“Let America be America again”: Azar Nafisi’s new book begins with a rousing epigraph from Langston Hughes’ 1935 poem. Hughes’ modern American anthem is an ambiguous war cry, heavy with the irony of his own particular brand of excluded black and closeted gay American identity.
It is an apt choice: the notion of the outsider who is most capable of speaking truth to the nation is at the heart of Nafisi’s book. In this collection of extended critical reflections on four American writers (Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Carson McCullers and James Baldwin), Nafisi braids literary criticism with memoir and social commentary.
On the surface, and as its subtitle indicates, the book presents the case for fiction, arguing for the centrality of literature to democracy and good, critical citizenship. This is straightforward enough, and the kind of idealistic liberal arts fare with which few readers would disagree. The lengthy essays offered are not especially remarkable, but it is, curiously enough, some of the more passing general observations that make this an arresting read.
In her introduction, Nafisi justifies the book with the claim that American fiction, and perhaps the US itself, is understood most profoundly by those born outside its borders or newly inducted into its citizenry. This suggestion is both striking and utterly persuasive. The premise that “Western books” might somehow yield more readily to an Iranian curiosity produced Nafisi’s sensational first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which, set against the backdrop of morality police and state executions, recounted her experience of teaching The Great Gatsby and other Western works of literature to voracious Iranian students.
There is something simultaneously perverse and brilliant about the idea that a nation has no especial claim to its great classics, and indeed that the supreme mark of a classic is its ability to traverse national borders, even to the extent that it is potentially most elevated by those readers who live beyond its imaginable perimeters.
The Republic of Imagination makes the case for this notion by its very existence – Nafisi is the thoughtful outsider whose attention carefully reframes a novel such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so that it speaks afresh to a contemporary audience who might otherwise have relegated it to adolescent reading. More interestingly, though, this claim about the outsider reading in goes some way towards explaining why the strongest section of the book, by far, is the epilogue on Baldwin, who, like Hughes and Nafisi herself, could not but write from the margins, always at an angle to the America he loved and raged against.
“I love America more than any country in the world,” Baldwin wrote, “and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Nafisi is alert here to the “generosity” of Baldwin’s sentiment, as well as the seriousness. Her own criticism is directed at specific targets, including the “common core”, a controversial curriculum standardisation initiative in US schools whose prescriptions might ring familiarly to those who taught in the UK under the reign of Michael Gove.
Although Nafisi clearly writes with a US audience in mind, the interweaving of memoir and reflection makes this a nicely companionable book. The readings meander, but are plainly spoken and heartfelt if not always sophisticated. There are some bum notes (bewilderingly effusive praise of Ian McEwan, some advice from Steve Jobs taken sentimentally and tone-deaf to the monstrous context of Apple Inc).
But as Nafisi points out, books are so important that they are dangerous – ayatollahs ban them, Pakistani girls are shot for wanting to read them, and even democratic governments restrict our teaching of them. It’s important that we insist on making the case for fiction.
The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction
By Azar Nafisi
William Heinemann, 352pp, £18.99 and £8.99
ISBN 9780434022151 and 9780099558934
Published 23 October 2014