Thursday, January 8, 2015

Nafisi's love letter to the Great American Novel(s)

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi's The Republic of Imagination is a passionate tribute to the importance and power of fiction in our world today.  Someone told Nafisi that Americans do not value reading as much as Iranians do because Americans can read whatever they want - and so, often, they choose not to read anything of value at all.  Nafisi chooses three American novels - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to form the backbone of her argument.  The great American novel has just as much to teach us today as it did in the past.

There is a lot in this book about how the arts are under attack, particularly in the schools.  While this is true, I don't know if I believe fiction in our schools is at as much risk as Nafisi seems to believe.  Granted, I haven't been in school for a long time - parents and young adults out there, do you worry that kids will have no creativity or imagination or subtlety in their lives due to a decrease in the amount of fiction they read?  Do you think they read less fiction?  Nafisi seems very concerned, probably because she sets up this whole book as a way to combat that way of thinking.  But I can't imagine going to school and not reading Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Richard Wright, and I hope that education doesn't get SO focused on STEM that it forgets the beauty of language.

Whatever her motivation for writing this book, I am so glad Nafisi did write it.  I want to read every single novel she mentions here, from The Wizard of Oz to Go Tell it on the Mountain and everything in between.  I absolutely want to re-read The Adventures o Huckleberry Finn, and I would like to supplement that reading with Mark Twain's autobiography, too.  I want to read Bartleby the Scrivener, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  All of them!  The enthusiasm and admiration that Nafisi feels for the authors of these books, the empathy and care she has for the characters that populate these books, and her ability to show readers exactly why those books were so important to her, why they are so important to everyone is just so inspiring.  These are the sorts of novels that make you miss your high school and college English classes, where you could debate so many topics in a safe place, have a real discussion about important themes and symbols and experiences.  And, to a great extent, when so many people in a country have read the same books and discussed similar topics related to those books, it creates a sense of community and shared experience that it's hard to get from anything else.  What would happen if everyone in America read Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem during the Great Depression?  Maybe we would have some common ground from which to begin complicated, difficult discussions.

I read this book on audio, so I unfortunately do not have the book at hand to share quotes with you.  But one thing Nafisi said really stood out to me.  Most Americans do not read James Baldwin in school any more.  I certainly didn't.  In fact, I only even heard about him more recently.  The reasoning is that there are many more Black authors to choose from now who can relate the Black experience just as well.

There are many problems with this way of thinking.  Obviously, most English departments don't spend a lot of time thinking, "Gosh, I think we need at least one token book on the White Experience."  And James Baldwin worked very hard to write novels that were universal, that spoke of the human condition in a way that would resonate with all people.  He was first labeled as a Black writer, than as a gay writer, and he worked so as to defy all those labels.  How callous is it, then, to put him in the "Black authors" bucket and then say sorry, that bucket is full, we have no need of you any more?

She makes a parallel argument for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the number of times the N word shows up in that book.  This often leads to Huck Finn being on the banned books list or beign removed from required reading in school.  It can be difficult to face that word and all the weight it carries with it.  I get it.  But does that mean we should ignore all of the wonderful, beautiful lessons that Huck Finn can teach us because some parts of it make us uncomfortable?  Life is uncomfortable.  At least in fiction, you can see that the discomfort serves a purpose.

This was such a moving, inspiring book.  Nafisi's love of so many novels and the way she draws parallels between the characters and the authors and her own life experiences, or the experiences that all of us collectively share, is just so lovely.  And the spotlight she shines on so many under-appreciated classics - just lovely.  I now have James Baldwin's first book to read on my commute next week, and I hope to follow it up soon with Huck Finn.  I hope that she inspires you to do much the same.

I leave you with a James Baldwin quote that Nafisi used in her book:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

12 comments:

  1. I'm so glad she talks about James Baldwin. I didn't love the one novel of his that I've read, but his essays are just absolutely beautiful, and angry and honest. I need to read Notes of a Native Son.

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    1. I am going to start Go Tell it on the Mountain on audiobook shortly - I should check out his essays, too! I should check out the memoirs/essays of all authors that I love, if they are available.

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  2. I'm neither a parent nor a teacher, but I work in education publishing, and there has been a real push to increase nonfiction reading in the U.S. I think the idea was that students would read good nonfiction related to science, history, etc., in the classes on those subjects, but a lot of the nonfiction reading is happening in English classes, and fiction is getting displaced. Plus, there's less emphasis on teaching whole-class novels and more on having students choose their reading, so they may be reading fiction, but it's less likely to be Huck Finn. So yes, I'd say the things she cautions against are real, but how serious the situation is varies a lot from school to school. (And there are some good reasons behind both of these trends, but whether those reasons are good enough to displace so much fiction reading, especially of classics, is a big debate.)

    I read Go Tell It on the Mountain a few years ago, and there was a lot in it that resonated with me, so I think Baldwin was highly successful in telling a universal story while also telling something from his own experience. It's a great book.

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    1. Thanks so much for the insight, Teresa. That is concerning. I wonder why the non-fiction reading is happening in English class instead of science or history classes. I also understand the idea of students choosing from several books and therefore choosing the ones that interest them the most, but at the same time, I really loved the opportunity for rich discussion in my classes and I'm sad that students now are missing out on it.

      I plan to read Go Tell it on the Mountain very soon! So glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. I have this on cd also, and can't wait to listen to it! (However, I'm not going out in the car much these days, as you know from the weather! LOL)

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    1. I can't wait to hear what you think of it - I hope you like it as much as I do :-)

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  4. I'm delighted to hear you enjoyed this Aarti, as I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran and mean to read Nafisi's latest. Not having read much American literature, it sounds like good motivation.

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    1. I've never read Reading Lolita in Tehran, so this makes me want to read that one :-) I definitely think she will motivate you to read American literature - and, I think, just read in general and think about the impact certain books have on your own life.

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  5. I never worry all that much about young people today, but then again I'm not in the US, and as someone who works in libraries I deal with a biased sample - most of the kids I deal with are the ones who ARE reading. So it was interesting to read the context Teresa provided in her comment.

    Anyway, I definitely need to read this book this year, and I'd like to recommend James Baldwin's The Fire Next time to you. It's so moving and powerful and amazing.

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    1. Thank you for the suggestion! It is available at the library, so I've added it to my wish list.

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  6. Yes, do read some Baldwin, and if you haven't read Their Eyes Were Watching God, move it to the top of your list. It has long been one of my favorites.

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  7. I'm only a couple hours into the audiobook, but I'm feeling similarly -- I want to read all of the books she's mentioning, even Huck Finn, which I have never wanted to read before. I know there will be more in my queue by the end.

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