Literature, Stories, and ‘Magicians’
October 9, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: identity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes those who ‘authorize’ transformation are authors themselves. Let me share a story of one of my own…

I have been frightened of ‘literature’ since I was fifteen. The word conjures up images of poetry recitation and the public humiliation of my 9th-grade self, by the teacher, no less. ‘Literature’ unearths self-induced fears of incompetence and artistic ignorance. In my experience, the classics of English or American literature tend to be those poems, novels, and short stories whose metaphors I rarely perceive correctly, whose prose lacks the drive of today’s more familiar, media-saturated plots & pacing, and whose overall contribution to human culture continues to be a point of debate between specialists. Call something a classic of literature—English, American, Turkish, whatever—and I’m sure to find a way to avoid reading it. Until I ‘met’ my magician, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi is an Iranian-born, university professor specializing in Western (& Persian) literature and now Iranian politics. She’s most well-known for her “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran (RandomHouse, 2003), which shares truths and fiction across several years of her life in Iran, before-during-and-after the Revolution. As of 2008, Nafisi became an American citizen and now teaches and writes as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I call her my ‘magician’ relying upon her own sense of the word, with reference to an elusive fellow she first names Professor R, then ‘her magician’ forever afterward.

‘He’ was a fine arts/drama professor and writer who resigned his teaching-post in protest of Revolutionary curricular reform. He was elusive figure, welcoming her every week or so for tea and chocolates, but always aloof, unpredictable, challenging. For Nafisi, he was this kind of companion who welcomed, accompanied and challenged her very best self as teacher, artist, and writer. She didn’t always know he was shaping her, nor was she aware of how she was inviting and shaping him. They simply met to talk about their lives, ideas…and drink tea, eat chocolates. I have been blessed with several figures in my life who remind me of Professor R and Azar Nafisi. For our purposes, her magic has been to open my eyes and mind to ‘literature’ and its unsuspecting power to transform our minds, ears, spirits.

Apparent in the very title, Reading Lolita in Tehran posits from the start that context matters, even changes the work of literature, for any reading of a so-called ‘classic.’ Tehran marks the place on the planet where a novella is being read. Gone is Nabokov’s ‘classic’ as a reified, objective thing, guarded and legitimated by experts and those allowed within their coteries. Nabokov’s Lolita, in this case, has also become Nafisi’s Lolita, hers and her students’ Lolita, the reading(s) of Nabokov’s text within a poignant setting of Tehran, Iran, amidst the Revolution and afterwards.  In other words, every ‘classic’ needs its reader to exist anew, off the shelf, as a continuing ‘voice’ in the project of a vibrant humanity. For the first time, I heard that ‘literature’ could need me and my imagination if it wanted to say what it had to say.

Nafisi’s chosen genre of writing—memoir—complements the first observation about context. Organized around works and themes of four different authors or characters—Nabokov, Gatsby, James, and Austen—Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates on every page the intimate learning possible when literature breathes life into a person’s narrative or story. No longer is literature an aloof voice of ages past with its imagery and artistry impossible to decipher correctly. Literature becomes the intimate marriage of an author’s and characters’ voices-in-situation, experienced by a reader in her communities, and then—if one does the reflective work—given transformative significance hospitable to others beyond the specific author.

Nafisi has done the reflective work, and with her tutelage, I began to see symbols, themes, images within her chosen classics come to life in my own narrative. I devoured Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while reading Nafisi’s volume. It made portions of my narrative come to mind, newly sensitized to implications and connections with my own steeped history of a decade ago, in an institution of material privilege and relational poverty. I’m learning to listen in ‘literature’ for legitimate touchstones between author’s/characters/situations and my own life.

I suspect many more learnings could be articulated, if time were taken for such things. For now, this page-prose offers a bit of one of my own ‘authorizers.’ Nafisi’s ‘magic’ of renewal and recovery in my spirit was no mean feat, given my long ambivalence and avoidance of anything internally or externally professed as a classic of literature. As she notes herself, though, such magic is never solely the magician’s, but signals an avid learner open to being evoked or conjured anew. “Does every magician, every genuine one,” she asks, “…evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?” (p. 337).

I tender my heartfelt thanksgiving here for the voice and vocation of Azar Nafisi, an author whose voice challenges my own, and a teacher who showed it is possible to teach transformative living amidst the delights and discomforts of ‘literature.’ I also smile with appreciation for the wisdom to receive her teaching and the challenge for my narrative & writing.  Perhaps even my 9th-grade self will have new learnings to share in the days, months, and years to come.

Will yours, as you read and listen to the ‘classics,’ in print and those living in your journey?


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I find myself bogged down from so much reading. I learn more about life not through books, but through real experience of hands on action. This is not to say that book knowledge can not move me. I am high strung and need to move physically. My mind becomes bored by so many words. I have moved from allowing the mind to lead me each moment to a heart guided life in conversation with my spirit in connection with the Spirit. Books can only teach or show this so much. Action moved by the heart is the other half and the balance to mind analysis.

Comment by rob hart

Finding the magician or author who weaves a story or group of facts that touches the heart, mind and spirit of the reader and captures it begins the magic. When a bridge between what is written and their life experiences cross, the reader is drawn in and that which seemed to be uninteresting, foolish or nonrelevant becomes a series of theme somehow relevant, somehow opening the magic of connectivity.


Comment by Charlotte Edwards

Unlike you Dr. Hess, I loved Literature, but didn’t find I liked reading it. Somehow as I forced myself to do so, I found that my imagination would soar and led me to writing down my own thoughts and giving voice to my imagination. Not surprising to me… but it was unexpected. I’ve come to look for the unexpected… the connectivity… the MAGIC.

Comment by Traci Draper

As child, there were two things I was forced to memorize: poetry and music. My parents insisted that I participate in talent shows. During high school I despised my piano lessons. During college I despised literature and writing. Then, something happened. I took an interest in theology (grace, the cross, the person of Christ) and began to love the Bible, philosophy, theological texts and systematic theologies. And then writing. And finally after getting my degree in music loved the performance art of music and teaching it. And now, looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. Should all parents force their children like I was forced? I don’t know. But for me, God, in His providence used my upbringing to teach me to love reading…perhaps not necessarily the classics, but I view old theology as just as “classic” as any literature I was every assigned in high school or college.

Comment by George Fenley

I grew up hearing differnt sorts of literature. Both of my parents were scholars…my father in the world of Psychology and my mother in theology. I remeber reading C.S. Lewis, and having Aesops Fables read to me (among others). I do love to read, yet I find that I have little time to read as much as I would like of all the things I love to read. On the other hand, I really enjoy the readings which are required for class and find that they satisfy the desire to read more than I ever imagined they would. With all of this discussion about imagination, I do have to say that mine has been exercised in new and unfamiliar ways since starting here a UTS. I continue to be drawn out of myself, given into the community…even poured onto paper! And I continue to be surprised by the results. Thank you!

Comment by afi dobbins

I have had one semester of literature in all my education and although I enjoy reading, this is something I stay away from. I have never considered myself the ‘literary type’, and certainly not classical- in personality or lifestyle. But I have learned to never say never, so t speak so I will make note of this author. Thank you for sharing.

Comment by phyllis lemon

I love reading the classics. I feel like I do so much reading for classes. So it is nice to take a break from required reading and pour myself into a classic. I do enjoy reading the work we are reading for class. I really love reading these blogs as well. I feel like I get a lot out of these readings.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: