Azar Nafisi: Things I've Been Silent About

In her 2003 bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi recounted how, when the civil and religious strictures of Iran's Islamic Republic forced her from her position as a professor of literature, she formed a special salon in her home with her best women students, who would arrive each Thursday morning, remove the veils and chadors prescribed by the government, and proceed to explore the precincts of Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, and The Great Gatsby. "A memoir in books," Reading Lolita remains an astonishing testament to literature's power to illuminate meaning against all odds.

In her just-published new book, Things I've Been Silent About, Nafisi focuses on her coming of age through the lenses provided by her memories of her mother and father. Exhibiting the same attention to human realities and literary imaginings that animates Reading Lolita, Nafisi's second memoir is an evocative quest for the personal lessons of her own past as well as the enduring truths -- the vivifying apprehensions -- a reader's life uncovers.

Nafisi moved to the United States with her family in 1997. She currently resides in Washington, D. C. and is director of Cultural Conversations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. In mid-December, I had the pleasure of speaking with her at length, via telephone, about both Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. -- James Mustich



James Mustich: At the beginning of your new book you write: "It is such a strong part of Iranian culture to never reveal private matters: we don't wash our dirty laundry in public, as Mother would say, and besides, private lives are trivial and not worth writing about." Yet, while in the long run the themes of Things I've Been Silent About resonate with those of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the new work is a far more personal book. What was the impetus for overcoming your native reticence?


Azar Nafisi: It is difficult to pinpoint why you write a book; whatever conclusions you draw about its motivations are those that you think about later, after the fact. At first, when I started writing the new book, I did not want it to be this personal, for there is also a personal reticence that resonates with the native one. In fact, I wasn't going to write this book at all! After Reading Lolita I was going to write the book that I have called The Republic of Imagination; that was my main destination after Reading Lolita. But I have always been obsessed with my parents, especially with my mother, and especially after we left Iran. I was writing the acknowledgments to Reading Lolita when she died; that diverted me completely. It took me back to her, and what her loss meant to me, and set me to ask myself how I could retrieve so many things in our relationship -- things that had been left undone or unfinished. I still did not intend to focus so much on our personal lives; I was trying to put my relationship with my mother and her non-relationship with her mother within a wider historical context. But as I started writing more, I got more and more personally involved. Memories were coming, I had my own notes, I had my father's memoirs. And then Father died a year later. I realized that I wanted to go deeper into these relationships. So that is how I ended up writing this book.


JM: In Reading Lolita in Tehran, you illustrated quite powerfully how works of the imagination, and works of fiction in particular, can confirm our faith in humanity in even the darkest circumstances. And it strikes me that both of your memoirs are about the power of stories and storytelling in different ways. Have you given any thought to how the imagination works differently in memoir than in fiction'


AN: With both memoir and fiction, you're dealing with truth. In fiction, even if you are talking about an imaginary reality, you have to connect it to the deeper truth within your own experience. So the search for truth, or a rediscovery of truth, is what both fiction and memoir have in common. But in memoir, at least memoir of the kind I have been writing in Things I've Been Silent About, you also are dealing with facts, and that makes it very difficult. So the difference between memoir and fiction is something I have been thinking about a great deal for the last six years. If I were going to write fiction, I would have changed facts much more radically than I do in this book. In this book and in Reading Lolita, I play with facts, really, only when I am trying to protect the names of individuals. Of course, sometimes when I am reporting conversations or reporting events, I am doing it from memory, and at times I dramatize them, but I try to speak as much as possible of what I remember having happened.


One thing that I discovered about memoir, and one has to be very honest about it, is that no matter how much you speak to facts, you're still talking about them from your own subjective point of view. Other people might have different views of the realities that you're talking about. A second thing that really amazed me as I was writing this book is how many of the facts in your life have to be deleted in order to write a memoir, because you can't write about everything. Your memoir also finds a theme, and as it does so certain events become more important, gain more dimensions, and certain events have to be left out. The same is true about many characters in your life. So even in memoir, you're still leaving out things. You're still creating a structure that is very much a narrative structure.


