Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reading Lolita in Tehran & In Her Place



Reading right now: a memoir in books, from a place where more and more books were banned, and stories from"In Her Place"

Reading Lolita in Tehran
I haven't read Lolita yet. But if I wanted to, I could go into the next best book shop and order it. And read it. And blog about it. And invite friends to read it together with me. We could organize a public event. And we probably would have to find a way to catch attention for it, in these days of news buzz and scandals.

It's hard to imagine to live in a place where all this is dangerous or impossible. Where books are banned, where reading Lolita is forbidden. Azar Nafisi has been there, in this place. She put her experiences and memories into words, into a book: "Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a mosaic of situations, many of them directly related to novels and stories. The book is moving back and forth in time, it is sorted not by date, but by books, and has four main sections: "Lolita", "Gatsby", "James", and "Austen". And it includes countless thoughtful paragraphs with reflections on books and reading, like this one, from the Gatsby part:
"You don't read Gatsby, I said, to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.” 
Nafisi gave the book the subtile: "A memoir in books", and what makes the book so special is that Nafisi is a wanderer between worlds: she lived in the Iran before the revolution, she lived in the US, and she lived in the Iran after the revolution. And was a literary professor at the university of Tehran.
“It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them.”
In the book, she tells about the way life changed in Iran, from an open society to a fundamentalist state that cut down one freedom after another, banned books and veiled women, and left more and more people stranded at home, isolated and afraid. At some point, Nafisis started to invite some of her former students to meet up and read together. Which was both a thing that helped them to stay mentally sane, but also had to be kept secret. She notes:
“The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities, about which we felt so helplessly speechless.”
To imagine that: reading as a dangerous and forbidden activity.

Azir Nafisi lives in the US now. While reading the book, I also watched an interview with her - or rather a book talk with her. It is about Lolita, about life in a totalitarian state, about her own book, and about novels and the layers of life they include. And how stories are essential to our survival. here's the link: Interview with Azar Nafii, Reading Lolita in Tehran


Altogether, this book summary adds it up beautifully (and painfully): “In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature."

There's s goodreads page with quotes from "Reading..", it includes 4 pages with reflections on reading and books, like this one:
“A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel; you inhale the experience. So start breathing.” 
**** 



In Her Place, or: Getting Around
More experiences: Earlier this year, i read a collection of travel stories called "Be There Now". Unfortunately, the anthology doesn't include biographies of the authors or links to their websites, but with the help of Google&co, i found some of the author blogs and links to other stories of the authors - and i found another story collection, one that is online: "In Her Place" - Stories about Women Who Get Around"

Here's their concept: "We recently had a call for submissions and received a huge response by some very talented authors. We read them all and selected a handful of the stories that we felt answered the call: “In what ways does being female affect one’s sense of place, placement, and/or (dis)location?”

So glad I followed links, got around, and arrived there, at this beautiful and thoughtful place. The author that brought me there is "Once in a Lifetime" by Terri Elders, and it is about a rare encounter. The plan now is to follow some more story links, see where they take me. I am still focusing on short stories, trying to read around the globe and visit places I haven't been to before in stories (more about that here: reading the world) - and In Her Place now added Guatemala and Puerto Rico to the map. 

Here are some direct links to stories from "In Her Place":

Guatemala
"Once in a Lifetime" by Terri Elders
"In l990 when I first moved to Antigua, Guatemala, my birder knowledge was…for the birds. Or at least my housemate, Kelly, saw it that way.."

Iraq / Mexico
"¿Cómo Se Dice Gravy?" by Huda Al-Marashi
"You are twenty-one years old. You have a college degree, and you were friends with your husband before you married him. Pull yourself together. Make a good memory for today, and then you can be sad again tomorrow..."

India
"Ebony has many shades", by Mira Desai
"Aruna’s skin burned, scorching seven layers, as she shaded her eyes and watched the black flecks circle overhead, wingspan spread, almost motionless as they rode invisible air currents. Death birds. Birds of prey..."

Romania 
"A Popular Passport" by Avra Kouffman
"Try to get comfortable. It’s your first month in eastern Europe and you’re about to take a 14-hour train trip from Moldova to Bucharest, Romania. This overnight journey will be mired in the deepest humidity and where you actually want to go is Ukraine..."

Puerto Rico / Spain
"Spanish Flies" by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro
"In Spain, the flies do not leave, even if you try to scare them, whipping up your hands. They are different from the ones in Puerto Rico, where, at the slightest provocation, the insect flutters its wings and flies away..."

**

Links + More

Reading the world:  the collected list of stories is online here: global reading, and a note on the reading journey can be found here:  reading the (missing parts of) the world 





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