2012 Commencement speaker; honorary degree recipient
Azar Nafisi, writer and teacher, you are one of the world’s most courageous and compelling advocates for the freedom to read, the freedom to imagine, the freedom to gather and talk about how our imaginations have been shaped by what we have read, and the freedom and rights of women.
Many of us know your luminous memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, with its gripping account of the seven young women you gathered into your living room in Tehran, every Thursday morning for two years, to read books by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and Henry James. Weaving the stories in those texts through the stories of your students’ lives, you and they together constructed a future that, like the books you read, was no less real for being deeply imagined. “Every fairy tale,” you wrote, “offers the potential to surpass present limits, so in a sense the fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies.”
You call this constructed freedom the Republic of Imagination. This is the title of your forthcoming book, and also the title of an essay you wrote in 2006 about liberal education, which for you is about the idea of the other, and being curious about the other. But imagination, for you, is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. That end is at the heart of your republic, and at the heart of your work. It is empathy. Unless we evoke the ability to imagine, you have written, we cannot empathize. For the NPR series This I Believe, you said, “I believe in empathy. . . . Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination, creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented.”
Empathy is something you not only believe in, but live. In your current position, at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, you are the Executive Director of Cultural Conversations. The Cultural Conversations program was founded to provide new and innovative opportunities for international scholars, writers, and artists to discuss the cultural aspects of policymaking. Through an impressive array of symposia, online reporting and discussion, lectures, and classes such as your own graduate course on politics and literature, you engage with others in some of the most pressing questions of our time. If the nations and cultures of the world cannot always read one another, they can at least read one another’s literatures, and through those acts of imagination come to a sharper sense not just of their differences but also of their common human values and hopes.
There is a character in Reading Lolita you call your magician. Whether he was ever real, a question you explore in your epilogue, perhaps doesn’t matter. He embodies the imagination, that republic for which you have given up many freedoms, but in which land you, and we, are always free. For showing us the freedom and the power that comes from the seemingly simple act of reading books together, Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.