Our What Makes Democracy Work? series has introduced a broad range of ideas about the institutions, ideas, and practices that are central to democracy, including a free press, the rule of law, and engaged citizenship. Our interview with Azar Nafisi, an acclaimed author and teacher, adds a new and perhaps unexpected contribution to the conversation: She argues that literature and imagination are key to making democracy work.
Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a 2003 memoir about the power of teaching forbidden western literature to young women in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2014, she published the book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, making a case for the essential role of fiction in American culture and democracy. As these two titles suggest, Nafisi’s work reflects her experiences living and teaching in her native country of Iran, a theocratic state where the government routinely oppressed its citizens, and in the democratic United States, where she later became a citizen.
For Nafisi, reading literature is essential to becoming a good citizen. She writes that books matter because “they open up a window into a more meaningful life… . They enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.”
In this lesson, students engage with Nafisi’s ideas about the connection between imagination, literature, and democracy by listening to an 8-minute audio interview, then reading and discussing a short excerpt from The Republic of Imagination.