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Society & Culture

Podcast: Azar Nafisi: Defend Books, Defend Freedom (Script)

July 30, 2015
14 min read
Podcast: Azar Nafisi: Defend Books, Defend Freedom (Script)
Podcast: Azar Nafisi: Defend Books, Defend Freedom (Script)

Listen to the podcast


You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.


Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, is starting a new campaign about books and human rights. It’s called #BooksSave.

To launch it, she has posted a new blog on the Penguin Books website.

She writes about her return to Iran from the US in 1979, and how she watched a political revolution turn into a cultural revolution.  

She remembers how the new authorities targeted writers and academics. Many of those people lost their livelihoods, or even their lives as a result.

And that caused Nafisi to see a clear connection between the life of the imagination and the rights of individuals.

Today, she sees that connection everywhere, not just in Iran. She wants other people to see it, too, and to share their experiences online.

This week, I spoke to her spoke to her about the campaign.



[Roland Elliott Brown] You’ve have written about how your homecoming to Iran in 1979 caused you to draw a connection between the imagination and human rights. What did you witness back then, and what did you learn from it?

[Azar Nafisi] Well you know I have this quotation from Baldwin that says, “Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.” Now, when I went back to Iran, I felt that there were a lot of things that I had thought about in abstract that became very concrete for me, because I realised that the assault on our reality which embraces what we call human rights and individual rights, namely targeting women and minorities came about with an assault on culture, on everything that had to do with either knowledge of the world, discussion about who we are, where we stand, and the way we imagine ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves as we should be. So I realised that there is this very intricate and delicate connection between being able to live freely and independently, and the life of mind and the life of imagination. I had never felt it in these very concrete terms where the laws about women were being changed, we now had stoning people to death for adultery, and at the same time, universities were being assaulted, at the same time people like Shahrnoush Parsipour were being put in jail, and poets like Saeed Soltanpour were murdered,  so it sort of made it concrete for me, and it sort of became part of the way I view the world as a whole, not just Iran.


[Roland Elliott Brown] Now, that connection may be obvious to anyone who has lived through a cultural revolution. But the imagination is something abstract and intangible, and  the international community measures human rights through carefully worded laws and agreements. So how hard is it to make people recognize that connection?

[Azar Nafisi] Well you know, w hen we talk about imagination, as when we talk about human rights, these are just words, and they are abstract, but as in the case of human rights, when you pick specific issues, and specific individuals, and talk about how they are treated, what happens to these people. It immediately creates a sense of empathy to the rest of the world who have never, ever experienced being injured, being flogged, being in fear of your life, it puts us as closely as we can get without being there, in their experience. So that is what the relationship between human rights and imagination is. I magination is based on curiosity, it is based on the fact that you need to come out of your own self, and your narrow world, and travel to places you have never been, and meet people who might not only be different from you, but might question the way you are, your attitude towards life, disturb you in the genuine sense of the world, and yet our curiosity takes us there, and at the same time, that curiosity makes you connect to other people who you have never met, or you have never had any feelings about.


[Roland Elliott Brown] You write that tyrants understand the link between imagination and freedom better than democratic politicians. And you wrote your blog specifically about the case for fiction. What evidence do you see that authoritarian regimes still care about fiction in the 21st century?

[Azar Nafisi] Well what happens, just take any authoritarian regime, either in the past or the present, from Stalin's Soviet Union to Hitler's Germany, to authoritarian regimes, none of which are that extreme, but they still can be called authoritarian, like what is happening in Saudi Arabia, or what is happening in China, or what is happening in Iran. What is it that they target first? I mean, they are not saying that we don't like western technology, are they? They don't like the content. You know when I look at your blog IranWire I see the bloggers, for example are the ones that are targeted, so they don't like the content of technology, which makes people realise that there is a world beyond this world, and that we don't all have to be the way the Islamic Republic or the Chinese government claims we should be. These are all  the things that I have experienced myself in Iran, and you have the experiences of thousands, of millions of other people who are just ordinary people, who have lived under some form of pressure.


[Roland Elliott Brown] I do wonder about the state of books and fiction now. To give you an example, during the Cold War, the CIA used to promote and distribute banned novels in the Soviet Union. But today, the US government looks to new forms of media and technology to create more open societies. Hillary Clinton might give speeches about Internet freedom, but it’s pretty hard to imagine her giving a speech about fiction. Why do books and fiction still matter?

[Azar Nafisi] Well, you might talk about Internet freedom, but what is it that is most catching, when it comes to these authoritarian systems, about internet freedom. People immediately use it to tell the stories that they have not been allowed to tell. That is the problem. You remember that in Iran, during the 2009 elections, when Neda Agha Soltan was targeted. That is a good example both of making a case for human rights, and for fiction. Neda immediately became interesting to us because what we were doing with her image, and with her background was the same way that we do with fiction. We wanted now to know her. We wanted to know her story, she all of a sudden became concrete for us. She looked us in the eye, although we had never looked her in the eye, and that is what is dangerous, and that is what fiction does to you.

And what does Hillary Clinton, by the way, do when she wants to sort of attract people's attention? Doesn't she go to tell her story? She goes on to tell her story, she talks about her story, she talks about her mother, because she wants, without knowing it, we are not doing all this intentionally, but she wants to spark something within us, so that we become interested in her not just as a politician but as a human being, as a person, so she tells her story. Obama has done it. John Boehner has done it. He even cries at hearing his own story. Each of them use it, but they use it instrumentally. They use it in a utilitarian fashion, and that is why they themselves go out of fashion after their time is passed. Nabokov used to say, governments come and go, only the trace of genius remains.


