My Essay in Minnesota Review: "Republics of the Imagination"

I have an essay in the latest Minnesota Review. The journal has posted the entire issue online, not behind a subscription firewall (Why don't more journals do this?). There's also an interview with Noam Chomsky, and an essay by Lennard Davis on Edward Said.

My essay is here; it was originally called "Republics of the Imagination: Afghan and Iranian Expatriate Writers," before being shortened (de-colonified?) to the less bulky "Republics of the Imagination." It incorporates some of the material I've used in talks on The Kite Runner at various colleges and universities over the past couple of years. It also contains a defense of Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I think is a compelling and important book, that weaves together of memoir and literary criticism in some very original ways (it is also not at all some kind of pro-American sell-out, as some detractors have tried to suggest). Finally, I speculate on the fact that so many of the narratives coming out of both Iran and Afghanistan have been prose memoirs, not novels or poetry.

You might also check out the interview with the Iranian novelist Farnoosh Moshiri, one of the writers I talk about in the essay.

Any feedback?


Falstaff said...

Very interesting. I suppose I really should read Reading Lolita in Tehran.

I'm particularly intrigued by the point you make towards the end about memoir and fiction and not poetry being the chosen means. I can't help wondering if it's that poetry isn't being written or whether it's just not reaching us because a) it isn't being translated and b) poetry just has a smaller market more generally, and US presses just aren't publishing the work of new Iranian / Afghan poets, even those writing in English. I'd be curious to know more about what the poetry scene looks like in Iran and Afghanistan. Obviously this is beyond the scope of your article, but as you say, Persia has a grand tradition of poetry and it would be a shame to see it dying out.

Reading the essay, I also kept thinking about East European literature over the last 30-40 years. While it's true that most post-colonial literature has come from colonies of the 'West', there's clearly a great dealing of fine writing that deals with totalitarianism generally, and soviet control / dominance more specifically coming from writers and poets in Poland / the Czech republic. The point about oppression, in Iran and Afghanistan, coming not only from external colonizers but from local traditions turned fundamentalist is well taken, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how this new writing compares, in its depiction of Soviet totalitarianism to the work from other former satellites of the USSR?

Rohan Maitzen said...

I found your article very interesting, particularly your comments on Reading Lolita in Tehran and the primacy Nafisi places on the imagination as a realm of freedom--and the novel as a form that is inherently democratic and resistant to totalitarianism. We have accepted (or at least heard) for so long that the novel is a bourgeois form, committed to problematic ideas of individualism and so on--it was invigorating to read her defense of it. I think you rightly point to the vein of aestheticism in her ideas--would you agree that right now, such an approach is not given much credence among literary critics? What she wants from the novels she reads seems very different from what we are typically after--often (maybe especially in post-Colonial readings?) the "allegory" she rules out in one of your quotations.

I found Ahdaf Soueif's essay on "the language of the veil" (posted to her website) very interesting. Coming from an Egyptian background, she is frustrated at 'our' Western tendency to conflate all forms of veiling without due attention to differences between cultures, or motives, for that matter. But it seems inevitable (rather than sensationalistic or exploitive) that the burqa should be such a potent "symbol of oppression" to those of us for whom feminism means (and has meant historically) the right (or the fight) to express ourselves publicly and to define ourselves as individuals. In her documentary 'Faith without Fear,' Irshad Manji visits Yemen and spends some time fully veiled. It's a bit of a stunt, yet at the same time her remarks about losing her identity (in a crowd of other women, of course, she becomes wholly indistinguishable) point to the conflict between that idea of full coverage, being subsumed in a category, and the novelistic commitment to the individual. I think it's Seierstad who also points out that one effect of wearing a burqa is that you lose your peripheral vision and have to turn your whole head or body to look around, meaing that the direction of your gaze is easily discerned by authority figures around you. Anyway, I know this was not the major point of your interesting paper. Thanks for putting up the link.

electrostani said...

Falstaf, both very good (and difficult) questions. I did try and qualify the part about the popularity of prose memoirs when I said, "the texts from Iran and Afghanistan that have had the most impact internationally." I don't really have a read at all on what is happening with poetry inside Iran itself (or for that matter Afghanistan). On your second question, I simply don't know -- I haven't been exposed to novelists from places like Ukraine or Georgia responding to the Soviet era. (Perhaps Jonathan Safran Foer counts...?)

Rohan, yes, there's no question that my views are somewhat counter to the mainstream of literary critical thought (and indeed, I've gotten in some arguments with people about the value of "Reading Lolita in Tehran"). The question for me is whether we can accept that a writer coming from a totalitarian society can use the novel as a means of experiencing freedoms not possible otherwise. And I don't see why the answer can't be yes, even if some of the usual complaints against aestheticism are still valid. (I also agree with you that the place where this kind of reading is currently most unpopular is precisely where I am disciplinarily situated -- postcolonial studies.)

Thanks for the tips on Ahdaf Soueif and the Irshad Manji documentary. I have some students working on veil-related questions here, and they will be very interested.

Unknown said...

I found the use of "colonial" and "post-colonial" in relation to Iran and Afghanistan to be procrustean. The underlying questions here are : how does one define colonialism; how wide must this definition be to include places like Persia/Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, Siam/Thailand, for example. These countries have, in recent history, surely experienced various degrees and forms of subjugation by European countries and Russia, but military presence, political interference, and economical domination spell imperialism and thuggery, not colonialism. Moreover, the short duration of foreign occupation or dominance in these countries is hardly enough to enter the psyche of native peoples in sufficient measure to affect the thinking of future generations. If there is a "post-colonialism" at work here it is likely to be associated only with the elites who have had, since the late 20th century, progressively unfettered access to Western influences and travel. But this is hardly the fault of colonialism. I believe that the idea of post-colonialism has seen its day and that there needs to be a new theory to take its place to interpret recent writings. Or am I being ingenuous?