Azar Nafisi kicks off the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival

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Azar Nafisi
  • Azar Nafisi

Nazar Afisi sounded, in effect, an ideal keynote in last night’s kick-off event for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival. She championed storytelling, and especially fiction, as necessary for our lives in general and for democracy in particular.

The Reading Lolita in Tehran author noted that the first thing dictatorships do is to force culture underground, cutting people off from their history and their common humanity.

A native of Iran, she lived there for nearly the first two decades after the 1979 revolution. She eventually left for the U.S. with her family and is now an American citizen, but she noted that her adopted country is scarcely immune to attacks on the humanities.


Nafisi spoke of America itself as an act of imagination — of fiction realized, if you will. Because of course, as she noted, fiction is not about replicating reality, but rather about subverting it. (Example she gave later: Contrary to the standard trope, Huckleberry Finn and Jim are safe only in the wilderness; to enter civilization, they must don disguises.)

Nafisi’s latest book, The Republic of Imagination, looks at the importance of key works of fiction, including Huckleberry Finn, to American identity. But she cautioned that the empathy and curiosity fiction teach us must lead us not only deeper into ourselves, but out into the world. She quoted Nabokov: “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”

For instance, she discussed how, despite Islam’s great diversity, to many Westerners that culture means only one thing: Islamic extremism. But the conflict we’re seeing in the Islamic world, she argued, is not Islam versus modernity: “It’s about totalitarianism, which has confiscated religion and is using it as an ideology.”

In between a handful of jabs at Ted Cruz, she added that Americans, too, must define themselves: “If you don’t decide what kind of American you want to be, somebody else will decide it for you.”

Nafisi’s talk was the first event in the four-day festival. As organizers hoped, the audience was engaged enough to stick around for a substantial Q&A session.

But while the speaker was good and the crowd was into it, turnout was disappointing: Only about 150 seats at the Byham were filled.

Most of the festival remains, however, with some two dozen talks on a wide range of subjects, mostly at Downtown venues, and some performances, too. (Here’s CP’s preview.)

A festival pass costs $10-20 and is available here.

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