[Roland Elliott Brown] And looking at the situation in the US, you mention political correctness twice in your essay. You say that it can’t replace what imagination offers. You observe a complacency whereby people substitute political correctness for curiosity and empathy. So I wonder where political correctness fits into this broader picture involving imagination and human rights?

[Azar Nafisi]  It is so amazing. I am always amazed by how much of my own experiences that I am talking about now, and the ideas that I have formulated now come from Iran, and my experiences over there, both good and bad, because I experienced political correctness in its extremist form, where you were punished for thinking differently, and sometimes what you thought differently might have been terrible, but punishment itself is not enough. Political correctness usually targets things that need to be corrected, when we talk about insulting women, or insulting people of other races or nationalities, all of these are things that go back to our real values and principles in life, and they should not be taken lightly. But when you have people in schools censoring Huckleberry Finn because they call it racist, without at least having the debate within the classrooms rather than just eliminating, allowing people to genuinely experience something, and form their own ideas, then it becomes dangerous.

I think that political correctness, in the form of ideology, in the form of didactic, self righteous preaching to others, runs against imagination, because what imagination does, it puts you into the experience of all sorts of people. You don't just hear the voice of the protagonist, of the good guy. You don't just hear the voice of the victim. You also hear the voice of the villain, of the demonic people who appear to us in the guise of the good people. Looking at Hitler or Stalin or even Ayatollah Khomeini, we notice that monsters do not come to us with something written on their forehead saying we are monsters. They come to you under the guise of wise people, people who have your interests in mind. And we need to be able to differentiate between what is good and what is principled, and what is just being preached to you to make you either feel guilty or feel too self-righteous and divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys. So that is what irks me about political correctness.


[Roland Elliott Brown] Last month, the US-based Library Journal reported on a Harris poll about the banning of books in US school libraries. They noted a ten-point increase from 2011 in the number of people who wanted certain books banned completely. 28 per cent said certain books should be banned. Why do you think that, in a democratic society some people are so keen on censorship?

[Azar Nafisi]  That is exactly why I believe that imagination and thought are dangerous not just to tyrannical regimes but they are dangerous to people who have an absolutist mindset no matter where they live. So the whole idea is that democracy is a sort of a work in process, and freedom is never completely accessed, it is something that you constantly have to fight for. And I think that is why both in my blog that you mentioned, but every time I speak or I write, I talk about what our writers, especially our American writers saw as the gravest danger to a democracy, and that is complacency. That is where political correctness comes, that without understanding why something should not be done or should be done to just take a position on it, without understanding at the core that once you denounce prejudice against for example women, then you have to denounce prejudice against gays, against racism, that all of this is a package deal. You cannot be free if your neighbour is not free. That is why I am so worried about America today, because it is the age of complacency, and the age of complacency always comes with the age of ignorance, and it is for me at least, coming from where I'm coming from, this is a real danger, and we have to find a way.


[Roland Elliott Brown] And how are you asking people to get involved in your #BooksSave campaign, and what are you hoping the campaign will achieve?

[Azar Nafisi]  First of all, I have always thought that one of the greatest things about books is that by nature, I mean places where books are kept, they are the most democratic of all spaces, because books, first of all, cover all areas of life. I have been trying to get people involved in understanding that if they love books, they need to take care of books. What we love, we are responsible for, and books need to be taken care of, and books need to be defended and supported. And in the age of ignorance, it is up to us as readers to take up this. Books are directly related to the quality of our life. As the quality of that life goes down, the love for books goes down.

For me personally, and I am not speaking for my publishers now, for me personally, this has at least three steps. The first step would be this campaign, where we want people all over the world, and not just in the US, or not just in the West, to tell you the truth, whenever I think of the US, I immediately think of Iran, so I am hoping that readers all over the world will be connected by these quotations in these books. The second step is that I want to ask people to take their photographs, or to take their story to their local bookstores and their local libraries...As readers, I want them to understand that we share this responsibility to support those institutions that are helping us to save books. So I thought that this would be a way of giving support to bookstores and to libraries, and making people in communities aware. The third stage that I would like to see it be taken to public schools. Especially in the US now, public schools are just starving, both the government and the Congress, they are starving the public schools, and they and community colleges are suffering a great deal. I was hoping that through this I can create a link to different high schools, to different community colleges, and once they did their quotations about their favourite books, I would like of possible to go and talk to them, or talk to them through Internet and Skype, and this way get them formulating on how they feel about these books, why are these books important to them? At least, these are the three steps that I have in mind. And as I told you, we had three photos taken with three different quotations. One was a quotation by Nabokov, who said, “Readers are born free, and ought to remain free," so it links the idea of reading to the idea of freedom, the second one was from Ray Bradbury, that I don't remember it exactly, but it was, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. All you have to do is to stop people from reading." And the third one which we used now was from Baldwin: “Art would not be important if life was not important, and life is important." So that is what I am hoping. I am hoping that people will see that imagination is not just going up in the clouds or the ivory tower, that imagination is opening your eyes to yourself and to the world, and connecting to the world, and that is why I definitely want to link it to my other favourite activity, which is human rights, and it won't be a political campaign. What I like to call it is an existential campaign. Long after we are gone, people will have the same debates, and people will be reading, and fighting in order to read.


[Roland Elliott Brown] Well, I wish you the very best of luck, and thanks for being on the podcast.

[Azar Nafisi] Thank you so much, I appreciate it.


You can get involved in this campaign on Twitter by using the hashtag #BooksSave.

Azar Nafisi’s new book, The Republic of Imagination, is out now.


That’s all from Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about these issues, join us on Twitter or Facebook, or visit


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