Fragmented, Hybrid and Migratory Subjectivities in Azar Nafisi’s
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Marcela de Oliveira e Silva Lemos
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
Abstract: The writings of the Iranian diaspora, the westbound migratory movement motivated by extreme Islamic regimes and violent conflicts, raise public and scholarly interest especially in regard to their “return narratives”, autobiographical novels by writers moving fluidly between Western and Middle-Eastern spaces, homes, and identities. In this article, I join the academic debate about notions and constructions of women’s subjectivity in one of such works, Azar Nafisi’s 2003 Reading Lolita in Tehran. Supported mainly Susan Stanford Friedman’s theorization on locational feminism and multiple subjectivities in Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (1998), I argue that protagonist Azar’s cultural and spatial mobility produces a hybrid and fragmented identity because of the interactions of axes of power and powerlessness in different circumstances in the narrative.
Keywords: Women’s Literature; Iranian Diaspora; Return Narratives; Hybrid Subjectivities.
Resumo: A escrita da diáspora iraniana, movimento migratório para o ocidente impulsionado por regimes islâmicos extremistas e conflitos violentos, desperta interesse público e acadêmico para suas “narrativas de retorno”, autobiografias de autores que se deslocam fluidamente entre espaços, lares e identidades ocidentais e orientais. Esse artigo visa contribuir com o debate sobre noções e construções da subjetividade feminina em uma dessas obras, Lendo Lolita em Teerã (2013), de Azar Nafisi. Baseada na teorização de Susan Stanford Friedman sobre feminismo locacional e subjetividades múltiplas em Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (1998), proponho que a mobilidade espacial e cultural da protagonista Azar causa a fragmentação e hibridização de sua identidade devido às interações entre constituintes identitários de poder e opressão em diferentes momentos da narrativa.
Palavras-chave: Literatura Escrita por Mulheres; Diáspora Iraniana; Narrativas de Retorno; Subjetividades Híbridas.
Minicurrículo: Marcela de Oliveira e Silva Lemos é mestranda em Literaturas de Língua Inglesa do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Estudos Literários da Faculdade de Letras, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Licenciada em Inglês por esta universidade, participou na graduação do projeto de pesquisa “Mobilidades culturais, geografias afetivas: espaço e gênero na literatura contemporânea”. É membro do Núcleo de Estudos de Guerra e Literatura da UFMG. Suas linhas de pesquisa são literatura, história e memória cultural e políticas do contemporâneo. Sua dissertação trata da literatura de guerra escrita por mulheres e do efeito da guerra sobre os constituintes identitários de personagens femininas.
Fragmented, Hybrid and Migratory Subjectivities in Azar Nafisi’s
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Marcela de Oliveira e Silva Lemos
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
One can be veiled and yet mobile.
Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity
In the epigraph, Davies (1994) interprets a Saudi woman’s declaration on television: “I resent not being able to drive an automobile more than I resent having to wear a veil” (p. 2). To Davies, the statement expresses “a layering of resentments, issues to be struggled with, one assuming – for the moment – primacy over the other” (p. 2). One of such issues, determined mainly by religion and gender, is the right to mobility, a contemporary matter implicit in the notion of diaspora. Davies’s discussion about black migratory identities inspires me to look at another moving subject: the Iranian woman. That is because, similarly to diasporic black women’s writings, the works of Iranian female immigrants have become increasingly popular recently.
