America Encourages the Vagabond Self

The latest issue of the New Yorker (April 18) contains a number of fascinating accounts written by immigrants about coming to America.  In one of them Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, talks about how her idea of America was shaped by the American literature that she read as a girl.  Here’s a passage describing books that got her attention:

How did it start, this relationship with America?  When I was a young girl, in Tehran, my English tutor told me the story of the Wizard of Oz.  It was the first time I had heard of America, of Kansas, and of cyclones. Later, I came to hear of a river called Mississippi: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the book that I returned to most often, during the years I taught English in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Throughout the book, Huck and Jim turn the decent, civilized world on its head.  They are subversives, but compassionate ones, trusting their own instincts and experiences.  The more I read of American books, the more I encountered other characters who seemed to do something similar—Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.  It was this aspect of America—its vagrant nature—that I connected to.  America somehow encourages this vagabond self, and that is surely why so many people who migrate feel at home here.  They can be outsiders yet still belong.  Years before I became an American, I had already made my home in the imaginary America.

The works we take for granted are doorways into other worlds.  Or as Emily Dickinson puts it, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”


Note: Other posts about Nafisi, written in July 2009 when the Greens were protesting the fraudulent Iranian elections, can be found here, here, and here.


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  1. farida
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    For various reasons, I very much relate to that passage by Azar Nafisi. I also love the line she writes: “Years before I became an American, I had already made my home in the imaginary America.”

    For me, the gift of Better Living Through Beowulf is that it beautifully articulates the wonder of literature: That literature make migrants out of all of us and yet is at the same time always returning us home.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Beautifully put, Farida. I love your notion of literature as simultaneously a journey away from and a return home. Eliot is working with a similar idea when he talks about arriving where we started from and knowing the place for the first time. Or as Cavafy writes in his wonderful poem “Ithika”:

    Have Ithaka always in your mind.
    Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
    But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
    Better it last for years,
    so that when you reach the island you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
    Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
    Without her you would not have set out.
    She hasn’t anything else to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
    So wise you have become, of such experience,
    that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

    By the way, I was thinking of you when I put up the post that will appear tomorrow–about a Good Friday film that talks about the importance of friendship between Christians and Muslims.

  3. farida
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    I really like this poem,Robin.
    I had heard of it but never actually read it. Just looked up the poet and the poem in full.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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