censored it from my own brain --- and I'd have plenty to say to anyone who recommended it to me, but I guess I wouldn't want it publicly censored. The freedom to write without restraint is too important. The right to read what has been written is too important, as the women of Tehran have proven. I think of Amanda (Glass Menagerie) saying to Tom, "I won't have that trash in my house," (referring to "that insane Mr. Lawrence," and his "diseased mind," and I remember laughing at her. Is there anything we would censor? Is there anything we should?

Last semester I had a student who wrote an extremely disturbing/threatening essay about the local police. "They should all die," he wrote, referring to them as "f-ing pigs" and claiming he would kill the one who "f-ing lied" to him, if he had the chance. I mentioned the contents to a few colleagues and the chair of my department, but ultimately we (I) did nothing except to address the matter in academic terms. I felt ridiculous writing something like, "This tone is inappropriate for an academic essay, and the subject is off-target" -- but that's what I wrote. I failed the paper. What would you have done?

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