Finally, I’m in Buffalo! … Babel’s Azar Nafisi

Those four words were definitely not what I expected to escape Azar Nafisi’s lips upon reaching the podium at Kleinhans for 2010’s first installment of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel Series. After Mike Kelleher finished his three pages of introductory notes—including naming three of the four authors to be stopping by this great city next season, listed below—the Iranian-born novelist took that stage and spoke enthusiastically about the children she visited earlier at City Honors. They gave her great insight and enthralled her enough to stay thirty minutes past her scheduled visit. But after the length at which she talked tonight—always passionate and intelligent with her words—that does not surprise me. Definitely one who understands the new technology of these children, Nafisi was also unafraid to bash it, saying that the youth of America may not be as uninspired to read as we think and maybe they should stand up and say so … even if it means tweeting that they are not the Twitter generation.

This brand of humor shaped the evening and made it one of the most insightful and entertaining lectures I’ve seen in the series. Perhaps it seems that the event keeps getting bigger and better each time, but maybe that is just the proximity to which I’ve attended; it has honestly felt like a long while since hearing Ha Jin, even though it was only four months back. Even so, Nafisi is a very unique woman in both her work and her beliefs. The event had us read her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book that told of the informal literature classes held at her home for a select group of girls, reading international works, taking off their scarves, and being free, even if just on Thursday, like the women in Iran were before the Islamic Revolution. These women imagined themselves through the characters and stories they read, projecting their own plights on the fictional roles and they onto them. The book itself serves as a physical example for her main point of the night: using imagination to help breed empathy.

We cannot begin to understand another until we accept our similarities. So often people use differences to make others inferior rather than unique; because they are different, they must be stopped or suppressed. Being an English literature professor and student of the discipline, she speaks of Alice in Wonderland’s caterpillar turning Alice’s question of “Who are you?” back onto her. We can’t be so self-righteous all the time, pretending that the ones we frown upon with confusion aren’t doing the same to us. Just because we look upon Iran at the present and see persecution, veiled women, and “Ahmadinejad smirking as though he broke the neighbor’s window and got away with it,” doesn’t mean that the nation wasn’t progressive and at the forefront of women’s rights at the start of last century. Nafisi remembers a time when wearing the veil was a religious duty, not a political mandate making it a symbol of state. She remembers women having an opinion and speaking it. Unfortunately that time is gone for the moment, but to pigeonhole the region as being synonymous with the horrors going on now “would be like saying Fascism is the culture of Europe and slavery the culture of America”. She says how every nation has a moment of time to be ashamed of, but they also have the ability to change. To dismiss the atrocities happening there as ‘that’s just their culture’ in order to wipe our hands clean of it is wrong in her eyes.

But despite her love for Iran and the hope to one day go back and visit the Caspian Sea with her daughter—the last two times she returned revolution broke out, so she isn’t too keen on going back quite so soon—Nafisi now calls America home, becoming a citizen two years ago. Knowing the importance of what that means and what her current freedom gives her seems more pure than any American-born citizen I know. She has experienced how a totalitarian force can strip a nation of its identity; how it can see women as the driving force for change, creating laws such as legalizing marriage at nine years old and making veils mandatory to break their spirit and make them assimilate. So the preciousness of what is possible here isn’t taken lightly. But even though this is her life now, she will never forget her past, saying “all we are left with really are memories”. She continues, “the most important resistance to tyranny is to not give up what they want to take away from you—to live life”. She doesn’t choose her stories; instead the books choose her. Being able to speak of her experiences now in the US has allowed her to go into her diaries and share with the world all those thoughts and events that were kept locked away in Iran. Her moving here, her teaching there, and even her mother passing away recently all shaped her life to write what she has, when she has.

Never shying away from politics and her beliefs, Nafisi did get a couple rousing moments of applause with comments against Sarah Palin, showing how liberally skewed the audience was. I will actually say that it was the most packed Kleinhans has been since the move to that venue, so kudos to Just Buffalo and the author for drawing the crowd. It is an artistic event and they don’t call it liberal arts for nothing, but, much like her words, one can truly see the kinship in the room. Being with likeminded individuals that may not be politically congruent with myself, I can still see more in common than not. Our mutual love for the intrinsic value of literature and art cannot be underestimated, and hopefully that is true the world over and growing as well. We need to connect and bond on some sort of common subject, so why not let it be with stories?

Nafisi would rather us not Kindlize our experience, however, and still leave our mark on every page of a book and build conversations with our bookstore’s owner or over a cup of coffee. She wants us to unite under one cause, to educate our children, (make them more like “those kids at City Honors”), and once more believe in something. Labeling it one of the most poignant moments ever written, Nafisi shares the brilliance of Huck Finn seeing Jim as more than a slave he was obligated to turn into the police. He saw him as the only friend he had ever had, ripping the letter that would condemn him to shreds, and realizing that if he was going to hell by not sending it in, so be it. You do have to wonder if our leaders could do the same, whether Al Gore could forsake the fortune he has amassed in direct proportion to the fervor he himself created for America to go green—talk about an ‘opportunist’. Right now I’d say no way, they’d take the money and hang the people out to dry. Hopefully, someday soon, that will change, and maybe artists like Nafisi will be the ones to help achieve it.

As for the 2010-2011 season announcement; here are the first three speakers:
Trinidad and Tobago’s V.S. Naipaul with his novel A House for Mr. Biswas
American Maxine Hong Kingston with her novel The Woman Warrior
Haitian Edwidge Danticat with her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory

Subscriptions will be on-sale April 16 at this season’s final event with Salman Rushdie.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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