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In A New Memoir, Azar Nafisi Breaks Her Silence

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast, now with a new host, NPR's Lynn Neary. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Memoirs of late have gotten a bad name. Too many have proven to be based on a lie. Too many have told more than we might need to know about the author's darkest secrets. But Azar Nafisi uses this deeply personal genre to explore the politics, history and culture of her homeland, Iran.

Her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, provided a glimpse into the veiled world of Iran through the unveiled women who gathered with her on a weekly basis to read forbidden works of literature. Her new book, Things I've Been Silent About, is a memoir of her family: a complex and daunting mother who deflected her own disappointments and dreams onto her daughter; and a father, the one-time mayor of Tehran who was sent to jail under the Shah and who fostered in his daughter a deep love for the traditional stories and poetry of Persia. The story of Nafisi and her family also provides the backdrop for the history of Iran before and after the Islamic revolution of the late 1970s.

Things I've Been Silent About fills in many of the autobiographical details of Nafisi's life. We learn what it was like to grow up in a prominent Iranian family. Educated overseas, Nafisi earned her doctorate in literature at the University of Oklahoma. When she returned to Tehran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, she chafed under the restrictions of the new regime and was eventually expelled from her teaching post at the University of Tehran because she refused to wear the veil. Married twice, Nafisi has two children and now lives with her family in Washington, D.C.

In the introduction to her book, Nafisi says she never imagined she would write about her own parents. Iranians, she says, do not believe in airing their dirty laundry in public. But, she writes, "I no longer believe that we can keep silent." In breaking her silence, Nafisi has found the strength to confront the tyrannies of an authoritarian regime and to unravel the deceptions woven by her own family.

This reading of Things I've Been Silent About took place in January 2009 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.