Since North-American incursions in the Middle-East during the War on Terror led by former U.S. president George W. Bush, Western interest has boosted the publication of autobiographies by authors of Islamic origin, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), and Pardis Mahdavi’s Passionate Uprisings (2008). These novels, termed “return narratives” by Jasmin Darznik (2008, p. 56), portray the characters’ departure from Iran to America, and their later return to the native country, where their search for home and identification is often frustrated by changes in the land and within themselves. In this article, I focus on the character Azar Nafisi’s back-and-forth relocations between rigid and liberal, religious and secular, private and public contexts throughout her story. Based on the effects of movement through cultures on subjectivity, discussed by Susan Stanford Friedman (1998), I argue that Azar’s1 cultural and spatial mobility produces a hybrid and fragmented identity because of the interactions of axes of power and powerlessness in different circumstances.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi’s debut novel. Simultaneously the first-person narrator and protagonist, Azar writes in the present time of a “fall day in another room in another country” (2003, p. 6). She recalls memories of pre-revolutionary Iran, schooldays in England, Switzerland, and the United States, and Islamic-ruled Iran. These recollections are organized into four sections, which, owing to Azar’s expertise in literatures in English, are named after Western authors and classics. In each section, Azar discusses events and women’s conditions in relation to those classics. The first part is “Lolita”, in a reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s work that also appears in the title of the novel. It is set in 1995, after Professor Nafisi resigns from teaching Literatures in English at a college in Tehran. She invites her seven best-ever female students to a weekly book club: a private session held at her living room every Thursday morning for two years, in which the class reads, discusses, and writes about occidental literary works banned by the Islamic regime. In the process, the members dive into each others’ problems, create affective relationships, and raise awareness to women’s treatment and roles in society.
The subsequent sections, “Gatsby” and “James”, refer respectively to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and to the U.S. born author Henry James. Both are chronologically set before “Lolita”. “Gatsby” significantly begins in the United States, where Azar attends graduate school with her first husband, and joins student movements and demonstrations. Following the dreams casted by a popular uprising, she journeys eastward, married this time to Bijan. After seventeen years away, she encounters a different country, where the books she teaches are attacked and forbidden. In “James”, Azar is expelled from the University of Tehran, and lives through the Iran-Iraq war, while female use of veil becomes mandatory. In the final part, “Austen”, the narrative returns to the years from 1995 to 1997, when Professor Nafisi leaves Iran definitively. This is the section in which her private class mostly compares Western and Islamic cultures, especially in regard to their experience as women. To its peculiar structure, polemic themes, and powerful writing, Reading Lolita in Tehran owes both its wide reception and harsh criticism.
As Darznik observes, “an all-out campaign has been launched against Iranian immigrant writers… leading the campaign are US-based Iranian academics who decry these writers’ authority to speak about the experience of ‘real’ Iranians” (2008, p. 55). Two US-based academics critic of Reading Lolita are Hamid Dabashi, in “Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire” (2006), and Fatemeh Keshavaz, in Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (2007). They claim that “Nafisi substitutes Western hegemonic ideals for Iranian censorship… [and that] redemption in the form of Western cannon can be its own kind of hegemonic prison” (Blumenthal, 2012, p. 253-254). That is, those critics believe that Nafisi endorses worldwide supremacy of Western ideology through her novel’s defense of democracy and admiration for English-language literature. This way, she is regarded as an Orientalist, in reference to Edward Said’s (1978) concept, who propagates patronizing views of the East through cultural translation and commodification to an American audience.
It is rather ironic that US-based Iranian academics question US-based Iranian writers as representative of their “real” people. In this line of reasoning, since both groups are in the same privileged condition of escaping a tyrannical regime and living in a democracy, they are equally distant from and unable to speak about Iranian “reality”. We must remember, moreover, that Reading Lolita in Tehran is a literary work. As such, it does not establish guaranteed allegiances with reality. Indeed, it even unsettles the assumption of truth commonly associated to autobiographies, as the “Author’s Note” acknowledges the inevitable constructiveness of reminiscences: “[t]he facts in this story are true insofar as any memory is ever truthful” (2003, p. 1). Furthermore, by contesting the representativeness of a character’s experience, Nafisi’s critics disregard that, as Joan W. Scott (1991) puts it, “experience is at once always already an interpretation and something that needs to be interpreted” (Motlagh, 2011, p. 417). That is, what Azar narrates is her comprehension of the world and events, which we read against our own backgrounds. Moreover, Rachel Blumenthal argues that “critics must also consider the specificity and nuance” of Azar’s story (2012, p. 257). By attacking this personal interpretation and representation of Iranian, immigrant, Islamic womanhood, scholars may run the risk of silencing voices long unheard.
