Iranian Author Azar Nafisi Urges “Confronting Tough Questions”
Principia’s Speaker Series presented professor and author Azar Nafisi as the Ernie and Lucha Vogel Moral Courage Lecturer in mid-April. Nafisi’s talk, “The Republic of the Imagination,” drew from her much-acclaimed book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which has been heralded as an incisive exploration of the power of literature over politics.
Nafisi currently teaches aesthetics, culture, and literature as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University. She studied in the U.S. in the 1970s and then taught at the University of Tehran. But in 1981 she was expelled for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil. After going six years without a classroom, she taught at the Free Islamic University and held a fellowship at Oxford University, where she conducted a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Nafisi returned to the United States in 1997, earning national respect and international recognition for advocating on behalf of Iran’s intellectuals and youth, especially young women.
Nafisi began her talk by describing her afternoon walk along the campus bluffs to get a feel for Principia’s campus. “As I looked across the Mississippi River, I was reminded of Mark Twain, one of my favorite American writers,” Nafisi said. “I especially love the character Huckleberry Finn because he took tremendous risks to preserve what his heart told him. This is what we all must do and what literature teaches us. We should continually question our own point of view and not fall into groupthink.”
Nafisi also spoke about immigrating to America from Iran after witnessing violence and oppression during the 1979 revolution as well as the unrelenting efforts of the new regime to oppress women, minorities, and culture. Even her own grandmother, Nafisi said, who had a very traditional view of religion, disagreed with the post-revolution practices. “She wore the veil her whole life yet strongly felt that wearing or not wearing the veil is a matter of choice, “Nafisi explained. “My grandmother was greatly troubled that authorities told others how to practice their Islamic faith and how to believe in God.”
But Iran isn’t the only nation that concerns Nafisi. “I worry that America has become a country afraid of confronting tough questions,” she said. “I’d like to start a national debate about who is going to bail out our children’s future because imagination and clear thought have ceased.”
For senior Clayton Harper, Nafisi’s warning bell rang loud and clear. “Her words remained in my thought long after she left campus,” he says. “Her plea for passion, imagination, and bravery is something that this world—and this campus—needs to hear. For me, it all boiled down to the passage she shared from Huck Finn. If we aren’t willing to risk our honor and salvation to uplift another person, then we’ll never understand what our principles are for.”