Monday, February 18, 2013

Living, Literature, and Chaos

Between Friday night and Sunday night, I finished both my book for last week, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and this week's, Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman. Because I am just that awesome.

It was a compacted week, not because I didn't plan ahead, but because I'm not enjoying the book I was reading, Illusion by Paula Volksy, despite the ringing endorsement by Anne McCaffrey. It's a little too much of a political commentary buried under fantasy; I like some of that and think playing out possible scenarios in a fantasy world can be fascinating, but I feel like I'm being hit on the head with it. Plus I don't like any of the characters, and it's over 600 pages. I may or may not finish.

But Reading Lolita in Tehran... it was everything that I liked about being an English major. It had social commentary, literary analysis, the examination of power structures, all wrapped up in a beautifully written text. I remember having read an article on how liberal Iran had been. It's hard to imagine, both from the viewpoint of our current political climate, in which Iran is constantly posturing against the West and working toward gaining more power through developing a nuclear weapon, and from the humanistic standpoint of putting myself in the place of those who lived through the transition. How does one go from living in an atmosphere where you are free to think, to opine, to teach what you want, say want you want, write what you want, to one in which merely having been associated with the wrong person at any point in your life means that you can be arrested, or blacklisted, or killed?

One of Nafisi's points was that by fighting so hard to control women, the Iranian regime was in fact admitting that those women had the power to destroy the regime: "Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for over eighteen years have patrolled the streets of Tehran  and have had to endure young women like herself  and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?" (pg 27)

The fact that many of these battles, these fights for power, occur over control of the female body shows how powerful that body can be, something that despite having written my thesis on it, I still feel needs more exploration. Possibly because I don't quite understand it in this day and age. I mean, as far as ensuring the continuation of the species, having more women than men is important, since one man can. But we are no longer threatened. In fact there are too many of us. Why are women who can dress and think and act however they want so terrifying?

The women in Iran are defined by the state, a state that refuses to see them as individuals with hopes and dreams. Nafisi, in her discussion of Lolita, discusses how Humbert uses Lolita as a prop, a fantasy for him, but never seems to see her as an actual living, thinking human being. While Nafisi refuses to simplify the complicated power structure in Iran by strictly comparing the government to Humbert, she does point the reader to the similarities, as the women struggle to define themselves within a system that has taken away their voices.

But beyond that, the book shows the power of literature. The Iranian population is so tightly controlled; the government censors movies, book, art. But the people in this book escape that. They explore what it means to empathize, how to define morality, how to connect with those who seem to have nothing in common with you. Literature becomes the way that the characters can escape the strict confines of their current life. A weekly book discussion becomes far more than it may seem; it is in fact a rebellion.

No comments: