Azar Nafisi and The Power of Literature at the Sydney Opera House

I am glad I discovered that Azar Nafisi would be speaking at the Sydney Opera House during my time in Sydney before I bought tickets to the opera Turandot (although I’m sure that would also have been enjoyable). Her talk on July 5, 2015, was so timely to everything I have been experiencing at a university in crisis, which pours money into STEM and sacrifices the Arts, and enrolls students who would rather stare at their phones than read a book.

She reminded me why literature is so important, and why it is one of the first things to be banned in authoritarian states. I immediately wanted to re-read her book Reading Lolita in Tehran and soon after the talk bought and devoured her new book, The Republic of Imagination.

It wasn’t easy taking notes in the cramped environment without a desk, but I didn’t want to forget some of her best points:

  • Books are irrelevant? What would a post-book world look like and would we want to live in it?
  • iPhones change every year but books don’t.
  • We need a wonderland to go to in order to refresh ourselves. We can transcend reality’s limitations. This helps us transcend tyranny of humanity and time.
  • “Irrelevance of the humanities” by the elite ignores that humans like stories, mythologies of creation.
  • We live in society that segregates science and technology and the humanities. Passion of scientist and precision of poet (quote).
  • 30-year-olds in Silicon Valley forget that creating a visual representation of water is not the same as actual water.
  • Power of curiosity. Margaret Atwood described how she saw a cleaver that “needs to be investigated” and this is how many authors come to write their stories.
  • All religious texts begin with a story.
  • In American, we box everybody.
  • Book wither and die if there are not new readers. Shakespeare, Moliere, Homer are validated when they’re translated.
  • Basis for empathy is curiosity.
  • Culture takes you to worlds you have not been to (would be great if our leaders did this).
  • Crisis of vision (not just crisis of economy, politics) since 2008. The Rein of Ignorance is threatening us.
  • In criticism, there’s an element of respect. You think they should know better. (Idea that FGM [female genital mutilation] is ‘just their culture’ is ridiculous and demeaning.)
  • Every culture has something to be ashamed of. Society is more sophisticated than the regime (pro- and against veil argued since 19th century).
  • Clinton, Palin, and Obama are all Christian, but who is more Christian? (same as her grandmother with the veil and her mother without it, but both are Muslim).
  • Immigrants bring new and alternative perspective.
  • Brutality is obvious in authoritarian countries. And authorities know the power of imagination to challenge authority. Engineers are not sent to jail; writers and artists are. Art shows us that we are all the same…we all fall in love, etc… Insidious and complex are threats to freedom that are less obvious in the West. We want to be laid-back, be entertained, let things go by (Kim Kardashian kind of thinking).
  • If you love your country, what kind of American do you want to be?
  • Can democracy survive without a democratic imagination?
  • American only had its newness to offer (Huck Finn and American literary independence).
  • Danger is complacency. How violent conformity can be.
  • As readers, we need to start conspiring, where we ask basic questions that our leaders are not.


  • Recommendations for authors to read:
    • Dick Davis, British poet and translator of Persian
    • Ferdowsi’s “The Book of Kings”
    • Faces of Love (translator Dick Davis)
    • My Uncle Napoleon
    • Mage Publishers (Iranian Persian literature)
  • They demolish you because they can’t understand there can be other people who are different. (I think referring to terrorists and extremists.)
  • Monsters don’t come to you in monstrous shapes (lesson learned from Lolita).
  • Commercializing the imagination (Google, FB) is a bad thing. And our compliance, we’re buying this stuff.
  • With expanding canon, would minority writers be as popular? Reading Sojourner Truth in Tehran. (I think she said, she wouldn’t see why not.)