Azar Nafisi, professor of aesthetics, culture and literature at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, is also the author of the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books and The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books. She was speaking on 26 May at the Legatum Institute in London, a think-tank and educational charity “focussed on promoting prosperity”.
When she arrived in the United States from Iran, recalled Professor Nafisi, she soon got irritated at being “categorised”: “It was assumed I would go into women’s studies or Islamic studies, so I said ‘You go into women’s studies or Islamic studies if you want to. I want to read the Dead White Males!’”
Noting that “a novel forces you to see and feel others as you see and feel yourself”, Professor Nafisi was concerned that students were no longer properly exposed to literature, since “they don’t read The Great Gatsby, but theories about The Great Gatsby. I don’t want my students to read the theories, even my own.” Instead, universities needed to provide them with “subversive book groups”.
Yet Professor Nafisi’s real contempt was reserved for the “trigger warnings” about dangerous or upsetting elements of books students were expected to read, based on “a model of education which is all about not disturbing your peace”. Her own view, by contrast, echoed James Baldwin’s – that “literature is there to disturb us”.
“At every moment in our lives,” she explained, “there are dangers that people don’t warn you against.” Although this had obviously been true for those who had lived through the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, it was essentially true everywhere. Unfortunately, Professor Nafisi went on, “we now want aspirin for the soul and for our children to be comfortable rather than confronting life”. When her students wanted to be protected from painful topics, her response was to “tell them to go back to the womb”.