JM: That selectivity in itself is creating an imaginative world, then.


AN: Absolutely. The process of writing this memoir forced me constantly to go back and reassess what the structure was all about. I discovered that, in many ways, I had to use the same structure as fiction, not by lying or creating an imaginary world, but in cutting and pasting -- because how could I write about my mother from the moment I became conscious of her? How could I include every incident? So many characters who are central in my own life -- my brother, for example -- play a much smaller role because my focus has to be on the relationship between my parents and my own relationship to them. The book gains a theme, and you cannot betray the theme. Being faithful to the theme means that, as you mentioned, you are dealing with imagination as well as with the reality of what happened.


JM: You write at one point: "I sometimes think we become so dependent on the images we create of ourselves that we can never discard them." We all walk around watching images of ourselves, in a way; we're engaged in telling our life story every day. I'm wondering if, as you wrote this book, your own image of yourself was broadened or narrowed or changed in any significant way.


AN: Oh, definitely. At least certain images of myself came to the surface that I had not dealt with consciously before. What you say is interesting, because I just remembered something that I don't think I mentioned in my book. I once had a dream about this young girl who looked like me as a child (I almost can tell you the age: about 4 or 5), leaping from somewhere deep, deep down within me -- leaping up to the surface and trying to almost strangle me. It was a very physical leap -- a very, very strange feeling. I felt at times when I was writing this book that parts of myself -- or what I had been, or my experiences -- were being leeched out of me. And sometimes these images were not friendly; they were hostile. Sometimes they were images of myself that I wanted to erase -- there was a feeling of shame attached to them.


That is also a key difference between memoir and fiction. In fiction, while a novelist is still dealing with his or her own very, very deep feelings, he or she can still attribute them to imaginary characters. But in a memoir, you are dealing with you, and you are exposing that you to the world, which makes you very vulnerable.


So my image of myself was indeed altered as I wrote this book. I came up with far more understanding of how I had constantly blamed my mother for a lot of things that I had evaded doing -- that role of becoming a victim at some point becomes a comfortable place to be. One of the most painful episodes occurred when I, at a young age, decided to get married for the first time. I was escaping, in a sense, the reality that I did not like: my mother's at times suffocating presence. But I made the choice, and that choice went against everything that I believed in; it went against the image I had of myself, which had been influenced by those literary characters I so much admired -- women who are not ashamed of being who they are, who would not marry a man they didn't love, who would not betray themselves, or their own feelings and emotions, in that manner. Those were issues that I had to deal with, and I think they are issues that I still will be dealing with now that they have come out in the writing of the book.


JM:  Your father left behind a published memoir, which you call "a cardboard version of himself," and also a far more interesting unpublished one, in addition to 1,500 diary pages.


AN: Yes.


JM: What was it like, going through that material as you worked on this book?


AN: That was an amazing experience. And to tell you the truth, thinking about it brings me back to your first question. One of the reasons I found -- I don't know, for the lack of a better word, I'll say "courage" -- to write about myself the way I have, came from reading my father's personal memoirs. (Editor's note: Elected mayor of Tehran in 1961, Nafisi's father was imprisoned on trumped up charges by the Shah's regime two years later; he was released in 1968.) He had been writing them almost the whole of my adult life, especially after he left jail. He had been writing a lot, both poetry and diaries, before he went to jail, but after he was released I think he also took it upon himself to write about his own life. While he was alive and when I was in Iran, I did not pay the kind of attention I should have paid to those writings. I took them for granted; he was my father, and he had been telling me some of these stories all my life, so I didn't really pay attention to them. But when I started writing myself, and my brother sent me the memoirs and then I looked at the diaries -- my God! I was so amazed that a man of his generation, writing inside Iran (because I don't think he was thinking of publishing these outside Iran), would commit to paper a memoir that was so very frank, not just about politics (because he was always frank about that), but about his own personal life -- about his first sexual encounters, about that hidden life in a very religious city like Esfahan. The fact that he thought of publishing this was amazing to me; it made me appreciate him more. The fact that he did not publish it I can understand, because I remember when he was writing a lot of people were telling him, "Who wants to read about this? You have been a public man, you have a political memory, that is what really matters." So that's what he ended up publishing. Now, if you could read Persian and you read those political memories, you'd find many interesting points in them, but I felt that they were too self-conscious, too aware of leaving a political legacy. The personal voice which made his stories interesting and intriguing to me was gone.


