photoAt BEA I sat down with Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination to discuss her book, her writing style, and more. Azar Nafisi is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent About. She is a passionate advocate of books and reading, and currently lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about how you get in the writing mood? Do you have a certain place that you like to write? Do you listen to certain music?

First of all I get very excited about it, you know and the idea doesn’t leave me. So my first attempts at writing come through writing on these notes that I carry everywhere I go. Like I’m sitting on the metro, I’m going to—even sometimes in the middle of grocery shopping, I put my cart to one side and start writing, so that is how it all starts. Then when the quote unquote–I think this is very serious–but when serious writing starts, I work in my office which is at home. Because if I go to my office at work I won’t be able to. I don’t like to have people whom I know around me. A lot of times I go to the museum’s coffee shops, like Phillips Museum is one of my favorite coffee shops or National Gallery in Washington. I go and write, and then I go watch my favorite pictures and then come back to writing. I like to be writing in a public place where nobody knows me, so that I have life around me, but you know, so that is how I write. It’s fun! You know I really wish that we had more wonderful coffee shops. But there is one coffee shop, one Starbucks on the waterfront that I like, and I like the people there, we all get to know one another. So it is really enjoyable and painful (laughs).

 

Do you have any specific writer inspirations, any passages from other authors or from literature that really stick with you?

Oh yes, I mean right now because I’m writing this book for example, certain quotations or words by some authors become so intimate, that sometimes I say it as if they’re mine. You know I cannot–this happened when I was writing this book I had been giving talks and writing about Saul Bellow. And I kept saying ‘as Saul Bellow says, those who survive the ordeal of the holocaust, will they survive the ordeal of freedom’. And then the copywriter says we can’t find this quote (laughs). And I realized that I have just made it my own, I had taken the ordeal from him and the sufferings–I mean you know I had taken the concept and you know created my own. But other writers, their words become like your flesh and blood. And that is why language is so important, you know it is the way they connect you. There is that inspiration, sometimes one quotation gets you to investigate, and that is what happened with Baldwin. I first started with all these amazing quotations Baldwin had about literature’s meaning as freedom, and taking risk with writing or reading stories. And by and by, I wrote on Baldwin.

 

I know that your current book was inspired by a comment someone made. Can you tell me a little bit how that turned into a full-on book?

You know it didn’t start so much with a comment; it started with an idea that kept obsessing me. And it started with when I was in Iran. My students in Iran, because we lived in such a limited world at that time, their idea of the Western America was really–‘we want to go there,’ you know ‘we want to be there’. And I felt they’re not getting everything, they’re not getting the complications and the paradoxes. The ordeals of freedom, you know? So over there I taught them Saul Bellow’s Dean’s December, which was about the ordeals of living in a tyranny and the ordeals of living in the west. And that idea was in my mind, and I came here and I wrote Reading Lolita and the idea came back because I thought–so many people told me ‘oh you were living in this condition and that is why you loved to read. In a democracy, you know, books are not that central’. And that bothered me, that comment bothered me. Does a democracy not need imagination? And that started it. I started responding to that question—can a democracy live without a democratic imagination? That’s how it started.

 

Can you tell me in terms of your friends, the people who you like to spend time with, what is the most important value in a friend for you?

I mean especially since I went back to Iran and then I came here. There is good people whom you feel very close to, it’s like with books. There is that initial instinct that you connect and you don’t know why. I mean I can tell you what I value most in a friend, but it doesn’t happen that way. You know and a lot of times your friends are the ones that–actually my friends are the ones whom I am most comfortable revealing myself to. I am not scared of them seeing all the warts (laughs). And there is a deep empathy where you accept critically because the love is strong enough to carry it. And since I have been living between two cultures, I realized that my best friends become the ones who have something of both cultures in them. And necessarily your friends don’t have to be like you. Because they have to complement you, not to affirm you. I don’t like someone who doesn’t question me, and that is why, for the chapter on Huck Finn, this woman I talk about she was my best childhood friend. And we were not alike; you know she was very pragmatic, very serious. And I was very flighty and you know very—but you know we loved the sparring. So that is the kind of friend.

 

Do you have a guilty pleasure or a favorite movie or book?

Well you know, the only guilty pleasure I have, which I constantly talk about, is of course eating ice cream. But—coffee ice cream—but the point with books are that—I am very promiscuous with works of art. I don’t feel elitist at all about it because I am in love with mystery tales and I am in love with quote unquote very serious ones. So from Flaubert and Dante and Shakespeare, to Chandler and Ian Rankin or Sara Paretsky, I read the ones that are good and I enjoy it. I don’t know if that counts as a guilty pleasure? But unfortunately it is an open guilty pleasure. And I make a point of saying it because I don’t like formulas for art. You know, American movies, the best were Marks Brothers—In  Iran we got to watching old movies. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. Those were fantastic, as are the very intellectual films, I love Woody Allen and I love Jean Godard or Renoir.

 

If you were to describe why you think reading is important, in one sentence, what would you say?

