It’s easy to forget that after the Islamic revolution of 1979 there was more than a year of flux in Iran, amid the violence, when issues were debated and University of Tehran classes were filled with women in veils as well as female Marxists in khaki pants and loose shirts. In such a class Iranian-born and American-educated professor of literature Azar Nafisi taught Twain, Hemingway, Gorky, and Fitzgerald. But the fundamentalist regime clamped down in 1980, and a year later Nafisi was dismissed for refusing to wear the veil. In 1995 she started a secret literature class in her home for seven young women, secular and religious, two of whom had been imprisoned. Every Thursday morning for two years the women would remove their veils and inhibitions and discuss the banned works of Austen, Bellow, James, and Nabokov as if their lives depended on it. “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man,” Nafisi writes in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, “but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” The discussion of literature, in all its ambiguity and complexity, is a way to carve out a personal space where imagination and individuality can live, even in a totalitarian state, she says. Ultimately, that space proved to be too small, and in 1997 Nafisi returned to the U.S., where she now teaches at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She’ll read from Reading Lolita on Wednesday, April 30, at 7:30 PM at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lili Iravani.