Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history

Lynna Williams, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing

Vol. 8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006

Return to Contents

Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Comparing Libraries

Copyright foul or access fair?

"You can never let up on the acquisition of printed materials. Print is fundamental to the humanities, and the visual images are far better than anything yet available through an electronic purveyor. "

"The pressure is on from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic."

Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history

Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Science Study Abroad
The Whys and Why Nots



They were three Iranian women in England, two studying economics, one studying law, and for a few weeks in 1978 I made a fourth in their apartment at the University of Birmingham. I took just one photograph in that time, shot in an eerie, academic-housing twilight; in it the women are side by side at the rickety table in the communal dining room, six hands passing over a glass-and-gilt tea service,
six feet flat on the floor in good leather shoes.

The photograph did not capture their certainty—about the superiority of the law, about their futures, about the nature and rights of women—or the sound of their voices, precise but slightly hesitant in English, light and fast in French. The language of their homeland I heard only as doors opened and shut down the hallway, sometimes as they said good night to each other, sometimes in a song.  

After I moved to a bedsit on War Lane, I saw my former flatmates only once, on a winter day when I was hurrying home to watch “Sunny Jim” Callaghan’s Labour government fall to pieces on my rented color TV. That the Shah had left Iran, that the Revolution was taking hold, were things I knew, if I knew them at all, only from the bbc. The three women, walking side by side, passed me on the green; when I said hello, the law student stopped walking. Her name was Mina.

She told me she was leaving school, going home to Iran to be with her family. “And my country,” she added, cocking her head as if to hear the words played back. I didn’t know her well enough to be surprised, but I was. To cover it, I think I said that going home was beginning to sound good to me, too. All I’m sure of is the solemn look I got in return was one that adults sometimes give children too young for explanations.

I left England a few months later. I worked as a political reporter in Minneapolis, and for a while, covered what was always called the “Minnesota angle” of the all-consuming story of the American hostages in Iran. The day burglars emptied my Loring Park apartment of possessions, I rushed through the empty rooms looking for anything that might be left of my time in England. A year later, when I moved again, I pried the photograph of the Iranian women out of a baseboard in my bedroom. Crying, wanting only what had been lost, I threw it away.

The day in an Atlanta bookstore when I picked up Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I wasn’t thinking of the three Iranian women captured in a snapshot I hadn’t bothered to keep. It was Nafisi’s allegiance to literature that drew me in. The intensity is irresistible, even before the special context is fully established. Novels—and the novels I love—are as necessary to Nafisi as air and light. With some help from Nabokov, she directs us to share her experience:

I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we won’t really exist if you don’t. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us the way we sometimes didn’t dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran. And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us.

How could we not respond to her request, especially when she lays out the consequences of refusing? But as I read about the women who risked so much in gathering to discuss Nabokov and James, Austen and Fitzgerald, as my respect for Nafisi as a teacher increased, something else happened. I began to see Mina in the pages. I placed her on the couches in Nafisi’s living room, imagining her history and her laughter as she moved among the women in the memoir. I began to read for a sense of possibilities—both what Mina might have wanted in returning home, and what she might have lost or gained. I wanted to know what had happened, and since I had not known her in any real way, the best I could do was to read for knowledge of women who were not her, but who might have been.

As more and more memoirs of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran have been published in the United States, I’ve gone on reading them. I don’t think I really expect to turn a page and see Mina walking her children down a street in Tehran, or tending to a garden in the hills above Los Angeles. But I wish it would happen just that way, the ending to a story I can only imagine.

The subtitles of Roya Hakakian’s Journey from the Land of No, Afschineh Latifi’s Even After All This Time, and Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad place their landscapes: “A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,” “A Story of Love, Revolution and Leaving Iran,” “A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in American and American in Iran.” Each is a personal story played out against the backdrop of a larger history.

These books, too, have been well-received, but some of the reaction has seemed to suggest that, for critics, the lens of these women’s personal experience is, well, too personal. That reaction brings to mind my favorite literary suicide note, from a John Irving novel: “Just not big enough.” I would say, instead, that the memoir, as remembered, reconstructed experience, is exactly the right size to weigh against “official” history. Patricia Hampl, in her essay
collection, I Could Tell You Stories, writes that

True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self, but a world. . . . Actually, it begins as hunger for a world, one gone or lost, effaced by time or a more sudden brutality. But in the act of remembering, the personal environment expands, resonates beyond itself, beyond its “subject,” into the endless and tragic recollection that is history.

Certainly the current memoirs of Iran fit that definition, steeped as they are in “aftermath,” in lives suffused with longing for a lost world. But I’ve come to realize that part of their power for me
has to do with my own native land in this day and age.

In his memoir, Native Realm, Czeslaw Milosz characterized 1950s’ America this way:

Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature, so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history, and therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.

Fifty years later, the danger of this kind of “disablement” seems even more clear. In the talk of “bringing democracy to Iraq” and putting “freedom on the march” and “bringing democratic values to those who have never enjoyed them,” the specific trajectories of specific lives—lives organized around and informed by different sensibilities, different histories, different values—are ignored.

Our political rhetoric flies at 35,000 feet. What cannot be seen at that height are individuals whose lives are not lived rhetorically, but in a rhythm of everyday life. The virtue of the memoir is that it refuses to fly at 35,000 feet; it shows us the lives lived in the sweep of history. It gives us a way to grasp the truth—the truths—of lives other than our own.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi recalls a painter friend who told her that reality had become so intolerable, so bleak, that all she could paint was “the color of my dreams.”

“True memoirs,” in Hampl’s term, can establish not only the color of dreams, but the living, breathing reality of the people who dream them.