In The Republic of Imagination, Azar Nafisi reminds us of the need for literature in society today and calls us to stand up and celebrate its importance. Read more on how to join Azar and others in sharing a love of fiction with #BooksSave.
A Case for Fiction
“Readers are born free and they ought to remain free,” Vladimir Nabokov used to remind his students. Before I was a writer I was a reader and my books are celebrations of the act of reading. It was through the bedtime stories I heard from my father as a small child that I first discovered the Republic of Imagination, a place that like Alice’s Wonderland, and Looking Glass World or Dorothy’s Oz is in everyone’s own backyard, no matter where they come from. Through these stories I travelled the imaginary terrain of many countries I had never visited, one night we were in Iran with our epic poet Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings, next night we travelled to Italy with Pinocchio, then flew to France with The Little Prince, Turkey with Mullah Nassredin, Denmark with The Little Match Girl, Britain with Alice, or America with Charlotte’s Web. It was only decades later that I discovered how fiction and reality interact, each subverting, transforming and shaping the other, how imagination connects different cultures and realities.
As a child I realized that through stories I could invite the whole wide world into my small room, but soon discovered how fragile reality was and how easy it was to lose that room and along with it my home, the people I loved as well as the country of my birth. At the age of thirteen I was sent to England to pursue my studies. This was my first concrete lesson in the transience and infidelities of life. The only way I could retrieve my lost and elusive Tehran was through my memories and a few books I had brought with me from home. Throughout the forlorn nights in a damp, grey, beautifully green small town called Lancaster, I would creep under the bedcovers, with a hot water bottle and before reading anything else, I would open at random three books of poetry which I kept by my bedside, by our great classical poets, Hafez and Rumi, and one by the mesmerizing modern feminist poet, Frough Farrokhzad. I did not know then that I was already creating a new home, a portable one that no one could have the power to take away from me. And later I adapted to and accepted my new homes first in England and later in America through discovering my newly-found kith and kin in Sterne, Swift, Fielding, the Bronte sisters, Austen, Auden, Shakespeare, Melville, Poe, O’Connor, Faulkner, McCullers, Baldwin, Dickinson and others.
I had not fully grasped how important imagination was to the struggle for and preservations of individual freedoms and human rights until I returned home in 1979 right after the Islamic revolution, to discover that the worst kind of exile was the one in which you no more felt at home in your own home. The claim that oppressive regimes first burn books then kill people was no longer an abstract concept, or a part of other people’s experiences, but an aspect of my own reality and an integral part of my own daily experience. The first targets of the Islamic regime were human rights and individual freedoms, all that indicated difference and diversity, and its first victims were women, minorities and culture. Alongside the laws against women and minorities, the regime attacked writers, poets, artists, musicians and journalists. Academia, specifically humanities and social sciences were deemed dangerous, Ayatollah Khomeini even went so far as to call the universities as “the source of all disaster,” more dangerous than bombs. Soon the universities were closed down in the name of “Cultural Revolution,” resistance and demonstrations by students and faculty quashed, costing many their lives or livelihoods.
It’s no surprise that humanities and arts were specifically attacked. Great works of art, literature and philosophy pose a threat to tyranny because they encourage open thought, imagination, the questioning of pre-conceived notions and established authority. No amount of moral preaching or political correctness can replace what imagination gives when it places us in other people’s experiences, opening our eyes to vistas and views we never knew existed. Unfortunately I soon discovered on my return to America in 1997 that tyrants appear to understand much better than some of our democratic leaders about the threats posed by imagination and ideas to their absolutist rule—and they are prepared to kill in order to stifle freedom of expression and choice, just as many are prepared to lose their jobs and security, and even at times their lives in order to preserve their sense of individual integrity and their right to exist as they choose. One can even claim that absolutist rulers are less afraid of Western military might than of its democratic culture, one which is not a Western monopoly but belongs to all people who fight for it and are committed to it no matter where they come from. Democracy like totalitarianism can exist anywhere, East or West, and cannot survive without a democratic imagination.
But then you really don’t have to live in oppressive societies to know this. Today, not just in America but in most democracies we are facing a crisis that is not only economic or political; rather our economic and political predicaments are rooted in a crisis of vision. Vision as Swift described it is, “what is invisible to others,” which is exactly why without imagination there can be no vision. In a democracy it is not just the political leaders but all the citizens who are responsible for the defense of what they consider to be their rights and freedoms. And freedom as Saul Bellow reminded us has its own price, its own “ordeal.”
Freedom’s first enemy as many of our great writers warn us is complacency, when we would rather have comfort over taking risks, self-indulgence rather than compassion, ideology and platitudes rather than real exchange and openness to questioning and self-questioning, greed rather than passion, entertainment rather than reflection, political correctness rather than curiosity and empathy. Freedom’s absence is rooted in a utilitarian and mercenary attitude that promotes the search for vocation over the search for knowledge that segregates science and technology from humanities and liberal arts, thereby draining science, humanities and arts from their true meaning and purpose. The question is: can we face the tremendous problems confronting us today without the ability to imagine the past, reflect on the present, and discover the potentials for change through imagining the future? Can we win the “wars” against terror without genuine knowledge and empathy for others who live under the reign of terror? Can we encounter our enemies without understanding who they are, why they act the way do, in other words without getting under their skin? And can we save the environment without the science to know the environment as well as the ability to imagine the consequence of its abuse? Can we educate our children to be responsible citizens, to make the right choices in a commercial world and consumer society in which everything from toothpaste to political candidates are packaged and branded and rebranded and where money not passion and compassion reign supreme? How do we, as readers respond to these questions? It is not only in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia that questions of human rights and imagination are paramount. Like Ray Bradbury I believe that
“You don’t need to burn books to destroy a culture. All you have to do is to make people stop reading.”
How do we as readers confront these questions? And are books relevant to solving our real problems? I have asked myself these questions time and time again, and have returned to the same answer time and time again: imagination and thought, like human rights and freedom transcend boundaries of time, geography, nationality, religion, ethnicity, language, race, gender, creating a common space where we not only celebrate our differences but understand our common humanity. Which is why they are essential to us in a very pragmatic way, reminding us of our shared human struggle, allowing us to deeply appreciate the voices and hearts of others who are different from us. Democracy depends on that imagination.
Seamus Heaney in a poem called “Republic of Conscience” that inspired Art for Amnesty and Amnesty International’s highest award, describes his Republic of Conscience as a place with
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very
your symptoms of creeping privilege dis-appeared.
I have often thought how fitting it is for a poet to understand and articulate the affinities between the twin Republics of conscience and imagination, and to know that we will not survive as citizens of our countries (and the world) if we do not pledge allegiance to the twin republics of imagination and conscience. And this is what every dedicated reader needs to believe in and to act upon.
Azar Nafisi, 2015.
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The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction, Azar Nafasi is out on 27th August 2015.