I think if you take that personal touch out of writing, it never rings true; even in political memoirs, you need to have yourself in them. You can see this difference between Barack Obama's first memoir and his second book, The Audacity of Hope. In Dreams from My Father, what really intrigues me is that vulnerable young man who is looking to fill up the absences in his life, the loneliness. That's what makes the reader empathize. When you take those vulnerabilities out, something is lost.


JM: Your imagination was shaped from an early age by classical Persian poetry, especially by Ferdowsi's epic, the Shâhnameh (The Book of Kings). In Things I've Been Silent About, you write: "Ferdowsi's Iran was the magnificent paradise I came to believe in as a child. It was an endless green pasture, populated with heroes and queens. I was for some time under the illusion that my country was as splendid as the edifices its classical poets had built out of words." Now, your grandmother was born at the beginning of the 20th century, your daughter towards its end, so you and your family lived through a period of Iranian history that has been fraught with not always splendid developments. Could you talk a little about the conflict, as you experienced it, between tradition and reality?


AN: Of course, when I was a young kid, I really saw, especially in Ferdowsi's stories, the magic, because the stories themselves are so intriguing and so beautifully told. And it's not just me -- this is such a large part of Persian culture, the traditional culture we talk about. Ferdowsi, and after that Hafez, Rumi and Khayyam -- these are the people you will find in the home of almost any Iranian you might visit. But as I went back to them when I was older, especially after the Islamic Revolution, I discovered different things. When I was reading Ferdowsi, for instance, I discovered that he was not only celebrating a magical, amazing, wonderful Iran that was no more, but he was also mourning it; a thousand years ago, he was very conscious of the weaknesses that led to the fall of the Persian Empire, which, of course, during my childhood, I would not have understood and realized. But the way poetry was celebrated in our family, and the way classical poets were talked about as not just the best that Iran could present, but as if they represented what Iran was all about -- for a long time it kept me from looking at reality. In a way, I was mesmerized by those amazing achievements.


And believe me, if you could read Rumi in the original, you'd understand. I talk about Rumi, because he has been popular in this country; but what you read in English is not the real essence of Rumi, because Rumi is all music. His poetry springs from a love of subverting words and creating music, and that is completely lost in translation. Honestly, that aspect of Persian culture, even now, carries me over into another world.


Despite this, I came to realize that I also had to face reality. And I am thankful mainly to the Islamic Republic for forcing me to face reality. In the same way that writing this memoir made me recognize those aspects of myself that I had evaded or that I am not proud of, I also had to realize that my country was fraught with paradoxes and contradictions, and there were traditions and norms that I wanted to fight against, and there were traditions and norms that I wanted to preserve.


JM: You write of one of Ferdowsi's heroines, Rudabeh, that "the character planted in my mind the idea of a different kind of woman whose courage is private and personal." (Editor's note: Rudabeh was the princess of Kabul, the lover and wife of the warrior Zal, and the mother of the great hero Rostam.)


AN: Yes.


JM: Bear with me for a moment, because I want to make a connection back to Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which you write about how women, "from Richardson's hapless Clarissa to Fielding's shy and obedient Sophia to Elizabeth Bennet, . . . created the complications and tensions that moved the plots [of novels] forward." You argue persuasively -- or at least imply convincingly -- that the novel developed in large degree to accommodate women's subversive centrality, as a new narrative form that "radically transformed basic concepts about the essential relationships between individuals, thereby changing traditional attitudes toward peoples relationship to society, their tasks and duties."


AN: Yes.


JM: Now, Ferdowsi wasn't writing novels; his was a very different kind of writing, done several centuries earlier. Yet in his tales of kings you also found that magnificent women like Rudabeh were, as you write in the new book, "the subversive centers around which the plot is shaped." It's almost as if in Rudabeh, you -- as a girl -- discovered the seed for your later understanding of the history of the novel, an interest that ramifies and bears fruit in Reading Lolita when you discuss Washington Square or Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice, and find genteel and beautiful heroines who are nonetheless rebellious enough to embrace what you call the "elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose."


AN: I am so thankful to you for that observation! I think that the connection you make is very true, although it is only in retrospect that I can see it -- I don't think that I consciously formulated it for myself in that way. A lot of these things are not conscious, even if you may eventually come to believe that they have always been with you. [LAUGHS]


These have always been the characters that fascinated me. And in Rudabeh there was a fascination that I might not have been able to explain; had you asked me, I would have just said I liked the stories. But when I trace my own interest in these women in literature, I keep seeing that I return to them. During my teenage years, I was drawn to Forough Farrokhzad, who was a very powerful symbol for many women, not just those of my own age, but those of subsequent generations -- my daughters and my students -- as well. (Editor's note: Born in 1935, Farrokhzad became Iran's most acclaimed woman poet before her death in a car accident at age 32.) I found that I admired Farrokhzad not just for her political and social commentary, which she developed in her later poems, but for the individual core that was expressed in her poems. It takes so much courage to not just face the world, but to face yourself, and Farrokhzad had that courage.


Now, I have to say that despite my fascination with Rudabeh, Ferdowsi was misogynist. But this is where we see how fiction is so subversive of reality. For while Ferdowsi's conscious comments about women in Shâhnameh are quite misogynist, when it comes to creating relationships, when it comes to creating characters, his women carry the seeds of those later women who consciously said, "I am proud not just of my achievements and station and aspects of my public life, but also of my sexuality, and I am going to be the one who makes the choices." That's the sort of subversive element I keep finding, time and time again, in the best narratives that I read, whether they are epic stories like Ferdowsi's or whether they are classic tales or modern novels. Of course, one of the best examples is a book that I am absolutely in love with, but which, unfortunately, I could not talk much about in my own book, because my book was about something else; I mean the story Vis and Ramin, which I mention in Things I've Been Silent About.


This story, which was written in the 11th century -- the same century as Ferdowsi's -- by Fakhraddin Gorgani, is absolutely amazing. It is subversive even for the age that we live in. The poet devotes several hundred pages to the interior life of a woman, Vis, who refuses to remain married to a man -- a king -- that her mother has chosen for her. She has an adulterous relationship with Ramin, the man she falls in love with; the loyalty her story celebrates is not to conformist marriage, but to Love. That is the principle that reigns over the book. Unlike most stories with a similar theme, like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, the love of Vis and Ramin, in the end, triumphs: the two lovers live happily ever after despite their defiance of the norms and conventions of their world.


This is the strength of fiction, that it can speak to us through centuries. And those women writers and poets, like Forough Farrokhzad, who have written so bravely about themselves in the 20th century, must have persevered in the historical tradition of someone like Vis or Rudabeh.


JM: In Things I've Been Silent About, you relate how you discovered Vis and Ramin as a teenager, when it was given to you by a poet with whom you'd shared your fascination with Rudabeh.


AN: Yes, the man we called Amoo Said; the literary person in our family.


JM: It's telling that he was able to quickly identify the right book for you, one that harmonized so well with your other reading.


AN:  Well, you yourself -- all of us who are quite involved with books -- can understand that! I've had that amazing experience frequently with Reading Lolita; people will write or come up to me and say, for example, "Oh, you liked Lolita; have you read this book? Or "Have you read Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader?" Readers quickly find a kinship. It's almost like there is a secret society of readers who don't know one another, but who are connecting through these invisible relationships.


About Vis and Ramin, let me say how glad I am that it has been translated. And it's an amazing translation, by an Englishman named Dick Davis, who himself is a poet...


JM: Oh, he's a wonderful poet.


