Award-winning author Azar Nafisi spoke to students, faculty and alumni in the Anderson Center on Friday. Her book, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” has been translated into 32 languages and held a place on The New York Times Best Seller list for 117 weeks since its publication in 2003.
Nafisi is a fierce advocate for education and a critic of censorship. According to Susan Strehle, vice provost and dean of Binghamton University’s Graduate School, it seemed appropriate to invite her to talk on Homecoming Weekend, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of BU’s Ph.D. program.
“We wanted a big-name speaker,” Strehle explained. “So we chose her because of her passionate association with trying to make education available in a regime that basically was trying to shut it down.”
Nafisi covered a plethora of topics ranging from women’s rights to war on culture in tyrannical governments to her views on the state of modern academia.
After discussing her journey to become an American citizen once she emigrated from Iran in 1997, Nafisi touched upon the politics of freedom within the context of her own experiences of the Iranian Revolution.
“The first people tyrants put in jail are writers, journalists, artists, teachers and librarians, because they are the ones that are revealing the truth that they don’t want the world to hear,” Nafisi said. “That is why people in Iran, China or North Korea go to jail and are flogged, tortured and killed. Because they read books, they listen to music, they drink, they dance — they live.”
According to Nafisi, one of the reasons she left Iran to come to America was because of the censorship in teaching, something she parallels to the current state of higher education. She said she has heard that people in the academic world do not want certain books taught or want to have “trigger warnings” when these controversial works are taught.
“Some faculty, especially administrators, don’t want to make students uncomfortable by having them read books like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ because it’s too violent,” Nafisi said. “Everyday you turn on the news and there is a beheading, a killing or a bombing of a hospital. How are you going to confront this reality if you can’t confront it in this space?”
Nafisi also criticized the education system’s attempt at segregating STEM classes from the humanities. She said students are made to pick one or the other and instead of getting a rounded education, they are pressured to receive a vocation or trade education.
“Human beings need to know the world in order to survive it,” she said. “Scientists do it through the connection through the natural world, writers and artists do it through understanding and articulating the nature of what it means to be human.”
Tina Yu, a senior majoring in accounting, said Nafisi’s talk exceeded her expectations. She said that Nafisi’s discussion of the impermanence of “home” in the face of a revolution really stuck out.
“Home is not stable, anything can happen,” Yu said. “Look at what’s happening in Syria, anything can happen and anything can change. She really cemented how the only constant is memory and imagination, and that’s what keeps people going.”
Bethany Meluni, an undeclared freshman, said she was intrigued by Nafisi’s view on the separation of STEM fields and the humanities.
“My favorite part was [when] she discussed how weird that dichotomy is that we split people up into either math and science or literature and art, and how inefficient that is and how we are limiting ourselves as a population,” Meluni said. “Why does it have to be that way?”
Nafisi said that if students could take away anything from her talk, it’d be to always question everything around them.
“I come here because I have questions, not because I have all the answers,” Nafisi said. “The most important thing for me is for students to take away a lot of questions.”