Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2008

It's about: 5 years after Nafisi published her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, she published this follow-up memoir, writing about her life and family beginning with childhood as she struggles to come to terms with various essential relationships: with her parents, with her home country of Iran, and with herself.

From the beginning of the memoir, it is clear that Nafisi's home and political life were usually intertwined and usually messy: her mother, controlling, emotional, whose husband and children can never fulfill her dreams for her life, but who pushes Nafisi to gain her education and who becomes one of the first female members of Parliament; her father, kind, fun-loving, who shields his children from his wife's cruelties and instills in Nafisi a love of books, but who is also an adulterer, and a Tehranian mayor who is jailed without cause for three years.

By accompanying Nafisi on this journey to adulthood, we see how her childhood experiences with her family influence Nafisi's mindset, political attachments, and marriages, for the rest of her life.

I thought: Because I respect Nafisi's life and accomplishments so much, I think I want to like her books more than I actually do end up liking them (read my review of Reading Lolita in Tehran here). Her extensive knowledge of Western and Persian literature is incomparable, and her mastery of the English language is so refreshingly precise that sometimes I forget to focus on the story and find myself pleasantly immersed in her rare talent to string words together.

The goal of this memoir is presumably to tell her story, paralleling and at times contrasting her private life with the volatile Iranian political state. However, Nafisi cannot escape what her memoir really is -- her attempt to accept and understand her relationship with her parents, especially with her mother, the obvious villain of most of the memoir. Because these relationships stand out as Nafisi's clear focus and the driving force of the memoir, at times the long narratives about political figures and movements, even Nafisi's own college involvement in those movements, seemed digressive and perhaps an attempt to convince herself that the memoir is not solely about her parents and thus justify writing it and exposing them -- purely speculation, but that's the impression I received.  Though the turbulent Iranian government certainly adds to the book, it is and should be merely a bit of seasoning to the main course, her family life.

I also wonder how fair Nafisi's representation and interpretation of her mother is; though she is presented as controlling, hyper-emotional, pig-headed, and even cruel, I found myself sympathizing with her. Nafisi seems to profess having gained an understanding of who her mother was and why she was that way, but I couldn't help thinking -- how well do any of us really understand our parents as people, especially if we resented them for most of our lives? It's difficult to be objective in retelling those stories from childhood-- those stories about when we were so sure that we were in the right and so positive that a parent was behaving cruelly without cause. Nafisi's accounts of childhood memories seem rather one-sided, under the guise of being analyzed and retold fairly.

Verdict: Like Nafisi's last memoir that I reviewed, I'm going to stick this one as an in-betweener. Though Nafisi's writing is certainly and enjoyable and valuable, I found too many flaws in her story-telling to put it solidly on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I read 2010 Random House trade paperback copy with a reader's guide, which includes helpful resources such as a brief compendium of important historical events in Iran to which she refers, information which is helpful for a better understanding of the book. It also includes a glossary of terms with which a Western reader might not be familiar, explaining, for example, the "chador," or veil.

Warnings: Mature themes, such as child molestation (not graphic) and infidelity (also not graphic)

Favorite excerpts:
"Our personal fears and emotions are at times stronger than public danger. By keeping them secret, we allow them to remain malignant. You need to be able to articulate something if you want it to go away, and to do that, you must acknowledge that it exists."

"We had to be thankful to the Islamic Republic...even those the Regime targeted, like women, minorities, intellectuals, and writers, had something to be thankful for: the realization of their own hitherto untapped powers: if a woman's hair, or a film by Fellini or Beyzaii, a book by Farrokhzad, could destabilize the political system to such an extent that they had to be eliminated, then was this not indicative of how strong these targets were and how fragile and insecure their oppressors?"