Reading is breathing.

AzarNafisi_TheRepublicofImagination

 

In The Republic of Imagination, taking her cue from a challenge thrown to her in Seattle, where a skeptical reader told her that Americans don’t care about books the way they did back in Iran, Azar Nafisi energetically responds to those who say fiction has nothing to teach us. Blending memoir and polemic with close readings of her favorite American novels—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, among others—she 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.





It is officially summer in New York City! And with that comes ice cream as a perfectly acceptable choice for lunch, iced coffee with breakfast, lunch and dinner, long searches for the best beach book, stay-cations and vacations alike, and all of the other wonderful things that the warm weather brings.

I hope everyone had a lovely July 4th, and while it was raining on Friday out on the North Fork of Long Island (where I spent the weekend) the rest of the weekend was beautiful and filled with BBQs, the beach, and wine tasting–as all good weekend should be! We were in a little bit of a World Cup fever in the office the week before and while I am not a soccer person I did watch both games while I was stuck inside listening to the game on July Fourth and am both happy and sad to report that soccer made a fan out of me right at the very end! But back to work…

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 11.22.06 AMOn Tuesday I ran a twitter author chat with Jean Kwok, the author of Mambo in Chinatown. She is a very interesting woman and had a lot of very thought provoking and deep things to say about class and social standing and her experiences growing up. Plus, she has a great sense of humor! I recommend reading the chat thread here and joining us next week at 1PM on Tuesday, July 15th. What I enjoy most about these chats is that every one I do is so different. Sometimes when you are reading a book you forget there’s an author who’s thoughts and experiences brought the story to life. It is nice to be reminded of the person behind the page and hear what they have to say. Often times they have great writing tips too!

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I also attended author Celeste Ng’s reading on Wednesday night at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. I was interested in the book to begin with but after listening to her reading I just needed to get my hands on it! Lucky for me the book was waiting for me on my desk the next morning. I can tell you right now that Everything I Never Told You will be coming home with me this weekend!

Rather than describing the book myself I thought I would let Celeste. During Wednesdays reading she said that,

“Everything I Never Told You on the one hand it is about the things that people sort of deliberately keep from each other, the secrets that they choose not to tell because they are afraid, because they are ashamed, or because they are embarrassed. But I think it also speaks to the things that often go unsaid just because we don’t realize that other people want to hear them.”

dartsTo round out the week a few of us from the office decided to have a friendly darts competition last night. Amy and I won the first round. By the second round, there was as much tension as the World Cup, even though we lacked the skill to back up our trash talking. However all of our collective competitiveness came to a grinding halt when Sarah, one of our Web Designers, stood up and casually hit a lucky bulls eye, silencing the group and putting us all to shame.

I am not the only one who gets competitive during friendly games am I? If you have a story I would love to hear it! Have a great weekend and talk to you soon!

-Shelby




JessicaselfieWhen I was a little girl, I used to watch West Side Story over and over. I had a strong sense of justice, and loved getting swept up in Maria and Tony’s rebellious romance, not to mention worked up over their communities’ totally lame and unfair objections to it. Later, as a teen, I was consistently attracted to boys for whom my parents harbored built-in disapproval: usually boys in bands, and boys who had been expelled from one or more high schools. Most nights were filled with hushed, flirtatious phone calls followed by blood-vessel bursting screaming matches with my mom, who just didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized parents’ disapproval of their teenage daughters’ romantic choices isn’t always about blind prejudice. More often then we’d like to think, it’s about the fact that teenage love is intense, and it tends not to end well.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche is a forbidden love story not unlike Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, or West Side Story, for that matter: It begins when Devorah, a Hasidic Jewish girl, meets Jaxon, a second generation Caribbean-American boy, when the two are stuck in an elevator during a hurricane power outage. Now if you don’t know about the Hasidic faith, it’s an incredibly closed community and it is beyond taboo for an unmarried Hasidic girl to be alone with any boys, much less a boy outside her faith and race. Despite the fact that they wouldn’t speak to each other under normal circumstances, Devorah and Jaxon make an undeniable connection during their time in that elevator that changes their lives forever–embarking on a forbidden friendship that will soon blossom into first love, risking everything–family, faith, and friends–to be together.

Yes, this book has all the swoon-worthy, drama-filled, heart-pounding romance I couldn’t get enough of growing up, but it also has perspective. It shows the powers and the pitfalls of family, tradition and faith. It shows the highs and lows of first love. But most remarkably, it cracks open a door of possibility beyond first love (I mean, it’s called first love for a reason), reminding readers that the future is out there, it’s longer than you think, and it’s all yours.

Sometimes I look back on my teen love interests and wonder if my parents were right. They were right to worry about my heart. All good parents should. They were wrong to think they could stop it from loving boys in bands. (I’m marrying one next month.) First love is not the be-all-end-all that it feels like in the moment, but it is the start of something exquisite that never really does go away.

Thank you, Una LaMarche, for capturing this and reminding me.

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