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Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction

Nafisi “invites us to join her as citizens of her ‘Republic of Imagination,’ a country where the villains are conformity and orthodoxy and the only passport to entry is a free mind and a willingness to dream.”

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Azar Nafisi’s background is important in a reading of her third novel ‘The Republic of Imagination’; she is a woman who implores a powerful and passionate case for the huge and vital role of fiction and literature in our world today. Nafisi is an Iranian writer and professor of English Literature, but this has not come without struggle. In fact Nafisi’s most renowned novel, ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books’ was written just after her move to the United States, and it focuses on her experiences as a secular woman living and working in the Islamic Republic of Iran. ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran…’ became a rapid bestseller and was named on the New York Times Bestseller list for 117 weeks.

The power of reading remains the base of ‘The Republic of Imagination’ as Nafisi uses the same structure used in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran…’: the book consists of three main sections, ‘Huck’, ‘Babbitt’ and ‘Carson’. Nafisi actively blends and interweaves memoirs with keen critical insights of novels that represent, to her, America’s zeitgeist. But before Nafisi decidedly chooses to interrogate the way we see literature in our western culture she addresses us in her introduction, which works as a sort of Prologue or a guiding voice to this complex and compelling work of literature. It begins with what was a single comment at a book signing event, which for Nafisi engendered this novel. Ramin—the Iranian sceptic who is given an honorary title by Nafisi herself acts as a ghost or a faceless man that drives this book into autopilot—told Nafisi that Americans simply don’t care about books the way that was described in her best-selling ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran…’. Stimulated by the challenge, Nafisi seeks to rediscover classics and their relevance to our lives. She concludes her introduction with a note to all the ghosts or those who do not quite yet belong to her ‘Republic of Imagination’: “My hope is that they will find a home in its pages.”

Although to a reader of Western descent it may seem odd to have our literature typified with the likes of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, Nafisi’s hope that her readers will find a home in her pages is used in this novel to evoke and reflect the American spirit that we are well acquainted with—freedom. She alternates her close analysis of this book with a memoir of her old friend who was a radical in post-revolution Iran detailing their struggle and eventual death due to cancer. This is the most personal aspect of the book and it evokes the strongest emotions on all levels. By interweaving something that is at the heart of the American psyche with something that was at the heart of Nafisi’s struggle as both and Iranian and a human, it allows us to see the duplicity of this artfully written novel. It acts as a pleasant reminder that there is and always will be a cultural history that we can all share, whether it be through works of fiction or not.

What evidently worked for ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran…’ has again worked for ‘The Republic of Imagination’. Nafisi captures why this book is a case for fiction through showing how literature should have as much impact on states like America as it did in Tehran. She warns of the dangers of ignoring the rights and freedoms we have and despairs over the closure of libraries and book stores. To Nafisi, novels are powerful, and her ‘Republic of Imagination’ acts as a proposition for her readers to let go of their inhibitions and dream. This book much like Nafisi’s other works is not supposed to simply be read, but moreover to be digested and discussed. It is a movement, not simply a statement.