Portrait

On the streets with Iranian author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi.

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

The Twain shall meet

While out for a stroll on Melbourne’s Collins Street, writer Azar Nafisi, a stranger to the city, asked a passer-by which way to the river. Introductions were made. Our hero, Mack, otherwise unengaged this sunny winter morning, proceeded to usher our protagonist on an impromptu tour of the Yarra. Local history was traced. Laughter was shared; souvenir photographs taken. The two parted ways, having spent a lovely morning together. As unexpected river-romps go, there’s a hint of Huckleberry Finn – one of Nafisi’s favourite tales – at least in the telling.

“Do any of you know Mack?” the Iranian author and professor of English literature asks the small circle she’s holding court with, as we await an entrée call for The Wheeler Centre’s Lunch with Azar Nafisi: Iran, America and the Radical Power of Literature. She asks this absurd question with pomegranate lipstick parted to a wide white smile, her eyes sparkling at the prospect of such a needle-in-haystack coincidence.

“You stumbled upon the only friendly person in Melbourne,” one in our number remarks, chuckling. Unperturbed by this pessimism, Nafisi launches into exhibit No. 2 in her review of Melbourne city: the porridge she ate this morning at an establishment near her hotel. “Served with quince marmalade and clotted cream. And whisky. In America, when people have porridge, they’re trying to be healthy. But here, they serve it with a nip of whisky. I like that!” Her warm brown eyes crinkle into downturned crescent moons.

Both the generosity of experience, and the breakfast-captures-city observation are characteristic of the way Nafisi approaches her material as a writer. Her internationally acclaimed 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran explores the author’s life in that city from 1979 (at the time of the revolution) to her departure from the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1997, through the lens of some of the great works of Western literature (Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice), as clandestinely studied at Nafisi’s home in Tehran with a dedicated book club comprising former students.

“One interpretation of religion should not rule,” Nafisi declares from where she sits on the small raised stage chatting with Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams, backdropped by a windowscape of Melbourne’s South Wharf. “Then religion is no more religion: it is a tool of the state.”

There’s a natural lyricism to the way Nafisi speaks, yet her sentences are lean, trimmed of any ambiguity: no faltering errs, umms, or maybes. Her answers are winsomely tangential – winding around the question towards the story she’s wanting to tell, but always resting en pointe.

“Shut me up this time, if I go on,” she pauses to instruct her host. One leg is crossed tightly over the other under the layered skirts of her heavy floor-length black dress. One black-heeled boot bounces slightly as she flexes and unflexes her ankle. Large yellow-gold earrings float beneath her wavy dark bob. Her olive shoulders peek through collarbone-cut triangles.

“In Huckleberry Finn…” Nafisi explains, speaking of her literary hero Mark Twain’s influence on her most recent memoir, The Republic of Imagination, “…racism becomes the moral compass by which you judge people. Huck learns, through Jim, how to be more human. He thinks if he does not give Jim up as a runaway slave, he’ll go to hell … but he decides not to give him up. This is the kind of morality America was built on: deciding to go to hell for doing the right thing.”

There’s a tiny glimpse of the defiance that saw the teacher expelled from the University of Tehran in 1981 for her staunch refusal to wear the veil. “My editors actually wanted to call this last book Reading Huckleberry Finn in Washington.” Nafisi screws up her nose, cringing. “I told them if they did that, I would kill them, and kill myself.”

Nafisi is well accustomed to skewering expectations. She speaks indignantly of the assumption, once settled in academia in her new homeland of the United States, that as an Iranian-born writer she specialise in Middle Eastern or “ethnic” literature. “I told them: you go and talk about that if you want to. I want to talk about dead white males.

Nafisi elaborates, at length, on the pigeonholing of writers, citing African-American writer James Baldwin’s experience of publishing the beloved novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, then struggling to have his subsequent novel, Giovanni’s Room – which has as its centre a gay male relationship – published in America. “They thought he was crazy, because they saw him only as a ‘black writer’. He told them fuck you, and then he went to London and published it.”

“She’s just gorgeous!” the diner seated next to me whispers, silver fork of exquisitely cured salmon en route to her mouth. “Really inspiring – and devastatingly articulate.”

I nod, in genuine agreement.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "The Twain shall meet". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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