Years ago, pre-blogging, I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, a sort of combination memoir, history lesson, and literary analysis rolled into one. It was a fascinating, wonderful book for me, especially parts 1 and 4, which dealt more with the current climate of Iran and the dangerous book club that Nafisi formed. I liked parts 2 and 3 less because they focused more on Iranian history, which I admit I knew nothing about and which also confused me a lot. I cared less about the history and more about the struggle of these women to maintain their identities and free will.
When I saw Things I’ve Been Silent About in the bookstore a few months ago, I knew I had to read it. It sounded far more personal than Reading Lolita, and I was already interested in Nafisi. I was hoping that the book might tell me something more about some of the women she talked about in her other book. I was interested in possibly seeing more of their lives after Reading Lolita.
I didn’t realize that this was primarily a memoir about Nafisi’s relationship with her parents and her country. It was far more personal – perhaps a bit too personal in places, if the reader doesn’t already care about Nafisi – and while I still liked the book, I missed the more literary aspects of Reading Lolita. Ironically, the parts of this book I liked most were the parts about Iranian history. In Reading Lolita, the history felt too jumbled, quick, confused, and impersonal, but here the history is laid out over a long period of time, flowing, with a more sociological look at how things evolved over time.
I’ve long found the Iranian Revolution confusing – people fighting to overthrow repression only to bring in a far more repressive government – but reading about it slowly, year by year, as things happened, made the whole thing far more understandable and real. Interestingly, I saw a lot of parallels to the political and economic climate in my own country, with the rise of extremist political factions and the calling for extreme nationalism. It’s a bit scary to see what happened once the people fighting the government got their way. Scary to see how extremist political leaders end up gaining power, taking away freedoms, and enforcing their own moral edicts onto the country at large.
Iran, surprisingly (to me at least), was a fairly modernized country thirty-five years ago. Women could wear what clothes they chose, rather than being forced under a veil. There were different religious groups in the country, which wasn’t run on Islamic law until after the revolution. Women could get an education and work. The country honestly didn’t sound all that different in many ways from America thirty-five years ago. It’s amazing how quickly and silently things can change.
After the Islamic Revolution I came to realize the fragility of our mundane existence, the ease with which all that you can call home, all that gives you an identity, a sense of self and belonging, can be taken away from you.
I found this book really fascinating, despite the fact that in essence, a lot of it is spent on discussing Nafisi’s relationships with her parents all throughout her life. It was an interesting look at culture, especially a changing culture over time, and at what it means to be Iranian in a time when the word was and is so much in flux. While I didn’t like the book quite as much as Reading Lolita in Tehran, I’m still glad I read it.
Before I close this review, I just want to share with you two of my favorite quotes. The first says:
The revolution taught me not to be consoled by other people’s miseries, not to feel thankful because so many others had suffered more. Pain and loss, like love and joy, are unique and personal; they cannot be modified by comparison to others.
I think this was the most striking and poignant passage for me in the whole book. I’ve spent years thinking about this exact subject, wondering why and how my pain or sadness could be invalidated by someone else’s experience. It made me feel so awful and guilty for hurting when people – particularly family members – would say to me that I should put my suffering in perspective, and that so many people have it worse than me. They told me I should remember that and be thankful for what I had, instead of feeling pain. As if the fate of someone else detracts from my own experience somehow, and I no longer matter. I absolutely love what Nafisi says here. It’s a conclusion that finally, a few years ago, I came to myself. I was glad to see someone besides me put that into words!
The second quote says:
Why don’t we pay more attention to those we love? Why don’t we ask them more about every little detail, about their childhood, about how they feel, what they dream of, and if they are tired or don’t want to talk, why don’t we insist? Why don’t we keep every photograph, take notes, why don’t we ask others about what they know, those who were there before us, those who know things we don’t?
I love this quote because it reminds me so much of my great grandmother, who (like Nafisi’s mother) retold and embellished the stories from her life until they were a pattern of interwoven truths and lies. My family doesn’t know anything about her history, because we were always afraid to ask too much. Now, she’s been gone for 10 years, and we’re left with nothing solid. In a way, that’s what this memoir was really about: bringing all those little things out into the light, and making them solid.
Performance: Despite owning this book, I actually borrowed an audio version from the library to listen to. The audiobook was read by Naila Azad. I really liked the performance, particularly because Azad had a mild accent and also knew how to pronounce all the foreign words, which is really important to me when I listen to a book like this. Perhaps that’s the norm for professional audiobooks, but I spent years listening to amateur readers on Librivox. While some of them do their research and learn how to pronounce things, at other times, it’s a bit cringe-worthy. Azad read this at a good pace that I could listen at double-speed on my iPod. The performance was enjoyable and perfectly suited to the book.