AN: I love Dick Davis. And I feel -- not as an Iranian, just as a reader -- so indebted to him. If you go to the dedication page in his version of Vis and Ramin, he has a few lines of poetry addressing Vis, saying, "Vis, I have heard your voice throughout the centuries, through the ages." It shows that this poem, written a thousand years ago by a Persian poet (and, by the way, unlike Ferdowsi's Shâhnameh, very much underappreciated inside Iran, perhaps because of its volatile theme), has the force to connect with an Englishman who lives in Ohio, who himself is a poet. That's really a strong statement about the power of literature.


JM: Let's talk a bit about that power, beyond the context of individual readers. You have some fascinating things to say in both books on the subject of literature and democracy. I'd like to read a couple of the quotations that I've jotted down. In Reading Lolita in Tehran -- in the pages in which you describe how, during the Iran-Iraq War, you stayed up through the nights reading while Tehran was under bombardment -- you say, "These readings made me curious about the origins of the novel and what I came to understand as its basically democratic structure. And I became curious as to why the realistic novel was never truly successful in our country."


Then, in Things I've Been Silent About, you also write: "I had come to be preoccupied with the relationship between democracy and the novel, inspired by the fact that the rise of the novel in Iran was simultaneous to demands for democracy and freedom. I felt there must be a relationship between the celebration of individual voices in the novel and the polyphony of a democratic society."


What do you think the tradition of the novel contributes to national identity? Certainly, in England and France and America, the tradition of the novel is different than it is in, say, Iran or Afghanistan. Does the novel represent some kind of social dynamic, a transformative dynamic, that is not only political, but cultural in a deep way?


AN: Yes. This became my main preoccupation during all those years that I spent in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. The first revolution that changed Iran, the constitutional revolution at the beginning of the 20th century (Editor's note: The Constitutional Revolution of Iran took place between 1905 and 1911), was indeed accompanied by a deep cultural revolution; it really was not just political. Fierce fights were going on between poets about breaking the classical rhymes and rhythms in poetry! One of the founding fathers of modern Persian prose and storytelling wrote at length about the need to democratize the Persian language by bringing in the language of ordinary life, by stripping it of the flowery language of the ideal. Within Iran new forms of expression blossomed: journalism, theatre, film, the novel. And there was a fight fueled by this desire for pluralistic expression, so to speak, which was being articulated politically as well, and all of this was fiercely opposed by reactionaries, both from among the nobility and from the ranks of ordinary people, as well as the clerics. The main anti-constitutional cleric of the time issued an edict against novels, against music, against the rights of minorities and women, and called them "poisonous vapors coming from the West." You can find the similarity between the way he talked and the way Ayatollah Khomeini talked at the end of the century.


That in itself shows how potent this expression, this novelistic expression, can be in changing people's mindsets and attitudes towards reality, including political reality. Because good novelists have always to be democratic. In their novels, at least -- I'm not talking about their private lives! God knows, the private lives of novelists are a completely different story. But even a novelist as apolitical as Jane Austen -- look at the democracy of voices in her novels; all these different people talking and giving different views on the issue of marriage, and all of them surviving -- none of them are condemned to death or elimination. You never mistake Mr. Collins for Darcy, Darcy for Bingley. They each have their very distinct voice. A bad novelist does the exact opposite, and he or she inserts messages into the voices of the characters -- does not respect the characters, to say nothing of the reader's intelligence. The characters become cardboard. They become symbols. They become allegories for good and bad. A bad novelist is unable to create that democracy of voices.


I do think that the way storytelling has developed in a culture can tell you a lot about that culture. You notice it, of course, in Latin America, and right now the many voices that are coming from the Middle East are coming to us mainly through storytelling.


JM: What is the current literary scene in Iran like?


