Azar Nafisi's Things I've Been Silent About takes off like a tumbleweed and then hits with the emotional impact of a boulder. It's fragmented and flighty at first, but the book gains momentum as family stories morph into significant cultural ruminations. And - as one might expect from this author - a single, important idea is threaded throughout: Literature saves.
Nafisi's previous book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was a runaway best-seller, and it sparked lively discussions about international politics, literature and the role of religion in society. In it, Nafisi tells of the time she spent gathering with seven female students in her living room in Tehran to discuss forbidden Western classics.
As in Reading Lolita in Tehran, literature supplies the framework in Things I've Been Silent About. Nafisi sets stories from Persian literature alongside more personal anecdotes about growing up with a tyrannical but intelligent mother and about her family's struggle to make sense of their lives in the midst of political upheaval.
Nafisi returns to her childhood in Iran and resurrects memories with her usual attention to sensory detail. In one instance, she brilliantly re-creates a childhood stroll down Tehran's Naderi Street with its multiethnic shopkeepers, a fish market, a perfume store, a place for nuts and spices. And then, in a surprising shift, she remarks that she would later find herself on this same street "running from the militia and vigilantes . . . with no time to pause for reminiscences."
Most of the book's action is centreed within the Nafisi household, a place that is at once the foundation of this author's achievement and the site of her life's most bitter disappointments. Nafisi's father was the youngest mayor of Tehran when he was elected to the post, and he was his daughter's most trusted ally. But the family is dominated by the outbursts and eccentricities of her mother Nezhat, who was among one of the first female members of parliament under the Shah of Iran.
Nezhat wrapped herself in the fictions she created to deal with her life's difficulties, to the chagrin of family members. These ranged from the idealistic story of how she met her first husband, who died shortly after their marriage, to distorted tales of her childhood and her own mother's death. In a sense, these personal fictions tragically keep her from addressing her life's realities and recognising the truth in others.
Though the author's mother is the launching point for much of this book's action, Nafisi becomes its most intriguing character. Readers will find themselves rooting for her as a lonely boarding-school student in England and a disillusioned teenage bride.
The heroines of Persian literature and a few bold real-life female role models console Nafisi in a way her mother can't. From Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, she comes to identify with a character named Rudabeh who insists on choosing her own suitor. And in Gorgani's Vis and Ramin, Nafisi sees a "healthy sexuality" not apparent elsewhere. The author's real-life exemplars include Forough Farrokhazd, whose outspoken and passionate poetry had to be read on the sly, and her mother's friend Ameh Hamdam, who became the provost at a well-known high school for girls in Tehran.
Nafisi doesn't gloss over the consequences that many of these women faced for overstepping their cultural boundaries. The prominent educator Dr. Parsay, for example, was arrested and murdered after the Islamic Revolution. In a summary trial, she was found guilty of "corruption on earth" and "warring with God," among other charges. Although the circumstances of Parsay's death are unclear, she probably was stuffed into a sack and shot or stoned to death.
Near the end of the book, Nafisi claims "the past comes to us, not neatly but like a knife, always unexpected. And it comes in fragments." The fragmentary nature of this book's beginnings may deter some readers from the start. And Nafisi's habit of switching verb tenses - sometimes mid-paragraph - can create confusion and threaten the book's cohesion.
Despite these difficulties, a rich story of family, politics and literature emerges as Nafisi remains true to her purpose. In doing so, she attacks the things she has for so long remained silent about. Nafisi had been taught early on that it was culturally unacceptable to tell personal or family stories. "Private lives," said her mother, "are trivial and not worth writing about."
Here, she unleashes her private censor, giving voice to subjects that had become taboo after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Strict religious regulations and laws imposed to curtail Western influence in Iran resulted in many forms of silencing. In an affront to such censorship, Nafisi began making a list in her journal of things she had been silent about: "Falling in Love in Tehran. Going to Parties in Tehran. Watching the Marx Brothers in Tehran. Reading Lolita in Tehran."
Nafisi's ability to draw upon literary history is what makes this book a standout. Her references to books, poems and cultural narratives fortify what is an already fascinating yarn.
Things I've Been Silent About reads as a testament to the fact that stories - whether their primary substance is fact or fiction - are what see us through.
This review first appeared in The Rocky Mountain News.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009