Azar Nafisi: "Over the years I have often thought of Alice as my ideal reader"

Salon exclusive: The "Reading Lolita in Tehran" author on the permanent delights of reading "Alice in Wonderland"

Published July 12, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Azar Nafisi    (Penguin/Stanley Staniski)
Azar Nafisi (Penguin/Stanley Staniski)

It all began one Friday morning, a weekend in Iran, over breakfast. My father had promised me the night before that he would tell me a new story instead of taking me to the movies, which was our usual weekend treat. That was when he first introduced me to Alice. I think he made a fair amount of it up as he went along, as I never found many of his Alice stories when I was old enough to read the books myself. But I can still remember his describing how Alice, having taken a big gulp of a special potion, began to grow smaller and smaller. “And then,” he said, “she discovered a hooka smoking caterpillar.”

Now I was quite familiar with caterpillars -- in those days we could buy them in cocoons from street vendors with a handful of leaves and watch them turn into butterflies -- and everyone had a cousin or uncle who was overfond of a hooka. But Alice, who had never seen a hooka-smoking caterpillar, quite naturally asked him, “Who are you?” And the caterpillar threw the question right back at her, saying: “Who, Who Who are Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu?”

“Tow Tow Tow, Key Haaaastiiiiiiiiiiii?” my father would say, mimicking the caterpillar in Persian. He repeated this several times and each time I laughed louder, with tears streaming down my face as my mother, glancing at me reproachfully, urged me to refrain from spitting out my bread. But my father was in a playful mood, and he paid no attention to my mother’s protestations as he tickled me and said it again.

Later on I would sit my gentle and compliant 2-year-old brother against the wall of our room and say, “Tow Tow Tow Key Haaastiiiii?” tickling him around the navel. He smiled at me in amazement in what may have been the only time I had the privilege of actually amazing him.

Since then I have read "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" many times in many different places, carrying her with me on a journey that has had its share of unexpected encounters defying all logic and explanation.

* * *

“Who are you?” Isn’t this what every book asks of us as we chase its characters, trying to find out what they are reluctant to reveal? Is it not also the one essential thing we ask ourselves as human beings, as we struggle to make the choices that will define us? I can describe myself as a mother, a wife, a friend, a teacher, a sister, a writer, a reader …. So it goes. Yet none of these simple labels provides a satisfactory response. We are how we live, constantly in a state of flux. But it is essential to ask and be asked that question, one which I believe is at the heart both of the act of writing and of reading.

Over the years I have often thought of Alice as my ideal reader, the one I aspire to be. Out of millions of young girls there is one who is not smug and satisfied with what she already has, who can see the world differently. She sees not just a white rabbit, but one who talks and has a watch and a waistcoat. She runs after it and jumps into a hole, “never once considering how in the world she was to get out again. “Burning curiosity” is what motivates her, giving her the courage of the scientist who pursues knowledge despite his inability to control the results.

More than almost any other fictional character, Alice is in constant conversation with herself and others: probing, asking, reminding me of my infant daughter who would call out for me and, when I entered the room in the dim light of early morning, point to the objects around her and ask, “eeee cheyah? eee cheyah?” “wassdis? wassdis?”

Every day we travel back and forth between reality and wonderland — being and becoming. I was a young child when reading first became a home, a place from which I felt I could evaluate the world and my position in it — a place of doubt but also a haven. Now, like Alice, every time I read a great book I leave my old self behind.

The usual word we associate with children is "innocence," but Alice is eager to shed her innocence. Curiosity motivates the child within us to search for knowledge, to refuse to remain innocent about the world. The loss of innocence is always accompanied by pain, separation and cruelty.  It has ever been so, from the first sin of Adam and Eve.

Throughout my life, I have come across Alice and her caterpillar in surprising places. Alice, of course, is a miraculous entity herself, more marvelous and mysterious than any of the marvelous and mysterious creatures she meets: Unlike them, she can not only live in two worlds, but she can see through each one; she has access to the voice within, the third eye of imagination.

One could say that she can afford to take risks because she is, at bottom, confident and rooted. Alice, unlike me, could always return to her actual home, the one with the kittens and lace curtains. She had a routine and a structure and clear expectations. When she finds herself lost in Wonderland, or in the Looking Glass World, she can seek help from her other life. And yet Wonderland is just as essential a lifeline when she returns home. Alice reminds us that it is not just at times of isolation, exile and danger, but also when life is stable and secure that you need wonderland. This is a lessons that has served me well over the years.

“All art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can get any further,” wrote Rilke, and it is true that so many of the best novels from around the world have at their core that essential kernel of danger. This is of course true of many great works of children’s fiction, where our heroes and heroines have monsters and demons and wicked stepmothers to outwit and overcome. But it is also true of the grown-up novels whose monsters and heroes are internalized and more like us.

* * *

When I last re-read "Alice in Wonderland" I was amazed at how British Alice is: She is such a well-behaved girl. As she falls through the hole she tries to maintain her bearings by identifying the objects she sees, and remembering her past. Having imbibed a good solid British education, she does not throw the jar of marmalade down the hole, but manages to place it on a shelf as she is falling — she needs no one to tell her to do the right thing, she is her own inner monitor.

