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'Lolita in Tehran' author tours 'Republic of Imagination'

The author Azar Nafisi has felt herself in exile ever since she was 13 and left her native Iran for the first time.

"The first genuinely traumatic experience for me was the idea that those trees that I saw every day, those snow-capped mountains, that smell of jasmine in the morning would no longer be mine," says Nafisi, who is in her 60s. She's best known for her memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," which has been translated into 32 languages and spent more than 117 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

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"The last time I was in Iran, I didn't want to put up curtains," she says. "I've been in my Washington apartment for a decade now, and I still haven't hung my pictures, because I think that life is fickle and everything is transient.

"When I left Iran, I felt I needed a portable world I could take with me anywhere, and that became the world of memories and fiction and art. I didn't know it at that stage of my life, but that is how I survived."

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For a long time, Nafisi, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, experienced her rootlessness as entirely negative — a restlessness that she continued to feel even after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008. But she has come to appreciate that the life of a vagabond has its own austere rewards.

"The gift that immigrants bring to this country," she says, "is the gift of the alternative eye."

That eye — the ability to view her new home objectively — is at the heart of Nafisi's fifth book and third memoir, "The Republic of Imagination." A teacher for much of her life, the author investigates five classic American texts and finds them to be full of insights about America's national character.

Nafisi will visit the Baltimore Sun Book Club on Tuesday and will share with readers her thoughts about L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Sinclair Lewis' "Babbitt," Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

An edited version of a recent conversation appears below.

What is this place you've created that you call the Republic of Imagination?

The Republic of Imagination is not up in some ivory tower and it's not irrelevant to the two republics in which I have lived — Iran and the United States. Reality puts so many limitations on us. We need a space where people are genuinely equal, where the only passport is their passion and their desire to know. That space is what I call the Republic of Imagination, and it is composed of readers as well as writers.

Readers play a much more active role in the imaginative work of creating novels than they realize. When we read, we retell the story in our own words, which gives the story a fresh meaning and a new life.

This book seems like a sequel to "Reading Lolita in Tehran" — but instead of teaching American literature to Iranians, you're teaching American literature to Americans. Did you ever consider naming this one "Reading Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C."?

You're right — these two books are sort of twins. My editor keeps reminding me that as I was finishing "Reading Lolita" I was already talking about writing this book.

Saul Bellow once wrote that those who had survived the ordeal of the Holocaust would now to have to learn how to survive the ordeal of freedom. That's why I wrote this book, to talk about surviving the ordeal of freedom.

In the middle of the last century, authors like Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz were already saying that the problems of democracy would be complacency and indifference.

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You write that "Huckleberry Finn" is about individual conscience. Is a concern with doing the right thing embedded in the American character?

This country was built on an idea and an image. First our founding fathers, and later Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King Jr. all taught the importance of individual integrity.

"Huck" is about a boy who gradually develops curiosity and empathy and a sense of personal responsibility. I think one of the "villains" of the story is actually Tom Sawyer, because he's always trying to pull Huck back into the "smothery" society with its conventional morality. Mark Twain predicted that Tom would grow up to become a judge.

The rap on "Babbitt" is that it's a satire of the vacuity of the American middle class in the 1920s. But you have a more nuanced understanding of the businessman anti-hero.

That book is about the standardization of thought that Huck is running away from. But Sinclair Lewis doesn't just demonize Babbitt. Even though he represents all that we despise, Babbitt has dreams, but it's too late for him. The book shows that once you give in to this conformist point of view, you pay the price and lose your heart.

The whole point of great poetry and fiction is to disturb us out of our complacency.

I sometimes think that's also the point of politics and of religion. Those are the three tools we use to become better people.

The health of each depends on the other two. Art is related to religion and politics because they all require empathy. It's no coincidence that ancient myths and great religious texts are all taught through individual stories.

For you, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" is about how the imagination is a kind of cure, a solution for the problem of alienation and loneliness.

Yes. Carson McCullers gathers together different kinds of people living on the margins of society into one book. They're all isolated to the point that they can only communicate with someone who is deaf and can't hear them.

But they all have something they want to give back to the world. They all have a passion, and it is through their passion and their imagination that there is the possibility that they will learn how to be one with other people. That is the glimmer of hope.

About the book

The paperback edition of "The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books" was released Sept. 1 by Penguin Books. 352 pages, $17.

If you go

Author Azar Nafisi will speak at The Baltimore Sun Book Club at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the newspaper, 501 N. Calvert St. Tickets cost $15 plus service fees. Call Sun Marketing Director Renee Mutchnik, 410-332-6431, or visit eventbrite.com and search for "Azar Nafisi."

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