"Prosperity in a democratic society is not at all separate from the act of thinking and imagining"

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi told the story of how she secretly taught literature to students in Iran against the backdrop of political repression. In her new book, The Republic of Imagination, she argues that the humanities, in particular fiction, are just as threatened in the free world and remain no less important in a democracy.

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Nafisi, now an American citizen and Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, used a blend of personal experience in Iran and now America and a wealth of knowledge of literature to make her case for the importance of fiction in all societies. Literature encourages us to go under the skin of every character, including the villain, to understand them; it poses questions about the status quo: “A democracy is nothing without questioning”. The humanities enable us to know about the past, reflect on the present, and imagine the future; all of which we need, to understand the world we live in and to make informed decisions. “Wellbeing in a democratic society relies on accountability and responsibility”, Nafisi explained, “and these would not exist without knowledge of the world”.

Nafisi stressed that great literature is not just for those who are repressed and struggling for freedom. “The greatest danger to democracy is an atrophy of feeling”, she argued, and literature should be used as material for self-reflection. People might have different interpretations of a novel depending on where they live, but this understanding should be revised over time and based on experience. “The great thing about reading fiction is that it is simultaneously solitary and also connected to a community of readers”, she proposed, “only when reading are we all equal”.

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About the Speaker

Azar Nafisi is a Visiting Professor and the Executive Director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics. She has also lectured extensively on the human rights of Iranian women and the important role they play in the process of change for pluralism. She is the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, an exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny, which has been translated into 32 languages and won numerous literary awards.