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Understanding Society Through 3 American Classics


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Author Azar Nafisi has a gift for using literature for her own purposes in her best-selling memoir "Reading Lolita In Tehran" it's a key - the path to internal liberation in the midst of an oppressive revolutionary Iran. In her new book, "The Republic Of Imagination: America In Three Books," literature becomes a map of American culture, society, and the disparate elements that make up the adopted home she loves. The three books that guide her are Mark Twain's "Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn," "Babbitt" by Sinclair Lewis and "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers. She told us she was drawn to these three books because together they're a kind of American conscience.

AZAR NAFISI: As I was working for this book, I realized how much works of American fiction are almost like the moral guardians of the American reality - how much they remind us of the other aspect of the American dream. I see two contradictory aspects to this dream. One is the materialistic, crass one - it's a dog eat dog world. We each are after our own interests. And the other is the idealistic one where if you have a passion, you go after your passion, which is Huck Finn. He rejects any form of success, including money, you know. And then I realized that for me, Huck Finn becomes sort of literary Declaration of Independence. And the Mark Twain - maybe not consciously - he described what is the ideal of American - the homeless, restless American that is always looking to new horizons and thinks with his heart. And so Huck Finn came, you know, became my main character.

And then I thought, OK, it seems to me that many of the great American novels became Huck Finn's progenies. As if these characters started walking out of "Huckleberry Finn" and populated landscape of American fiction.

"Babbitt" I chose as the conformist anti-Huck. And last, I wanted to bring together all these marginal characters that Mark Twain celebrates. He talks about how the Mayflower tribe deprived him of his ancestors beginning with the Native Americans, the Quakers, the witches and the slaves. And he calls them many shaded exquisite mongrels. And I felt that these exquisite mongrels were all in Carson McCullers, in one novel.

MARTIN: When did you first read "Huckleberry Finn"?

NAFISI: I first didn't read "Huckleberry Finn." My father told the story.

MARTIN: Is that right?

NAFISI: He would at nights tell me stories. And he was very democratic about it, you know, many stories from Iranian mythology and fables. But he brought the whole world to my life. And you know what scared me in Huck Finn when he first told me the story? It was Huck Finn's father because he was so much unlike my own.

MARTIN: So as an author, as someone who was such an emotional connection to this particular story, what did you believe that you had to say about this book? Because as you know, "Huckleberry Finn" - I mean, this is a book that there've been innumerable literary criticisms done over this book.

NAFISI: I know. I know. I know.

MARTIN: What did you have in you that you needed to say that hadn't been said before?

NAFISI: Well, you know, the thing about these books, you know, it is like the subjects of these books - that for example, love has been talked about forever and ever. But whenever you read a great book about love, it is as if there's something new. And I think books need to be kept alive through different perspectives from different times, different countries, different languages, reinterpreting them. And I wanted to talk about the relationship between Huck and Jim. He doesn't criticize slavery by showing you the obvious cruelties. He turns Jim into a human being. And as Huck sees Jim more and more as an individual like himself. He becomes more and more morally responsible because he realize that Jim has been his mate, the only person who has been kind to Huck. And that just breaks your heart for both of them.

MARTIN: I want to move and talk about "Babbitt" by Sinclair Lewis. When did you first encounter this story and what were your initial impressions?

NAFISI: I read "Babbitt" at college. And the first thing that I noticed about it was the language because he creates a language where these characters, the kind of business persons for whom gadgets are poetic. So I think that my first reading of "Babbitt" was far more shallow than when I later came back to him because that is all I saw - a criticism of quote-unquote, "corporate America."

MARTIN: And what do you see now and what does that illuminate about America?

NAFISI: I saw it much more complicated. The most important thing, I realized, was that "Babbitt" begins by Babbitt dreaming. And he's dreaming of a fairy child and there is a sense of wanting to give into his heart. In the end, he doesn't do it, but it made him much more human for me. You don't need to demonize people to find that they are not doing you good.

MARTIN: And you see George Babbitt in direct contrast to the characters in "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter"?

NAFISI: Yeah. They have a passion, but they live under circumstances where that passion cannot be realized - they're ignored. People are being indifferent to them. So this isolation, which is very American and very modern, is a shadow over their lives. One thing that is heartbreaking about them is the fact that they can't communicate. The person they can talk to is a person who can't hear. But one of the things about McCullers, which gives us hope, is that we know that their passion - there's a glimmer of hope that they will connect and the way they will connect is through what is most important to them. You know? And that is the salvation.

MARTIN: This book could really in many ways be seen as a companion to reading "Lolita In Tehran," which was your best-selling memoir. I mean, that book looked at how Western literature could be used as a tool to find and hold on to humanity during the Iranian Revolution. This book is a meditation on how that same literature has shaped American democracy. I wonder how you think fiction illuminates American society in a way that history cannot.

NAFISI: I think what fiction does, it talks about that aspect of history, which history by nature cannot be talking about. And fiction brings out the heart. Fiction makes us understand why would George Washington and his ragged army go to war? It is not about money. It is not even about power. It is about commitment to being human and to a passion and a dream that you have. I think we're forgetting that in America today.

MARTIN: Azar Nafisi, her newest book is called "The Republic of Imagination: America In Three Books." She joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thank you so much for your time.

NAFISI: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.