Sunday, 1 April 2012

Taking freedom to read for granted?

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

I’ve gone and missed Freedom to Read week, assuming it was in April, but actually it was the last week of February.  Even so, the subject is dear to me, so here I go, better late than never.
Although Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir, and therefore not fiction, the author explains that she has shifted aspects of characters and their stories so their privacy will not be spilled, so that perhaps the characters won’t even recognize themselves.  This book has characters and a narrative arc that work for literary therapy in terms of using a story to remind us to treasure the freedom we do have, and hopefully to protect that freedom from potential loss.

Years ago, as a teacher-librarian, I received a lesson plan from an organization promoting Freedom to Read week.  I was to enter the staff lounge, railing about the latest directive from ‘above’ that ordered all teachers to stop using a list of certain classics with their students.  The directive was fake, but the idea was to get the teachers riled up to discuss freedom to read.  To my horror, instead of the teachers getting excited, adamantly insisting they’d fight that policy, they instead slumped into their chairs, mumbling,  “Oh.  Too bad.  That book always worked so well with the kids.  Okay, if it has to go, it has to go… okay.”

I was obliged to explain that I was merely following a standard librarian’s lesson plan intended to introduce Freedom to Read week, and that those titles had not been banned after all.  They perked up a bit, relieved that they wouldn’t have to discard those titles after all.  But really, they were all too exhausted to care about the titles themselves, and definitely too exhausted to care about Freedom to Read week.  Many people have no idea how overworked teachers are, with sixty hour plus work weeks being common, and bladder problems even more so, as teachers literally have no time in the day to get to the bathroom.  I curtailed the lesson plan and let them off pretty easily.

But that incident got me to wondering.  If teachers in a typical middleclass neighborhood could give up their freedom so easily, what would happen in a crisis?  In Reading Lolita in Tehran, teachers and students, male and female face horrors unimaginable to many.  Nafisi describes a character with these questions:  “Is she angry that women of her mother’s generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding women?  Does she feel humiliated by the new laws, by the fact that after the revolution, the age of marriage was lowered from eighteen to nine, that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?”
This character along with several other former university students (all women) meet for clandestine literature classes with their former female instructor to continue their love of literature.  The bravery these women reveal astonishes me, especially when I contrast it to how inoffensive and placating I attempted to be with the resigned teachers in our staff lounge.  I couldn't bear the thought of hurting their feelings.  These Iranian women were willing to risk being jailed, raped, humiliated, and beaten in their determination to pursue literary freedom.  

While these women impress me with their fierce curiosity and unwillingness to resign themselves to their difficult situation, I was equally impressed with Nafisi’s explanation for why literature should be cherished:  “It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless.  Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed.  But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them….”
In other words, literature makes us more compassionate.  To lose the freedom to read literature would and has caused cruelties overwhelming to consider.  Cherish and guard it well.

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