In Memoirs, Literature Helps Explain Life

by Jerry Waxler

Azar Nafisi, like any memoir author, weaves her life into her story. And since she is an English literature professor, stories also work in the other direction. Many passages of her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran show Nafisi standing in front of a classroom, explaining other peoples’ stories to her Iranian students. As she teaches them how to read novels such as “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Azar Nafisi meticulously weaves the threads of her Persian life with the literature written by these great authors, creating a finely crafted product as fascinating, complex and beautiful as a Persian Carpet.

For example, she explains that Nabokov wrote during the Russian Revolution, and that while he was writing, he had to ignore the violence raging outside his window. While she is teaching these lessons about Nabakov, Nafisi and her students also must ignore the violence raging all around them, and try to forget the secret police raids and disappearances in the night.

Some of her hard-line Islamist students hate Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” claiming that it celebrates the satanic values of the west. To give an audience to their grievances, she stages a mock trial, during which the “prosecutor” claims that the “Great Gatsby” justifies Western decadence. Nafisi defends the book by saying, “Fitzgerald doesn’t justify decadence. He shows it, and allows it to condemn itself.”

Then Nafisi creates an astoundingly elegant effect. She lets us hear the moralistic claims of the Islamic Revolution by showing so-called “morality squads,” prowling the streets of Tehran looking for girls who are guilty of offenses like using cosmetics and showing hair. The brutality of these self-righteous thugs demonstrates their own moral depravity. Like Fitzgerald, Nafisi doesn’t need to condemn their actions. By simply portraying them, she lets them condemn themselves.

In her lectures about “Lolita,” the English professor shows her students how Humbert Humbert forced a little girl to become his sexual object, his “thing.” He squeezed her into the mold of his fantasy, and crushed her individual humanity. But Humbert Humbert never admitted he did anything wrong. He deceived himself and his audience, claiming it was all Lolita’s fault. Nafisi suggests that the Revolution has done the same thing to women. The religious rulers declare femininity to be a crime against the state, and so they have no choice but to force women to hide their sexuality. The Islamic Revolution has the same effect on the girls of Iran as Humbert Humbert had on Lolita, turning them into things.

When girls enter the university campus, they are frisked, sometimes searched inch by inch to detect smuggled cosmetics. One guard tries to rub the “filth” off of Nafisi’s face, but Nafisi is not wearing makeup. The blush on her cheeks is natural. The guard in frustration rubs harder and harder, bringing tears to Nafisi’s eyes, and indeed making her blush with shame. Nafisi says the guard’s examination was “like a reverse X-ray, which made me feel invisible, except for only the very outer layer of my skin.” From then on, the author decides to hide her arms inside her robes, pretending she doesn’t exist. She says, “I felt like fiction, written into existence, and then suddenly erased.”

Another memoir author and English literature professor, Robert Waxler, also injects his love for literature into the story of his life. In his two memoirs, “Losing Jonathan” and “Courage to Walk,” Waxler lets us accompany him when he turns to books as a source of strength. He gives us the double benefit of taking us on his journey and also inspiring us to conduct a similar search, ourselves.

In the memoir “Film Club” movie critic David Gilmour watches and discusses movies with his son. In the process, he reflects on how the stories in the films relate to his own and his son’s life.

English teachers and film critics are not the only memoir writers who have been influenced by stories. We may not all be experts, but we all experience our lives against the rich backdrop of the books we read and the movies we see. Now, as aspiring memoir writers, by writing about how stories affect us, we can show these literary dimensions of ourselves, and give readers insights that can help them on their own journeys.

Writing Prompt
Brainstorm ways you can show how books or movies have influenced you. If, like Nafisi, you taught, or like most of us, have informally discussed a story with a friend, show the discussion in a scene. Or find other ways to represent the way stories influenced you. For example, in your self-talk, muse on the importance of some book or movie.


Click here for Azar Nafisi’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

6 thoughts on “In Memoirs, Literature Helps Explain Life

  1. Jerry: Another great blog here. I like the way you tell us how the author creates her own “Persian carpet,” giving these great Western novels (Lolita, Gatsby) new meaning in the context of Iran. One of my favorite memoirs, by the way.

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