Monday, June 09, 2008

because I need to get out of a certain part of my head tonight

I'm at home trying to recover from two very enlightening potential-roommate interviews I had tonight that have made me consider living a studio seriously for the first time. All of them were nice, and in some cases I had much respect for many of the ideas embodied by their living spaces (I'm being vague because I have a fear of people reading something I've written about them and being angered or upset by it), but it's come to my attention that maybe right now I need more autonomy than a roommate situation affords.
Anyway, it's occurred to me that I haven't maybe written anything academic in a little while, so I'll dwell briefly--or not so briefly, as it turns out; this might be an incredibly boring entry for everybody but me--on a book I've been slowly working my way through and the questions it's raised for me. Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz has been frustrating and kind of rebuffing my efforts to read it for a while now. (It's actually hideously overdue at the library, and tomorrow I''ll have to go pay a fine for it. Whoops.) The book goes back and forth between the author's life in Iran and Iranian culture using both general and specific examples and a pointed critique of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. The main premise is that Nafisi and many other writers/filmmakers/artists/etc. have presented Iran to the rest of the world within the framework of a "New Orientalist" narrative. This narrative (in a nutshell) discusses Iran and the Middle East in simplistic terms that diminish the artistic and intellectual accomplishments of Iranians while also ignoring the positive aspects of life and culture in these areas.
I think that this is really important, and also something that I honestly hadn't paid enough attention to. I never thought that life in Iran was totally awful or that the Iranian people were any less culturally adept than anyone else; I mean, god, there's so much beautiful artwork, poetry, architecture, and I've read plenty of other positive things about how people relate to each other and the warmth and joy that Keshavarz describes quite beautifully when she discusses her life there. And thinking back on other things I've read, I can see that narrative emerging. So okay, I'm fairly sold on the narrative, and it's really great to read about her childhood joys and fantastic-sounding Iranian female poets that I totally want to read now (Forough Farrokhzad, anybody?). Where I hit a little bump is in her critique of Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT).
It's not even entirely the critique. (Although I do tend to get a little irritated by any critique that lasts for this long and is this unwavering.) Nor do I think the critique is unjustified, at the very least in part. But I just have kind of a moral dilemma with critiquing a memoir in terms of a fairly theoretical (real, but still theoretical I think, if that's even possible) narrative. If somebody is writing about what happened to them, is it okay to really attack that and pull it apart and say it's wrong? Keshavarz keeps coming back to conversations that Nafisi records with students where they discuss, for instance, oppression they experience from patriarchal family members or other students. She attacks these recorded conversations, saying that they only show the negative side of life in Iran.; she even critiques the word choice of students and things like that, saying that nobody in Iran would ever say something like that or in that manner. (I wonder about matters of translation and how Keshavarz could make a blanket statement about how people in Iran talk, and it makes everything else seem a little less convincing, frankly.) I'm not saying that Nafisi didn't neglect talking about the more positive aspects of things and perhaps (probably?) even presented things in a way that made them more appealing to readers who were expecting a New Orientalist take on Iran, but isn't it also possible that these conversations and these examples existed, that they happened and are still happening? People are oppressed by patriarchal family members all over the world; if somebody talked to me about how much they loved their grandmother and how much of a tyrant their father was, in the context of a book about oppression I would be more inclined to discuss the father.
I do recognize some large problems with RLT now that I didn't before. Nafasi tends to demonize extremist "characters" and present them as lacking any ability to appreciate anything but their religious tenets; she expresses much surprise when fundamentalist students exhibit any appreciation of art or literature, be it American or Iranian. They tend to be blank characters, and I still have a lot of trouble (even after having read the book several times) keeping them straight because they are all presented in such a similar manner. She also totally downplays and even speaks poorly of contemporary Iranian writing, which I truly do think is a terrible thing to do. I love the way she writes about American fiction and it's effect on Iranian college students (although her assumption that we should find this shocking is pretty much going along with the new orientalist narrative in and of itself), but she ignores her own culture in her detailing of the effect that ours had on the people she taught. My issue with Keshavarz is that she seems to take offense to every single line of RLT, and seems to want to tell me about each one of them in great detail. I understand that Nafisi really did present her experiences in a disturbingly lopsided way, but Keshavarz spends so much time talking about what was omitted that she almost seems to miss the parts that were touching or interesting or possibly enlightening to those of us who don't know a whole lot about the Islamic Republic. Part of the problem might be that it's hard to talk about everything all the time; Nafisi wanted to talk about the oppression she and her students experienced in the Islamic Republic, and the ways in which they used western literature to cope with that. She didn't set out to write about how contemporary Iranian authors influenced her students, or how some of the really extremist Islamic students were actually really awesome people, although I think it would have been a much better book if she'd been a lot more balanced in her presentation.
But shit, maybe even the things I liked in RLT were totally messed up presentations of reality. I have no way of knowing, really. I can believe Keshavarz and hate RLT and disregard it completely, or I can read it and other books about the Middle East in a critical manner and see what I think. I can even go out of my way to learn a lot more about the Islamic Revolution than I do now, which could hardly be a bad thing for me. It's a moral dilemma all around; who do I believe? Nobody? And if that's the case, why read or learn new things at all? Can I trust any authors? Who is telling the truth? Does the truth exist? Existential crisis on the horizon!
Basically, so far Jasmine and Stars has made me somewhat grumpy and angsty. Maybe by the end, I'll feel a little safer and less shaky on my beliefs, but I kind of doubt it.


pulley-whipped said...

i haven't read jasmine and stars, but i'd be hard pressed to like it after your summary. RLT was beautiful. It's a memoir, not journalism. nafisi isn't obligated to be objective when describing her experiences. i think if she had attempted to paint her enemies in a "more balanced" light, it would have taken away from the narrative.

ammie said...

The thing is, can the way even non-fiction or a memoir presents people become harmful? What if, say, Nafisi's disregard for the beauty or worth of contemporary persian literature is even slightly detrimental to the spread of that literature? What I keep coming back to, what frustrates me, is that you could always be more balanced, more PC, more inclusive. It doesn't ever really stop, you know? And certainly nobody should ignore that there are oppressive people and bad things happening everywhere, even in Iran. That's what frustrates me the most about this book; I feel like there has to be some middle ground, and neither Keshavarz or Nafisi is hitting it.

pulley-whipped said...

how very lesbian of you to say :)