Author defends 'republic of imagination' at Homecoming talk
By Rachel Coker
“America’s number one enemy is conformity. And conformity comes out of blindness,” especially blindness toward others, Azar Nafisi told a crowd gathered to hear her speak as part of Binghamton University’s 2015 Homecoming program.
Nafisi, best-selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, drew an audience of about 125 people on Oct. 9, many of whom stayed at the Anderson Center for an hour or more afterward to meet her and have her sign copies of her books.
Her talk celebrated the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Binghamton’s first doctoral students. Susan Strehle, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, introduced Nafisi. “Out of 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States, only about 208 are able to award doctoral degrees,” Strehle said. “…This is a big deal. It is expensive, time-consuming and important.”
Binghamton’s first PhDs were awarded in geological sciences and in English, Strehle said. Now, the campus has produced nearly 4,000 doctorates. “These graduates have made knowledge that continues to change the world,” Strehle said.
She described Nafisi’s books, which also include The Republic of Imagination, as a tribute to active, critical reading and thinking. And she said Binghamton invited Nafisi for the occasion because of her history as a “bold, feisty defender” of education as a basic human right.
Nafisi said stories have played a vital role in her life ever since she was a small girl in Iran, when her father would read to her at night before bed. Eventually, she began to think of the way that literature can transport readers as a place in its own right: the “Republic of Imagination.”
“Everyone can belong to this republic,” Nafisi said. “…This republic of imagination is not the ivory tower. It is in your back yard. You have access to it, and you need it in order to relieve the monotony … of daily life.”
Using this “third eye” of imagination, she said, a reader can bring the world to his or her doorstep.
Nafisi was 13 when she left Iran — and realized how easy it was to lose everything you call home. A war, a hurricane or an earthquake can change your whole reality in a few minutes, she said. She decided that she needed a portable home that no one could take away: “the portable home of memories.”
Art, literature and music are ways of recording memories so that people can go back to a thousand years ago and have some experience of what the world was like, Nafisi said. They provide resistance against cruelty and fickleness — not only of man but also of time.
History and culture are early targets of any tyrannical regime, she added, noting that Iran is in no way unique in this regard. Dictators’ first impulse is to rewrite history.
“And that is why we need education in the humanities,” she said. “We need to know who we were before we know who we are.”
Nafisi, who came to the United States in 1997, became an American citizen in 2008. She said it was important to her to consider what kind of American she wanted to be. Immigrants arrive with a certain anguish and pain, she said, and they cannot leave their past behind.
She quoted Mark Twain, who said: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
And she said she decided that the gift she can bring to this country is to remind it what Saul Bellow asked: How will the people who survived the Holocaust survive the ordeal of freedom?
“Freedom is not your God-given right,” Nafisi said. “As soon as you say, ‘I’m free,’ you are responsible for that freedom.”
Today, she said, America faces dangers in the form of indifference, conformity and our desire to be entertained. And our system of education reflects these problems as well as our culture of consumerism.
As these challenges unfold, she said, universities can continue to connect students to each other and to the world.
“A university is a place based on curiosity,” Nafisi said. “… Anything goes. Every single belief can and should be questioned.”
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