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"Reading Lolita in Tehran" Author Azar Nafisi to Speak at Commencement

Release date: May 22, 2009

Azar Nafisi, award-winning author of the acclaimed memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, will deliver the keynote address at Goucher College’s 118th Commencement on Friday, May 22, 2009.

President Sanford J. Ungar will preside over the ceremony, which will begin at 10:30 a.m. on the lawn behind Mary Fisher Hall. In the event of rain, the event will be held in the college’s Sports and Recreation Center. Honorary degrees also will be awarded to Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff and Paul S. Sarbanes, the former democratic U.S. senator representing Maryland; the latter's wife, the late Christine Sarbanes, will be awarded a posthumous honorary degree.  

Nafisi is best known as the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, a first-person portrait of the effects of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how literature can serve as a liberating and healing force for the oppressed. The memoir spent more than 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated in 32 languages.

Born in Iran, Nafisi is the daughter of a former mayor of Tehran and one of the first women to be elected to the Iranian parliament. She was sent to school in Lancaster, England, at age 13, and then moved to the United States during her last year of high school. She received a doctorate in English and American literature at the University of Oklahoma. Nafisi returned to Iran in 1979 and taught English literature at the University of Tehran.

Though she originally supported the 1979 revolution against the shah, Nafasi began to feel stifled by the strict theocracy that followed. Under religious pressure, she resigned from her job as an English literature professor in 1981 at the University of Tehran after being ordered to wear a veil. She resumed her teaching career in 1987 at the Free Islamic Azad University and Allameh Tabatabaii but left the profession formally in 1995 due to increased scrutiny by faculty authorities.

Determined to keep teaching in some capacity, she set up a private reading group for seven of her best female students to explore “subversive” Western novels, such as Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice. Nafisi left Iran in June 1997 and moved to the United States, where she wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran based on her personal experiences.

Reading Lolita in Tehran won a diverse array literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Book Sense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation, as well as being a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir. In 2006, Nafisi won a Persian Golden Lioness Award for literature, presented by the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media.

Nafisi has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels and has published the children’s book BiBi and the Green Voice (with illustrator Sophie Benini Pietromarchi).

Nafisi’s newest book, Things I Have Been Silent About: Memories, a memoir about her mother, was published in January 2009. She is working on a book titled Republic of the Imagination, which is about the power of literature to liberate minds and peoples.

She is a visiting professor and the executive director of cultural conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics.

Nafisi has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as the human rights of Iranian women and girls and the important role they play in the process of change for pluralism and an open society in Iran.