Reading Fiction As an Act of Resistance: A Conversation with Azar Nafisi


A recent story on NPR reported an increase of community parent groups advocating the removal of certain “controversial” books from the school libraries. In Kansas City, Missouri, conservative-leaning parents claim that the books in question are saturated in concepts of racism and sexuality, topics to which they believe their children should not be exposed. But the students are fighting back. A sound bite from sixteen-year-old Aurora Nicol said it best: “Choosing to pull reality out of curriculum and out of our libraries won’t create good citizens. We cannot feel as if we belong here when our voices are silenced.”

I admire Nicol’s call for action. Books are where I turn for guidance, as does Professor Azar Nafisi. Born in Iran and educated in the US, Nafisi has taught literature courses in both countries, but faced expulsion in Iran after refusing to wear the mandatory veil. She is the bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran as well as her most recent titled, Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times.

Professor Nafisi’s father, Ahmed Nafisi, was a scholar who served as mayor of Tehran, and was imprisoned in the 1960s for political reasons. He taught her as a child how literature could rescue her in times of trauma. He passed away in 2004, well before many of the recent events that have irrevocably changed our world—the 2016 election, the Muslim ban, the January 6th insurrection, the pandemic, to name a few. In Read Dangerously, Nafisi pens a series of letters to her late father about their shared love of literature, as she also wonders how he would react if he saw what was happening today. Through probing the works of some of our most foundational authors, Nafisi’s letters detail the danger that censorship and authoritarian ideology pose to a democracy, while also showing the mutual love for reading fiction shared by both father and daughter.

I had the joy of conversing with Professor Nafisi over the phone to discuss the state of the country, the intimacy of letters, and the need to read dangerously.


The Rumpus: Why did you decide to structure the book as letters to your father?

Azar Nafisi: Anything that happens to me I write about. I was looking for a more intimate form of communication and letters kept coming to my mind. Even people I dislike—Donald Trump—I was writing him letters. Whenever you are too angry, you don’t perform well. With Donald Trump, it was mainly very sarcastic with angry rejoinders. I would listen to him on television and immediately my mind would go into a polemic with him. That was a very haphazard way of doing things and I wasn’t happy with it.

I wrote letters to Parastou Forouhar, the daughter of two Iranian activists who were killed by the regime. I wrote to Abraham Lincoln. It was my Saul Bellow’s Hertzog moment—I was writing letters. But none of these satisfied me. Later I thought about writing my letters to the authors I was writing about, but that also didn’t work. One day, I was talking about my frustration with a friend and she said, “Why don’t you write to a third person?” Almost immediately after she said that, I thought, “That’s it! My father!”

As I mention in the book, we had a long history of writing letters to one another. Although our letters were mostly about books, it was something close to my heart and something that I really owed to my father. After that, I was positive that was the way I should go.

Rumpus: You have a continual thread in your body of work about the power of literature, which is clear to see in Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination. In Read Dangerously, it appears you have a new urgency since there’s so much happening in the US.

Nafisi: When I was just beginning to write this book, I was so afraid of what was happening. There were little warnings here and there. I am very concerned when we either ignore or are indifferent towards ideas and imagination. Ideas and imagination are not simply things in the classroom or within a book we read. Imaginative knowledge is a way of looking at the world, relating to the world, and changing the world. That is how I see literature. I feel we sorely need it when the attitude at this time is so anti-democratic, so anti-literature.

Rumpus: What were some of the little warnings that caused you to become fearful?

Nafisi: I remember one incident during the presidential debate. Donald Trump would personally attack the journalists asking him questions. He would insult the other candidates. He intruded on the traditional form of the debate and changed it. He was basically ensuring that the debate would not be taken seriously. Trump came into the political arena more as a buffoon and people gave him space that he didn’t deserve. For example, when the media made a big story over his unjustified claims that Obama wasn’t born here. Why? Why give this guy that much space?

The other is more opaque—I looked at our education system. More and more, we are getting away from the importance of knowledge as knowledge. On the one hand our system is run by a corporate mentality and on the other hand it is run by an ideological mentality and both are really hazardous to the purpose of education. The fact that literature was being used as a handmaiden to politics really worried me. Literature is good for us when it is independent. All of these fields of human endeavor are simultaneously independent and interdependent. They do not exist by themselves. When we talk about them according to whether they conform to our ideology, our way of assessing the world, that is where they become subversive, questioning our preconceived notions.

