Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

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Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has been on my reading list for more than ten years. I was only 13 when it went to print, but I recall seeing it on my mother’s bookshelf and thinking “I want to read that book.”  I’m not sure what compelled me – maybe the reference to Lolita, maybe the promise of a story about women in Islamic countries including Western novels in their scholarship:

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature. (via)

Despite my interest in reading Nafisi’s book, and its inclusion in my 2016 Reading Challenge as “a book that intimidates me,” I can only give Reading Lolita in Tehran three out of five stars.

First, let’s talk about that reading challenge category.  A book that intimidates me.  Perhaps it has more to do with my first impressions, but I always thought everything on my mother’s bookshelf to be deeeep – and a lot of it was.  But also the foreignness of Tehran. What do I know about Iran? I mean, really know?  Sure, I know a bit from the scarce coverage the region received in my history classes in school, but as far as current events, my understanding of what life in Iran is like extended to oppression of women.  That’s pretty much what I had going in, so yes, it intimidated me.

Nafisi does a good job of setting the scene in Iran for the transitions that the country went through during a few years in Iran. Moreover, she helps readers (especially embarrassingly oblivious Westerners like me) become more aware of the complexities of the rise of Iran’s government, and the forces that pulled on every side of it.  She also brilliantly translates fear into prose; at many points, it’s so poignant that I have to put my book down.

My primary issue with Reading Lolita in Tehran is that I feel it lacks focus, and it doesn’t deliver what the description is selling.  The book is more a series of extended essays than a memoir in the traditional sense.  The greatest offense to me was that I believe Nafisi loses sight of her students, and the lessons she taught as part of her group.  We learn a little bit about her students and group. We learn more about her experience as an educator in Iran. But mostly, we read what seem to be excerpts from academic papers analyzing the four novels that provide structure to her own story.

With regard to craft: Nafisi’s prose is unnecessarily complex, and not always gracefully so, yet her story is so important. The narrative of women in Iran is significant, and largely untold in the Western World, so I feel guilty giving this book a mediocre three out of five stars. But if this book is supposed to speak on behalf of the women in Iran who can’t speak to us themselves, then the bar is set quite high. While Nafisi doesn’t clear the bar, she does get pretty close, even if underwhelmingly so.

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