Little more than an hour after three ninth circuit Federal judges ruled that a district judge’s restraining order on the Trump administration’s travel ban would not be lifted, AWP 2017 keynote speaker Azar Nafisi launched into her remarks to 1,500 people at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Thursday evening by raising a water glass to those three judges, She then eviscerated President Trump and his world view in a fiery presentation liberally sprinkled with literary, historical, and cultural references. Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and an immigrant to the U.S. from Iran, appealed to the audience to be “good writers, good teachers, [and] good artists,” in [resisting] the tyranny” of the president.
“There has never been a more important time for writers to assemble,” she said of this year’s AWP gathering, “This is a crisis of vision, this is a crisis of faith, and this is a crisis of values” in Trump’s America. “We need to support the scientists, the artists, the bookstores, even the publishers for god’s sake” during “these very dangerous times.”
“We need imagination more than ever,” she said, “[And] readers have a stake in this too. Readers need to be free. It is about all of us.”
Commenting that the Trump administration is already gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and that the newly-confirmed Secretary of Education does not support public education, Nafisi predicted that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities “will be next in line.”
Recalling the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979 that ushered in a fundamentalist Islamic regime, Nafisi was not subtle in her comparisons to the rise of Trump this past year, pointing out that the “first things they targeted [in Iran] were women, minorities, and culture. Does that ring a bell now?” Noting that Americans cannot “rest on our laurels,” and be complacent, Nafisi pointed out that Iran’s literary tradition once was as rich as that of the West, reading a classic 11th century Persian poem that extols the pleasures of adultery to illustrate her point.
“Tyrants know the dangers of poets and writers,” she noted, condemning the censorship of artists and writers in modern Iran and adding that she “cannot tolerate any censorship in this country,” adding “reading and writing is power.”
Quoting James Baldwin, she said, “artists are here to disturb the peace.” After all, she said, “the poet and the tyrant are rivals for the possession of reality.” Literature, she argued, “is at the heart of reality. When they start denigrating literature, they [also] start denigrating reality.” Tyrants, she explained “know the dangers of poetry, of culture,” because poets and writers “are the ones who hold tyrants accountable.”
During her 75-minute presentation, Nafisi also addressed an issue that has more and more come to the forefront in the book industry: diversity. “The great novelist is the one who gives voice to everyone: even the villain,” she said, “Literature doesn’t just belong to one nation, one people. Literature belongs to everyone.”
Despite the lateness of the hour, long lines of people snaked through the convention center after Nafisi's presentation, buying copies of her books, Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination, from booksellers at the Politics & Prose pop-up bookstore, one of two pop-ups that the Washington D.C. bookseller is operating in the convention center during the conference.
After hearing Nafisi's remarks, AWP conference director Christian Teresi said, Nafisi’s "lecture on the essential nature of cultural exchange and open borders made her keynote not only timely but timeless. I imagine it will remain one of the great contemporary discussions on art and literature."