Amy Motlagh (2011), Darznik, and Blumenthal are attentive to the nuances and difficulties of women’s Eastern and Western lives and writings. The question of authority and authenticity of Iranian-American experience, for instance, is addressed by Motlagh in “Autobiography and Authority in the Writings of the Iranian Diaspora”. In her turn, in “The Perils and Seductions of Home: Return Narratives of the Iranian Diaspora”, Darznik observes an adaptation, by Iranian women like Nafisi, of the Western genre of travel literature into return narratives. She also considers a dislocation of the notion of home in relation to those female characters, to whom “[h]ome is… a place at once rooted in Iran and yet mystically beyond place” (2008, p. 60). This idea that the immigrant’s home, signifying the unity of geography, affect, and belonging, is an unachievable desire constantly postponed is further developed by Blumenthal in “Looking for Home in the Islamic Diaspora of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi, and Khaled Hosseini”.
Blumenthal argues that diaspora “locates homeland geographically, ideologically, and textually” (2012, p. 251). She affirms that Azar moves to a Western ideological homeland through her opposition to Islamic totalitarian rule and her use of English-language literature, to which the narrator attributes words such as “genuine democracy”, “freedom”, and “courage” (Blumenthal, 2012, p. 252). However, similarly to Darznik, Blumenthal notices Azar’s paradoxical refusal, or perhaps impossibility, to completely divorce herself from “historical, intellectual, and emotional connections to Iran” (BLUMENTHAL, 2012, p. 261). Evidence of this denial, to Darznik, is “the dominance of Iran… [a] gaze steadfastly fixed on Iran” (2008, p. 56), which pervades the narrative through the lingering presence of Iranian settings and Persian cultural elements even when characters engage with Western classics.
Although Darznik and Blumenthal offer interesting considerations about the displacement of home for the Iranian-American immigrant woman, their discussions do not investigate a fragmented, hybrid subjectification as a cause for and consequence of that dislocation. I believe that, in Azar’s movement through cultures, her identity is constantly reconfigured due to the various privileged and oppressed positions she occupies. In this sense, instead of a unitary being unable to find home, Azar is a transcultural, transnational, fragmented, and hybrid subject with different geographical and ideological homelands.
This article’s discussion about the construction of Azar’s subjectivity subscribes to the theoretical apparatus of feminist literary criticism and geographies of identity, as presented by Friedman in Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Friedman argues that a locational approach to subjectivity in feminist critical practice is consonant with our postmodern world because it regards identity not as fixed and wholesome, but as fluid and fragmented. This approach traces figurations of the subjects, that is, maps of the social-political locations one occupies in a given context, which together compose the self. In “‘Beyond’ Gender: The New Geography of Identity and the Future of Feminist Criticism,” Friedman names those components of the self, such as gender, ethnicity, and class, axes of identity. She also devises six discourses related to them within locational feminism and geographics: the discourses of multiple oppressions, multiple subject positions, contradictory subject positions, relationality, situationality, and hibridity. Among them, the last two are of special interest to this study.
The discourse of situationality “assumes that identity resists fixity… [and that] it shifts fluidly from setting to setting”, in a way that, if we “change the scene, the most relevant constituents of identity come into play” (Friedman, 1998, p. 23). In this sense, feminist practice following this discourse is concerned with movement and geography in a more literal way, attentive to which axes of a character’s identity are highlighted or minimized in the narrative space and time through which she travels. The discourse of hibridity, in its turn, emphasizes identity as a heterogeneous mixture produced by migrations. Analyses conforming to this discourse focus on the subject’s movement through cultures, which usually, but not necessarily, involves spatial dislocation.
Since Azar transits between Iranian and American land and culture, and even between pre and post-revolutionary societies whose settings and customs profoundly differ, I find situationality and hibridity appropriate bases to discuss her complex construction. Moreover, these two discourses overlap and enrich each other when considered that movement through cultures provides distinct settings and situations, altering the interplay between aspects of subjectivity. With that in mind, I now discuss two narrative moments of different space, time, and socio-political configurations, inserted either in American or Iranian contexts, to see how Azar’s axes of identity interact in each of them.
