The most thought-provoking book I've read this summer is Reading Lolita in Tehran--the memoir of an Iranian literature professor trained in the United States, Azar Nafisi. She returns home to Tehran just in time for the Revolution. The image of the young women who come to her home, in secret, to study Western literature--the way they shed their dark robes to reveal their own colorful garb--is a wonderful symbol of their richly personal reactions to these novels as the political world around them closes in.
I read this book with my book club. We read nonfiction only. So it was an interesting conversation, the first time we had ever talked about novels. I found it oddly refreshing to think about the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and James (to name a few) in the old-fashioned humanist way. Although I'm not sure that the way they read The Great Gatsby in Tehran was not political, I was struck by this passage:
It is said that the personal is the political. That is not true, of course. At the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives. Personal and political are interdependent but not one and the same thing. The realm of the imagination is a bridge between them..
The final drama is the author's decision to leave, to come to the United States, a wrenching but liberating decision.
As I thought about this book later [after I blogged it on Eric's site], Nafisi's decison began to make me uneasy. What about her students and the others who lacked the luxury of her choice? I pulled down a book I'd never finished reading, by my friend Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor who has made a career of studying the literature of Islamic women trying their best to sustain a feminist culture, even to work actively for peace.
It may be a surprise that such a movement exists. But in Women Claim Islam, Cooke explores women's literature in certain Islamic cultures, the way these women are challenging the master narratives from within, from a position of staying put. This book came out just before September 11, which may make it something of an artifact. But still it's an insightful introduction to a world few of us here know about. And I'm not at all sure that the women she writes about would be happy to know that Nafisi has made an Audi commercial.
Closer to home, I'm finally getting around to Michael Eric Dyson's book on Martin Luther King, I May Not Get There With You. "King's career," Dyson argues, "with all of its flaws and failures, is simply the most faithful measure of American identity and national citizenship that we are likely to witness."
I continue to be amazed at the quality of work being done on the history and culture of the American South. I hope to get to In the Presence of Mine Enemies, by Ed Ayers, a civil war history based on meticulous research of two counties, similar in every way except for their orientation to the Mason-Dixon line. I want to read Jean Fagan Yellin's long-awaited biography of Harriet Jacobs, Edenton's most distinguished "slave girl."
Timothy Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name is a book I haven't been able to put down, the beautifully told story of a racial murder in Oxford, N.C. in 1970. This is a story about memory as much as history, "a story of a nation torn apart," he writes; and
[t]he cheerful and cherished lies we tell ourselves about those years--that the black freedom moement was largely a nonviolent call on America's conscience, which America answered, to cite the most glaring fiction--do little to repair the breach. There are many things we never learned about the civil rights struggle, and many things we have tried hard to forget.
"The truth will set us free, so the Bible says, and my own experience bears witness," Tyson writes.
To bear witness: reminding me of another book I want to finish, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Haven Kimmel's riff on Revelation is a tour de force. But I keep thinking about the essay set in New York on All Saints Day, 2001. The writer happens into a church, an Episcopal church, where the priest in careful steps compares the wound in the middle of the city to the wounds of ancient Rome and then turns to the concept of martyrs. The men who flew the planes were not martyrs, he insists. Martyrs don't kill. They are killed. "Names are dangerous," he cautions. The root meaning of "martyr" is "witness." Now it is we who are left to bear witness. We, who have "witnessed too much."