For many of us, the secrets we keep and the things we don’t say eventually explode into fights or calcify into lifelong grudges. For Azar Nafisi, author of the popular Reading Lolita in Tehran, the things she’s been silent about are the makings of a complex, sensuous, and potent memoir in her new book.
From repressed memories of sexual abuse to details about her parents’ emotional and physical betrayals of each other, Nafisi stirs up a whirlwind of family drama set against the political turmoil of Iran in the late 1970s and beyond. The central figure is Nafisi’s mother, Nezhat, an intelligent, sophisticated, and bitterly unhappy woman. Nezhat is frozen by the injustices of her past: She should have been born a boy, she should have been able to become a doctor, her first husband shouldn’t have died so young. Nothing in her life is what she wants it to be.
Like all mothers and daughters, Nezhat and Azar argue about curfews and boys (Nezhat regularly reads Azar’s diaries). From a young age, Azar is drawn to her father and his stories, and as a result she becomes his accomplice. Nezhat drills her on her father’s whereabouts long before he’s ever unfaithful to his wife.
It would have been easy for Nafisi to paint her parents as one-dimensional caricatures: her mother the demanding wife, her beloved father, former mayor of Tehran, the idealistic dreamer (at one point, he’s unjustly imprisoned for months). But she takes great pains to understand their—and her—story. In doing so, she comes to realize the complicity in her own silences.
“I had become obsessed with her past,” Nafisi writes of her mother. “I wanted to know her, to feel what it was that had made her so distant from us and yet so very close and vulnerable. It was difficult to communicate with her, to talk to her. I could never find the right words. I could not say, ‘Mom, I understand why you feel this way, and I am grateful to you . . . but I love Father as well.’ . . . [T]here were so many things we left unsaid.”
Nafisi, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University and a DC resident, is a gifted storyteller. Her latest work is not a malicious attempt to get back at her parents years after their deaths. Dedicated to their memory, it’s a reminder always to say what should be said to those we love.