Each part, as titled, is about an author’s work: “Lolita” focuses on Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading, the author also mentions Pnin; “Gatsby” is mostly about The Great Gatsby; “James” is about Henry James, mostly Daily Miller and Washington Square, etc. Reading Lolita in Tehran is both about Nafisi’s life and about the books she discusses, but here comes the thing I don’t like: the comparison. It almost feels like she feels the need to justify naming each section after a literary work or an author’s name, so she compares the tyranny in Lolita to the tyranny in the Islamic Republic of Iran (comparing the regime to Humbert Humbert and the women to Lolita), or Gatsby’s dream to the broken dreams of the revolutionaries, and so on. In a way I see her points, and some of her arguments make sense, but it still seems forced. It’s like she reduces a literary work, like Lolita, to an analogy. At other times it feels like she teaches the students to relate to the characters, to find something relatable, which, by Nabokov’s standards, is not the way to read a work of art.
Comparison makes more sense as I’m now reading the “Austen” section: Nafisi writes about Jane Austen, and about her students’ relationship/ marriage problems, and the problem of love, courtship, marriage, and sex in Iran.
Just recently I came across this article:
Isn’t it interesting how there are quite a few Muslim retellings of Jane Austen’s stories?
Or look at this article:
“Pakistan and indeed, much of South Asia, may at times be regarded as the land of Austen; twenty first century in many ways, yet quintessentially Jane’s world in others, much more so than the western hemisphere. Many social conventions among the fashionable society of the Regency era are still found in Pakistan today: the importance of making ‘a good match,’ the influence of families over individuals and couples, elements of social decorum, maintaining a fashionable veneer at all costs, social criteria for eligibility in marriage, saving oneself for marriage—or at least appearing to, striving for a facade of propriety, and, of course, inherent snobbery. There are ladies who appear privileged yet are often bound by conventions that define them first by their fathers and then by their husbands.”Some societies are so backward. Think about it, Pride and Prejudice was published in England in 1813. The students in Reading Lolita in Tehran feel that in some ways their society is even behind Jane Austen’s world.
I feel too strongly about gender equality and human rights to fear being accused of Islamophobia or racism. In fact, I despise so-called feminists in the West who complain about non-issues such as mansplaining and manspreading but are silent about women’s situation in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, or say some nonsense about respecting culture and tradition. Not everything should be respected because it’s a tradition. I come from Vietnam, and lots of traditions should be abolished because they are backward, barbaric, and inhuman—we can’t have progress if we cling to traditions for the sake of traditions.
Also, things that people call traditions are not necessarily traditions. In Reading Lolita in Tehran for example, Nafisi writes about the time before the revolution, and she has lived under both regimes to know that the revolution made Iran become backward—the government was totalitarian, women started to have fewer rights, society became backward and less free, lots of things started to be prohibited, as the new ideology became imposed on society. I’m afraid that those things that people perceive as traditions were just arbitrary laws imposed by a totalitarian regime.
Anyway, to go back to the book, it should be read. Some passages in it are heartbreaking. Imagine living such a society as a woman, where you get punished for wearing pink socks or nail polish, or eating an apple in a “provocative” way, or even showing a strand of hair.