Rumpus: That reminds me of your beautiful words in Read Dangerously when you discuss Plato’s The Republic: “What choice does the king have but to kick the poets and storytellers out of his republic? And what choice does the poet have but to destabilize the philosopher king’s power by speaking the truth?” As you say in the book, literature allows us to step out of our comfort zones.

Nafisi: It is in the nature of the philosopher king to create illusions. Plato calls it “the noble lie,” to put people in their places, while the poet’s role existentially is against that attitude. The poet’s role is to reveal the truth. They will always be in conflict.

Rumpus: Speaking of that, you have an unflinching ability to tackle controversial topics in your letters. Early on, you bring up Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the subsequent fatwa by the Ayatollah. Many individuals who played a part in the book’s publication were attacked and even killed. Did you face any mental blocks when having to approach these controversial topics?

Nafisi: I did have moments of worry that this might be misconstrued or used in ways I didn’t want them to be used. In the end, I had no choice. Rushdie’s example was the best example for what I wanted to say. Also, it was the best example for what I wanted to note about Islam. These days there are so many distorted views of Islam, reducing it to extreme and often politicized interpretations of it. This fatwa was not a defense of Islam. It was an abuse of religion for political power, like the mandatory veil. Today, Islamic religion is frequently defined in terms of extremes. The billions that believe in this religion are just like the billions of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Like other religions, Islam has many diverse interpretations. All religions have extremes and all religions have some secular interpretations, some liberal interpretations. I wanted to show that through Rushdie. The kind of Islam the Ayatollah offered the world by giving a fatwa like that is not necessarily the kind the whole Islamic world believes in.

I also mention my father’s interpretation of religion in that chapter. He was very poetic and generous about it. Through my father’s teachings when I was a child, I had an understanding of a God who was forgiving and tolerant. The Islam he taught me was tender and generous towards others.

Rumpus: In writing intellectually to your father, you also show us the closeness of your relationship with him. Woven into these letters you mention family members and friends, many of them your father knew. When remembering Plato’s The Republic, you couch the information within your life at that time, arguing with your friend Dan in coffeeshops as you both try to unpack the text. You express to your father your concern for your friend, Shirin, who you have been trying to get in touch with in Iran. You share the happy news of the birth of your grandchildren.

Nafisi: I have always been interested in the relationship between my reality and the fiction I am reading. I wonder how my current reality affects the fiction I am reading. At the same time, I think about how fiction changes my view of the world. I can’t just write a straight essay. I have to bring in the narrative. The narrative comes in either through experiences or memorable people in my life. While writing these letters, Shirin kept coming to my mind. Of course, there were times when I was talking to her as well. I wanted her to be part of this. The same with my daughter. I wanted people to see storytelling as something alive.

At the end of my book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I include a quotation from Bellow. To paraphrase, he said what is dangerous to a democratic society is our sleeping consciousness, our atrophy of feeling. That was what worried me about the US—that we have become numb in terms of our consciousness and our feelings. We need the life-giving essence of art, literature, music to bring us back into the world. It brings us back the way Alice comes back from Wonderland with new eyes to look at the world.

Rumpus: I appreciated how you would occasionally put authors in conversation with one another. One that comes to mind is Zora Neale Hurston’s criticism of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, followed by your own opinion on this discourse. You discuss how there is no right or wrong answer, but that you notice how each author had different attitudes as to how they approached the page. Why did you choose to present the authors this way?

Nafisi: When I bring up authors, not everyone has to agree with my opinions. I wanted to create an experience where the reader would come to her own conclusions—agree, disagree, or be indifferent.

A lot of people get angry and argue for censorship. They want literature to bow to their demands. They want literature to comfort them by telling them what they want to hear. And literature never satisfies that demand.

People think that as an author, you sit down and you know what you want to write about from the very beginning. Writing in itself is an act of discovery. For me an idea comes to my mind and it doesn’t go away. I keep thinking about it and playing with it, trying to understand it. In the process of writing, I’ve come to understand so many things that I’ve never known were there. Baldwin admits that in the beginning he doesn’t know exactly what to write. Writing is an investigation. And reading is also an investigation.