AN: The current scene is interesting in many ways, but perhaps not because we are producing many great stories or poems. In fact, there might be some sort of void in terms of creating that great novel as yet, or that great poem that will be seen in the future as belonging to this era. But what is so interesting is that in the last years before the Islamic Revolution, and in the first years after it, literature had become so politicized. People who wrote about subjects other than politics were fiercely criticized. Everybody had to assume the positions of politics -- whether they were for or against either the Shah's government or this one. But, by and by, people began to realize more and more the importance of individual liberties as they recognized the facts -- that their right to act, or dress, or publicly express their love, or listen to the kind of music they wanted, that all of these rights were confiscated by the state. So we lost our zest for ideology, which created a void.


Right now in Iran, it's a period of experimentation and a period of searching for the voice, and that is one reason you find so many women writers and storytellers. People have even started writing memoirs, and while they are not extremely personal, they exhibit the awareness, the consciousness of the importance of the individual, of the personal, that is behind any great novel. I'm hoping that this search will lead somewhere good.


JM: Have any of those books made their way here through translation?


AN: There have been at least two or three good anthologies of Persian literature, including both short stories and poems, and some of the novels have been translated. I mention one novelist in my book, Shahrnush Parsipur, author of Women Without Men, a defiantly frank novel about five women in contemporary Iran that is very interesting. That and some other books are on a reading list at the back of Things I've Been Silent About. There have been quite a few translations, both of writers in pre-revolutionary times and contemporary ones.


One of my absolute favorites, and one which has been a favorite of the Iranian people since 1974, is the novel My Uncle Napoleon. In addition to being the most popular novel inside Iran, it was also the basis for one of the most popular TV series. When you think of the image that comes out of Iran these days -- a culture that is presented as so puritanical, so without humor, so regimented -- reading My Uncle Napoleon is a revelation; it is filled with tenderness and with an amazingly self-critical look at what it means to be Iranian. And it's absolutely hilarious. It's about a mid-20th century man who has a very low opinion of himself; he used to be military but never got anywhere. He represents the Iranian paranoia about foreign powers, and, like Napoleon, he thinks that the British are after him -- that everything that happens to him, every personal injury that is done to him, is part of a British plot. At the same time, the book tells a very tender love story. There are a lot of erotic scenes in it. I wrote the introduction to the English translation (also by Dick Davis), because I think every person working in foreign policy should read this book. To understand what Iran is, you have to go to its culture. Otherwise, you can't understand it; it's so unfair these days.


JM: In both books, you regard the novel as what I would call a school of empathy.


AN: Mmm-hmm.


JM: For instance, you say in Reading Lolita, speaking of the history of the genre, that a "respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow." As I think about Things I've Been Silent About, it strikes me that this new memoir may be a product of your reading as well as your living; the empathy you learned from reading Austen and James has been turned back on your own experience.


AN: You are very right. That is a very interesting observation. As you said this, I remembered that through reading those authors -- and also, from early childhood, through this game my father and I played about expressing ourselves through stories -- stories became for me a vehicle to connect to the world. To be honest, I don't know how I could have survived without that vehicle, because throughout the hardest times in my life, both personally and politically, I had to resort to stories, either through reading or through writing.


So you're right. It is that extreme humanism that you find in the greatest works of fiction or works of literature, that makes you understand, empathize with the experience of others, and your own. When people talk about great disasters, like the Holocaust, or the Gulag, or the war in Bosnia or in Iraq or anywhere, these events do not really touch us when they remain only as figures, even when as high as six million. But when you look at that shoelace -- when somebody writes about a person who goes to the gas chamber and all that is left of him is his shoelace -- that person all of a sudden becomes a human being, a person that could be you. And in this way you sympathize with the past, with people who are so very different from you. I think this can help you to become a better person.


I don't want to eulogize this, because there are so many dangers in absolutizing literature or imagination, especially when you use it as merely a means of escape. You have to use it in order to come back to the world. Because literature could not exist without reality. No good writer can write without having experienced something deeply. Something real.


JM: In the new book, you describe quite poignantly your stressful relationship with your mother. But at one point you recognize, with an odd gratitude, the unsuspected beneficial effects of her domineering presence: "By taking away our private spaces," you write of her, she forced us "to create other secret realms of our own, often by engaging our imagination." It's almost as if you've concluded that you cultivated the field of your professional life -- the fertile ground of reading and imagination -- as a reaction to your mother's sometimes stifling force.


