Spilling family secrets

Speaking Up
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  January 21, 2009

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Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian author Azar Nafisi began making a list in her diary. She titled it "Things I Have Been Silent About." Items on the list included: "Falling in love in Tehran," "Going to parties in Tehran," "Watching the Marx brothers in Tehran," and — see a theme here? — "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

That last bit became the basis (and title) for her 2003 best-selling memoir, but her list didn't end there. It expanded and evolved to include the topics "political abominations" and "private betrayals," together a portrait of the intersection of Nafisi's often-tumultuous familial history and Iran's complex and turbulent one. Those are prevailing themes in Nafisi's second memoir, Things I've Been Silent About (Random House), from which she will read at Cambridge's First Parish Church this Friday.

Reading Lolita in Tehran combined Nafisi's experiences as a professor of literature with those of her students, using the framework of an all-female reading group that met to discuss works by banned authors, including Vladimir Nabakov. In Things I've Been Silent About, Nafisi looks backward down the road of her life with an enormous set of binoculars, and attempts to zoom in on everything there — four generations of a family, over the course of a century, in a culturally and politically fluxing country — with great candidness, and generous attention to detail.

She recounts life with her mother, a bitter woman who was fond of creatively re-imagining stories and insisting upon their truth, and her father, a former mayor of Tehran who introduced her to both Persian and Western classic works of literature, and had two memoirs: a stiff published one, and a highly intimate unpublished one, which Nafisi read after his death. Nafisi's parents often told conflicting stories, so Things, which includes black-and-white photos of the author's family, is partially an attempt to decipher her true past.

"I always say that, when you read or write, you want to find out more about what I call intimate strangers," says Nafisi, on the phone from her home in Washington, DC. "There's always a stranger in you."

Things also marks a conscious decision by Nafisi to no longer be silent — to air her dirty laundry in public, as it were. As difficult as it may have been to recount the sexual molestation by a family friend she experienced at age nine, says Nafisi, "There's a larger, more universal context for these incidents," noting that sexual crimes happen everywhere, in every country and at every class level, and therefore it's important to address their existence and effects.

Beyond the logical reasons why Nafisi wrote this memoir now, there's a less concrete one. "Writing books for me is like falling in love," she says. "You're not sure why you fall in love at a specific time. Experiences just lead you there."

Azar Nafisi will read from Things I've Been Silent About on Friday, January 23, at 7 pm, at First Parish Church, Mass Ave and Church Street, in Cambridge. Tickets $5. Call 617.661.1515 or visit harvard.com.

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