The Transformative Power of Imagination: An Interview with Azar Nafisi

by Amanda Gomez

More than thirteen years ago, Azar Nafisi, whose three books of nonfiction have been New York Times Bestsellers, from her Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Nonfiction debut, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2008), to her most recent book of nonfiction, The Republic of Imagination, (Penguin Books, 2014), began writing about the subversive power of literature. During Old Dominion University’s (ODU) 2016 Literary Festival, Nafisi referenced her latest book and began a dialogue of how society identifies our bodies. We are categorized by what we can and cannot do. In Nafisi’s case, she found herself pigeonholed in an academic setting by being requested to teach literature courses based on her ethnic identity. She responded by saying, “I want to teach dead white guys simply because they are not me!”

It is this same attitude which fuels her work; at the heart of her writing lies the transformative nature of the imagination. For Nafisi, we read literature not only for enjoyment, but to imagine new realms of possibilities. The imagined space of literature creates distance from our daily routine so that we may have a clearer view of our own reality. In one of Nafisi’s first essays, “Imagination as Subversion: Narrative and Civic Awareness,” Nafisi used the collection of stories, The One Thousand and One Nights, as a framework for life. As Shahrzad, the legendary queen and storyteller, is able to shape her reality through her imagination, literature, “this illusory reality,” though it may “not offer a direct solution for one’s riddles… the insights it provides changes attitudes, it lets one look at life in new and subversive ways” (Nafisi 68). Like Shahrzad, we too can influence and change our surrounding environments if we are courageous enough to act upon our new imaginings. In the conversation that follows, which took place shortly after her lecture at ODU, Nafisi talks about literature’s power of resistance, our loss of sensuality, and the importance of imagination.

AG: Your latest book, The Republic of Imagination, speaks to the importance of literature today, especially in a democratic society. Can you speak to this idea some more?

AN: You don’t read a book to find what you know; you read a book to find out what you don’t know, and there is a relationship between fiction and reality. Fiction shows you how things are, so you can see, or imagine, how they could be.

AG: So it is not just literature, but the reader’s imagination which is also important in a society? We can’t have one without the other?

AN: Yes, writing and reading go together, and they are a way of resistance. Imagination goes against categories, which is ironic because the academic world uses categories, but the greatest works of art cannot be categorized.

AG: How do you think this relates to our predicaments today, as currently, we are in the midst of a presidential election, and being Latina, my family fears the worst if Trump were to win?

AN: The Trump paradox is that in 2008, when Obama became President of the United States, we reached the height of rights that we have ever experienced in America. Since then, we’ve also become lazy. Always there was restlessness, but crass materialism and the urge for immediate success are eroding our ideals. It is not enough to hate what exists, but you have to know what you hate in order to change it. This is why we must do our own independent research and not rely on what we are told.

AG: Something I’m inferring from what you just said is our obsession, or addiction, to having things now. We are people of deadlines and immediacy. Do you think we are losing touch with our physical reality? And do you think this is also eroding our society? For instance, it used to be that if you looked under the hood of your car, you could see the engine, but today, more and more cars even seem to have that covered with plastic. We are becoming so disconnected from activities and habits that we used to do ourselves.

AN: You are exactly right. We’re losing our sensuality, our intimacy with our senses. Fortunately and unfortunately, the 20th and 21st centuries have been American centuries. Fortunately, because the creation of the internet has provided a way of liberation for third world countries. Unfortunately, because while America has benefitted from advancements in technology, its education has suffered. Children are becoming deprived of art and literature more and more.

AG: Why is art so important?

AN: Life is always in search of the new. Humans need new things, but they also need things that keep continuity. Our ways will end at some point, but art, especially poetry, is intensified experience. It has the ability to delve deep into life so that we can confront it.

AG: You spoke about education as well, especially the relationship between art and education.

AN: We must advocate for imagination for our children today, even from early childhood. You need the freedom to roam, and even in this, you learn your limitations. This is what the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, teaches. It demonstrates the stages of growth. In order to fight the witch and escape, Hansel and Gretel must use their own minds. Then, when they defeat the witch, they bring the treasure home. Children must be given the freedom to imagine, so that we all may benefit.

AG: Why is imagination so important in all of this?

AN: The beauty of imagination is that you have followed your passion. In that sense, we learn to say, “I don’t think I’ll reach the desired result, but I like the excitement of the journey.”

Works Cited
Nafisi, Azar. “Imagination as Subversion: Narrative and Civic Awareness.” Muslim Women and   the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform, edited by Mahnaz   Afkhami and Erika Friedl, Syracuse University Press, 1997, 58-71.

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Amanda Gomez is an MFA candidate in poetry at Old Dominion University. Recently, she received Honorable Mention for ODU’s 2016 Graduate Poetry Prize for her poem, “Mastectomy.” Some of her works have been published or are forthcoming in the following publications: Eunoia ReviewEkphrastic ReviewManchester ReviewExpound MagazineSan Pedro River Review, and Avalon Literary Review.