AN: You're right. I also think that I extended that experience with my mother to other difficulties that I faced, almost instinctively. Whenever I confronted a situation in which I felt that there were no spaces -- later on, for example, it was the political situation -- I went back to reading, as I describe in Reading Lolita; the truth of the matter is that all those years when I lived in Iran after the Revolution, the way I connected to the world was through these books. I could not go into my class and openly talk about many things, but I could, through the books, talk about the concepts. And what was important was not to go and say, "Ah, this regime is really a terrible regime"; that is saying nothing. What was important as a teacher was to convey to my students why pluralism is good, why having a self-critical intelligence saves you from tyranny. That I could do without once mentioning directly the regime. I could talk about every single concept under the sun.


JM: So that the books weren't really an escape from reality. They were an engagement with it.


AN: That is how I see literature. I know that the way I see it is not the only way of seeing it, and I definitely have no desire to impose my view of this on the rest of the world. But from my own experiences, the best use we can make of literature comprises two things. One, since literature is as much about absences as about presences, it gives you a vision of how things should be. It always encourages you to imagine the world not just as it is, but as it could be -- which is fantastic, because it makes you resist the world as it is!


But also literature is a way of connecting to the world, of relating to the world, as well as a way of changing it. That's why the main preoccupation in my writing, or even in my teaching, has been the investigation of the intersection between reality and fiction.


JM: I hope you will explore all of these things further in the prospective book you mentioned earlier, The Republic of Imagination.


AN: I hope so, too. It reminds me of something that I'd like to mention before we finish, and that is the danger we are facing in this amazing country -- I mean America -- today. We should be deeply concerned that the humanities and the liberal arts are underfunded and ignored and discouraged, and that our libraries, our bookstores, and our publishers are going under, and that everything that has to do with imagination and thought is considered irrelevant. This is such a dangerous thing. A country cannot produce great policy-makers, great journalists, great businessmen without having a vision and a soul. I feel that we are playing a dangerous game when we deny that, when everything that we want is immediate or accessible only by shortcuts and shallow thinking. We're at risk of losing great institutions. So that is my fight right now. I want to organize a march on Washington where we can sit on the Mall and discuss among ourselves how we can save what goes by the name culture. What I feel about the power and relevance of literature is not just about Iran or other countries. It's about here and now in this country.


JM: One of the things that literature fosters is an approach to reality in which two opposed things can be -- sometimes must be -- recognized as true at the same time, which is much closer to the world we actually live in than one might guess from reading the newspapers or from the either/or distinctions that cloud with false clarity the positions of many of our political leaders. I think that fiction and all imaginative work is so powerful because it acknowledges -- it relishes -- the fact that we live in great uncertainty, that something can be true even when it is somewhat opposed to something else that is also true.


AN: That is at the heart of the matter -- that ambiguity. That doubt. Right now, everybody talks about change. Well, change comes out of ambiguity and out of doubting what already exists. If you don't have the faculty to think, if everything becomes, as you say, so polarized and reduced to politicized slogans, you take away all the democratic tools that give a society its strength.


I am seriously worried. I'd like to ask the administration -- either the one that's going out or (especially) the one that's coming in -- who is going to bail out imagination and thought? You think that it is only about banks and automakers? Throughout the election season, we have been invoking Lincoln, Martin Luther King, people whose poetic vision was at the heart of everything that they did. They were people who really took risks with life. These were men who were steeped in the culture of books and imagination. They were the ones for whom poetry was a guide. We really need to think about these things, to realize that our crisis is not just economic, and that it can't be solved by the government alone. It must be solved by the people -- by the readers. We really need to unite as readers, to find ways of defending ourselves, defending these great tools that we have been given, from libraries to bookstores to publications to museums.


JM: That's a wonderful conclusion. I hope you will write about this more.


AN: Oh, I am going to. And we can end with the slogan of "Readers of the world, unite!"


                                                                                                                     December 15, 2008

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.