The first of these narrative moments is set in the late sixties and early seventies in Norman, Oklahoma, to where Azar moves with her first husband to attend a university’s graduate program. Before that, she goes to school in England and Switzerland, and briefly returns to Iran to visit her father in jail. Her father, “the youngest mayor in Tehran’s history… who went into politics despising politicians and defying them almost at every turn” (Nafisi, 2003, p. 45), is arrested for publically sympathizing with the French government. According to Azar, he and the rest of her relatives are “cultural snobs” (Nafisi, 2003, p. 45), who pride “themselves on the fact that as far back as eight hundred years ago… the Nafisis were known for their contributions to literature and science” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 84). From these excerpts and from the fact that her family can afford her foreign instruction, we may conclude that the axes of class and education are sites of privilege of Azar’s identity highlighted in Iranian context, even though her political status as the daughter of a convicted traitor determines her oppression then.
When we change the scene to Oklahoma, Azar’s upper-middle class continues to be an emphasized aspect of her identity. After all, it is because of her social-economic condition that she has access to higher education, while other Muslim women are at times denied any formal instruction. Class is not the only axis of subjectivity underlined in this situation, though. In a Western context, categories that are taken for granted in Iran are brought to the foreground, such as ethnicity, nationality, and religion. As an Iranian Muslim in America, Azar is part of a minority. In this sense, axes that used to ascertain privilege now determine oppression, making her join the Iranian student group at the University of Oklahoma, long for home, and participate in demonstrations “shouting slogans against the US involvement in Iran” (Nafisi, 2003, p. 86).
Paradoxically, the context that causes Azar to feel excluded also empowers her as a woman. That is because, in Iran, gender is a constituent of identity that imposes women’s inferiority in relation to rights, education, freedom and opportunities. In the United States, on the other hand, aside from studying, Azar is allowed to leave and divorce her husband, socialize with other men, express political opinions, and dress however she wishes. All those contradictory subject positions of power and powerlessness might be the reason why the narrator describes this as a “schizophrenic period in my life in which I tried to reconcile my revolutionary aspirations with the lifestyle I most enjoyed” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 85). They are also permanent marks of another culture that affect Azar’s identity even once she returns to Iran.
The narrative moment that mostly contrasts with that in the United States is set in post-revolutionary Tehran. In this context, on the one hand, nationality and ethnicity are once again locations of privilege of Azar’s identity. Religion and gender, on the other hand, determine oppression. When extremist Islamic faith is indissoluble from politics, those of moderate religious views are persecuted by the regime. In spite of her Muslim origins, Azar’s education and transcultural experiences make her critical of the Republic’s use of religion “as an instrument of power and ideology” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 273) that foments hatred and justifies deaths. In addition, Azar stands up to the Islamic rule by reading and teaching Western classics, whose values, like freedom and the right to imagination, are “the exact opposite of those of the revolution” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 107). Because of her reluctant religious and political positions, Azar is confronted by radical male students, has her house searched for illegal books and satellite dishes twice, and is finally expelled from the University of Tehran.
The axis of gender interacts in this situation with religion and political orientation to determine the character’s powerlessness. After living the women’s liberation movement in America, Azar returns to a circumscribed existence in Iran. It is not to say that the West is then the land of gender equality. Indeed, it is during that time that Anglo-American feminism begins to be criticized for its internal reproduction of discrimination. Nevertheless, in Tehran, Azar encounters a strongly unequal scenario: “the government had waged a war against women” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 110). Among rulers’ several impositions on women in this context, the one I would like to further examine is the compulsory use of the veil.
In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar narrates a long strife between government and female citizens over veiling, which becomes mandatory in all public spaces around the years of the Iran-Iraq war, supported by the nationalist union the conflict inspires. According to Darznik, return narratives “express the opposition [between Iranian and American selves] through a common symbol: the veil… But at the heart of every return narrative lies a question of not only identity, but of allegiance expressed in terms of veiling” (2008, p. 57). She also considers that it is “as if these folds of fabric have the power to remake not only their bodies, but their personalities” (2008, p. 59). The question of allegiance expressed through veiling is observed in Azar’s defiance of the rule because she thinks “to wear the veil… [is] to compromise” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 203), to be complicit with a tyrannical regime. Even when it comes down to covering herself or going to jail, Azar resists: “I always wore my veil improperly” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 184). The novel also presents the effect of the veil, as pointed by Darznik, on the construction and self-perception of the characters, oppressed and effaced by religion and gender. Azar, for instance, claims that wearing the veil imposes on her a transformation that makes her look at the mirror and hate the stranger she becomes. She feels “irrelevant” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 150), “invisible” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 168), as if, inside the cover forced upon her, her “whole body disappeared” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 167). Such descriptions suggest the veil as a tool of ideological control over women, which alters their public identity so that they become powerless, faceless, deprived of the creative energy that comes from difference, and therefore unthreatening. Privately, however, we notice the unveiling of Azar’s hybrid and complex subjectivity.