Being prepared to see the world through the eyes of others, to be curious about them, is a characteristic I have found in a number of British novels — the novels of manners are not simply about being polite and proper in the conventional sense of the word. They are about seeing and listening, respecting others and acknowledging them. In Jane Austen’s novels, characters who are open to our ridicule, the villains, are those who, like Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet or Lady Catherine de Burg in "Pride and Prejudice," are self-involved and conventional, imposing their choices and preferences on those around them.

"Alice," like these other great British novels, lays bare a fact that we have conveniently forgotten in these turbulently complacent times. Our avoidance of danger, our desire for comfort, our replacement of genuine passion for justice with self-righteous political correctness, our penchant for ideological bickering rather than substantial debate, our denigration of imagination and thought, our focus on money and success at the cost of passion and meaning, all make it imperative that we turn to Alice once more. You don’t have to live in oppressive and autocratic societies like China or Iran, to risk jail and punishment, to realize that imagination and life are interdependent: you give up on one, you are giving up on the other.

Alice, the perfect English girl, comfortable and prosperous, runs after the rabbit and jumps down the hole because she instinctively knows the danger of smugness, the desire for not just physical comfort but intellectual laziness, for refusing to hear the voice of that intimate stranger beckoning you from the beyond the mirror, softly asking the dangerous question: “Who are you?”

* * *

In his last Russian novel, "The Gift," Vladimir Nabokov talks of “a pretty example of life finding itself obliged to imitate the very art it condemns.” I was reminded of this recently as I was re-reading "Alice in Wonderland" and found myself gripped by the same feeling that millions of other readers must have felt: the vague excitement that this Alice is me, or perhaps more correctly that she has predicted me, at least indirectly, as is the way of fiction.

Great novels from any culture foreshadow their readers, both those who are its contemporaries and those who come decades or even centuries later. How does the fictional experience of a little girl living in 19th century England become that of millions of others around the world, including one young girl living in very different circumstances in 20th century Iran?

Alice, like Shahrezad, the Little Prince and Pinocchio, whose stories my father told me when I was growing up, never left me. In Iran, when I became a teacher, I taught Alice side by side with "One Thousand and One Nights." I introduced my students to literary theory, to the essential relation between reality and fiction, and taught them that while Alice makes us realize the extraordinary nature of our ordinary lives, it is the subversive nature of fiction to help us see through our complacencies, to challenge our long-held prejudices and provide us with the opportunity to question ourselves and the world.

Some of my students were so taken by the book that they put on a dramatized version of the trial scene. To appease the officials they had an all female cast, properly covered. Their performance was attended by a more than full house. Looking at the photos from that distant day, my heart breaks as I consider how little space these young people had to dream and how much they made out of it.

But even that "innocent" performance did not escape the attention of our moral guardians. The next day there was a paper posted on the wall outside our classroom protesting the fact that the girls had been wearing makeup and that they had played a song from a Disney version of "Alice in Wonderland." The head of the Faculty of Languages and Literature had also sharply criticized us for our lack of modesty and propriety, accusing us of mistaking the Islamic Republic for Switzerland. But once again I thanked my lucky stars that censors are limited in vision, as they missed the real subversive nature of the Alice stories.

When I came to America I found myself teaching Alice again, discovering in her story and that of Huckleberry Finn so many vital threads so necessary to weaving the tapestry of life.  When I became an American citizen I realized that I already had a second nationality, as a citizen of the Republic of Imagination, that great and irreverent community of readers who need no passport to take flight and cross borders and who share a common language. Over the years I have come to the realization that no matter where we live and under what system, certain basic human instincts and needs are universal. Because we are human we need to tell and read stories, our own and those of others. And we need constantly to upend the way we perceive the world and be prepared to change ourselves and our surroundings.

When Alice returns from Wonderland, she tells her story to her sister and that sister in turn recounts it to others. We need to tell others what happens to us when we strive to save ourselves from despair, to remind ourselves that tyrants cannot confiscate what we value most and ignorance does not have to triumph over knowledge. The zealots may come in many garbs; they may rail and kill or mutilate in the name of progress and liberty or God. But they cannot rob us of our ideals. They cannot take away our essential humanity. As Italo Calvino once said, "We can liberate ourselves only if we liberate others, for this is the sine qua non of one's own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal, and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph." And then he added a simple sentence, which, for me, summarizes everything: "There must also be beauty." It is in just such notions -- a purely human insistence on beauty, in the storied details of who we are, what we fear, what we wish for -- that the human imagination thrives. So it is that Alice and her stories will thrive long into the future, as they have endured over the past 150 years, for as long as we readers are prepared to ask of ourselves and others, “Who are you?” and listen to the unexpected answer.

By Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and of The Republic of Imagination: A life in Books, which picks up where Reading Lolita ends and tells the story of her life in America against the backdrop of her favorite American novels.

MORE FROM Azar Nafisi

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alice In Wonderland Azar Nafisi Books Iran Reading Lolita In Tehran