Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi (January) Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (January Bonus Round!)
"I do not mean this book to be a political or social commentary, or a useful life story. I want to tell the story of a family that unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Iran's political and cultural history. There are many stories about these times, between the birth of my grandmother at the start of the twentieth century and my daughter's birth at it's end, marked by the two revolutions that shaped Iran, causing so many divisions and contradictions that transient turbulence became the only thing of permanence." (Page xviii)
This book can best be described as a family memoir. It covered the author's life, the life of her father, and the life of her mother against the backdrop of Tehran, Iran.
The book paints a nuanced picture of Tehran and Iranian politics in the mid to late 1900s. I could feel Nafisi's patriotism through her writing: when her country faltered, her heart broke, but she didn't let that diminish her criticism.
An individual's viewpoint of history-altering events is so interesting. It is at once myopic and self-centered, and yet also provides a much fuller picture than a Wikipedia page or news report can. Personal perspective can't provide insight about aggregated statistics (like how many people died, etc.) but can answer questions like "what events stood out to every day Iranians who attended Azar's mother's coffee chats?". For example, Azar talks extensively about her mother's voting record on legislation like the Capitulation Law and the Family Protection Act, and yet those pieces of legislation aren't even mentioned in the Wikipedia page on the Iranian Revolution. I wonder what I will remember about this time in our history.
The book also gave me a window into another family's internal politics. I listened to the audiobook during the one month I spend with my parents each year. Nafisi's characterization of her high-achieving family resonated with my perspective of my own family: sometimes it is hard to separate the tension and the love. How sustainable is it to confine such a density of passion to one roof?
"A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all attended the same college. She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something - she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren't they supposed to get rid of it? - her son wasn't accepted. You are not sure if you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater's legacy program; instead you ask where he ended up. The prestigious school she mentions doesn't seem to assuage her irritation. This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch. The salads arrive." (Page 13)
This isn't a book so much as it is a work of art. That's not just high praise, I mean it literally. It isn't printed on regular paper, it is "Manufactured by Versa Press on acid-free, 80# matte coated paper." And it isn't standard prose, either. Rather, I would categorize it as a collection of moments (some are merely a paragraph long, some are pages long) about the way the author has experienced her blackness.
She writes about black excellence and Serena Williams' legacy. She writes about Hurricane Katrina and our willful ignorance of black pain. She writes repeatedly about moments of black invisibility. She writes.
I really liked how deliberate and non-conformist the work is.
Lili Loofbourow's piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review made me consider how deliberate the work was:
Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself. This, too, is old. Mark Twain dismissed Jane Austen on the grounds that her characters were unlikeable:
'Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. [emphasis mine]'
The implication, naturally—Twain’s a master satirist—is that Austen is incapable of this brand of “high art.” No woman would intentionally conduct such an experiment. No, the effect she produces on Twain must be a combination of accident and his own powers of perception; his unreserved hatred of a particular character is due to his idiosyncrasy and superior social and literary taste, not her authorial control.
Rankine's brilliance was not an accident. Rankine intentionally conducted this experiment. The effect of this work produces is due to Rankine's authorial control.
And Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own made me consider how non-conformist the work is: Woolf wrote about the importance of creating a (perhaps literal, but also definitely figurative) space for women in literature. She posits that the format of writing that can best express what women writers have to say might not have even been explored yet. Traditional writing formats, like the novel, may be insufficient. I like to think that Rankine's work is an important exploration of the space that Woolf was referring to.