I love the metaphor of Alice because she runs after what she is curious about—the white rabbit. She jumps into the hole without thinking. Because she opens herself to wonderland, wonderland opens to her. She comes back from that experience as a new person.

Rumpus: Continuing with that idea, what revelations or insights came to you in the process of writing this book?

Nafisi: I had to go back and rewrite the introduction because more and more I was talking about our “enemies.” I realized that in the times we live in now, there are no gradations. There are just enemies and there are allies. Before this era, Democrats were the opposition party of the Republicans. Then came Donald Trump, who made Democrats the enemy of the people. I had to change my introduction and redefine how I think of enemies and the idea of enemies overwhelming us.

We are as much defined by our enemies as we are by our friends. We need fiction because fiction does not polarize. Fiction is based on understanding over judgment. Fiction is by nature democratic because a great writer—not every writer, but a great writer—gives voice to every character, including the villain. If you are a bad writer, you impose your voice and your message on all the characters, so they are either good or bad. There’s no ambiguity, no complexity.

We need to understand our enemy, but we do not need to react the way our enemy would.

On another note, I was surprised at the memories that appeared when writing about my father. In the Baldwin chapter, I talk about one of those days when I went to the park with my father. I only remembered that while I was writing.

Rumpus: The appendix has your father’s 1966 letter to Lyndon Johnson which he wrote while in prison in Iran. I am curious at how you got the letter and also how you chose this piece of writing to be the one you included for sharing his voice?

Nafisi: I got it from his book of memoirs which he wrote in Persian. My brother, my uncle, and I tried to gather all of my father’s diaries and notes. We amassed an archive of his writing.

I was writing the Baldwin chapter and using his memories and part of that letter. His letter addressed many issues that concerned him very deeply. The content of what my father says is also relevant to the book. Also, the readers get a chance to communicate with him without me being there. They experience his ideas as expressed by him, not me.

I drew the structure of the book from those letters. We would talk of many personal things, sometimes complaining to one other and then later diving into discussions about these authors.

Rumpus: One of your big points in the book is the idea that literature should make us uncomfortable. What was a recent book that changed your worldview?

Nafisi: For the past three years I’ve been mainly focused on the books I would write about. I have read Ayad Akhtar and I have read a fun novel, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is a serious book, but it has a kind of buoyancy to it. I have been rereading some Persian poetry called Vis and Rāmin. It is a Romeo and Juliet kind of story, but this one is a thousand years old. The woman in the story is so liberated, so independent. She reproaches her lover, telling him that it is not the contract that matters—it’s love. It’s beautifully written.

Rumpus: You provide a wonderful list of the books you referenced in your letters. It’s a reading list for getting started to read dangerously. You mentioned some authors did not make it into the book. Which ones were you unable to include?

Nafisi: I had more authors from other countries. I had Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and I had Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. I wrote a whole chapter on that before I decided not to use it. I had Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. I had Kundera and Havel. In the Baldwin chapter I only added Nat Turner in a paragraph. I wish I could have added more of Turner.

I also had some children’s stories: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Little Prince, and Charlotte’s Web. I was going to write about The Wizard of Oz but I had used that already in [my previous book] The Republic of Imagination.

I like to say that I’m promiscuous about books. I love them all! Each time I write a book I have this problem in having to choose.

Rumpus: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when working on this project?

Nafisi: There were moments where I was so angry and so afraid of the direction of where this country was going—something I knew would not only affect this country, but the world—I would paralyze myself. I would not be able to write.

It would take me long, long walks and lots of ice cream to get back to my computer and shape the events. I wanted the book to be a narrative more than straight essays. It was difficult to try and find narratives that fit the theme of the book. I couldn’t make them up. I had to pick experiences that would be interesting and pertinent. That took a while to do. Also, choosing books, but that gave me the excuse to read and reread a lot of books!



Author photo by Stanley Staniski

Anita Gill is a writer, editor, and Fulbright Scholar to Spain. Her essays, memoir, and satire have appeared in The Iowa Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Prairie Schooner, The Offing, The Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere. Her writing has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays and has won The Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction. She is currently at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter at @anitamgill or visit her website at More from this author →