The private class held weekly in Azar’s house is “a place of transgression” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 8), where she and the girls can exist in their differences. The learning space created in her living room is itself hybrid, reflecting Azar’s mixed cultural identity. She states that “more than any other place in [her] home, the living room was symbolic of [her] nomadic and borrowed life. Vagrant pieces of furniture from different times and places… created symmetry” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 7). The incongruent, competing fragments compose the harmony of the room and of her subjectivity. On the one hand, Western influence in that space of resistance is verified in the women’s inobservance of the veil, revealing their hidden images, in colorful tones of hair, nail polish, and clothes. It is, naturally, also present through the books, which not only portray different worlds, but bring into discussion themes such as captivity, sexuality, dreams, and even feminism. This way, “every great book read became a challenge to the ruling ideology” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 288), instigating questionings based on occidental thinking. On the other hand, the East composes that space just as much. It is there in the food and drinks consumed, in some students’ unfailing Muslim faith, and in Azar’s childhood stories. It lingers in the Elburz Mountains reflected by the antique oval mirror inherited from her father. That old family mirror inserts in that hybrid space a part of Iran that symbolizes Azar’s roots and a love for the land that, to echo Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas (1938), does not implicate blind sacrifice for the nation.
The different parts of Azar’s class/living room contrastively build that space just like the cultural aspects of her subjectivity compete for and constitute her identity. These aspects and the privilege and oppression they situationally determine are like “two worlds… forever seeking each other out and denying their attraction for each other” (Darznik, 2008, p. 68). That is, they are dialectal fragments, mutually dependent Others that epitomize desire and difference. Each side is dependent on the Other, and does not exist without it, so that, as Darznik puts it, “unit is born of disunity” (DARZNIK, 2008, p. 69) both in the class space and in Azar’s subjectification. So much it is, that she prefers this mixture of influences to any of the parts alone: she declares, “The more attached I became to my class and to my students, the more detached I became from Iran” (NAFISI, 2003, p. 317). Similarly, when away from the meetings and the country, she feels the need to recreate that space, this time, textually.
Blumenthal and Darznik argue that, to the Muslin woman, to write an autobiography is to create a textual space of transgression. That is because this genre is not “compatible with the core values of shame and honor pertaining throughout the Muslim world”, since it “invites a critique of self, family, tribe, or Islam” (Blumenthal, 2012, p. 259). From this statement, we can infer that autobiography and other forms of life writing belong primarily to Western literature and ideology. In this sense, it might be valid to suggest that the Islamic authoress that writes her cultural experience through a Western genre creates not only a textual space of transgression, but of hibridity. This way, we may conclude that Azar’s hybrid, fragmented, and migratory subjectivity is reflected in the very form of Nafisi’s work.
It is possible to extend our analysis, grounded in the discourses of identity within geographics, to other women characters in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Azar’s students, for instance, might as well be considered hybrid subjects, even though some of them never leave Iran, for “the greatest trips can take place without physically moving from one’s habitat” (BRAIDOTTI, 2011, p. 26). Guided by their professor, the girls travel through language and literature, and acquire cultural knowledge and experience. Interestingly, Davies has a view of critical theory similar to Azar’s approach to literature. To her, “theory… ought not to be an impediment to movement but should be an enabling set of discourses” (DAVIES, 1994, p. 25). The feminist critical practice Friedman advocates, locational feminism, allows us to study and understand subjectivity as positionality, thus affected by movement. It also invites us to look closely at literary representations of moving subjects, diaspora, and hibridity, thus acknowledging, for example, the once silenced voices of Iranian women.
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