When I went to visit my grandchildren in Des Moines Iowa, I was excited to discover that Azar Nafisi was speaking, sponsored by Drake University. She has a new book called Things I Have Been Silent About.
And of course she is best known for Reading Lolita in Tehran, perhaps one of the best titles for a book in the last ten years. But the subject of her lecture was culture and human rights, and the idea that books can speak across cultures in what she called the "Republic of the Imagination" She spoke of the power of literature to liberate and make connections betwen people. Perfect strangers can share their experiences of a book.
She also spoke about the imagination in contrast to the idea of smugness and complacency. Villains in books are those who are blind to others. The first target of totalitarian regimes is the imagination.
Curiosity is "insubordination in its purest form" The desire to know, to question yourself, to see ourselves as question marks. Alice running into the rabbit hole is an example of curiosity. At the heart of curiosity is learning about the "other" not thinking that we already know other people.
Of course, as an Iranian, she is well aware of how ignorant people in the U.S. are about Iran and Islam in general. She spoke of how the women of Iran have refused for 30 years to comply with the restrictions of the revolution there.
Freedom means choice, responsibilty, passion, risk,
"How much are we willing to give up in order to regain passion?" She sees a crisis of vision, to be self righteous is a sign of weakness.
It was a really inspiring presentation.
Can visual art play this same role in communication across cultures? I believe so, in spite of being so embedded in capitalism. In fact, it is a perfect example of imagination as subversive to the system. A New York Times article about artists being sent abroad by the State Department in a new grant program being administered by the Bronx Museum of Art quoted Michael Krenn, author of Fall Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, as saying that "artists are not easily controlled" !!