There is something very odd about reviewing a memoir. After all, you’re reviewing what are the memories of somebody else. These memories have been written and reconstructed for publication and so you can always talk about writing style, the voice of the author and the insights into his or her life, like you can with any other book or story. And yet, I always feel reading a memoir is something special, like taking a sneak peek into someone else’s thoughts. It is, I believe at least partly, why memoirs do so well these days. Especially since reading about someone’s life experiences, gives the information given a more “real” feel than fiction or nonfiction often does. Even though I do not believe that memoirs show us what life was “really” like during a certain time or in a certain country, I do think they make for interesting reading. In the upcoming week or weeks, I’ll be writing about a few memoirs. Today, I’ll talk about the first: Things I’ve Been Silent About, by Azar Nafisi.
Things I’ve Been Silent About is the second memoir published by Azar Nafisi. Her first, ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, has been and still is very popular in the United States. Reviews of this second memoir have been mixed. If you look at LibraryThing, some people remark that there’s too much repetition between this book and Reading Lolita. I’m currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, so this might have to do with me approaching these books the other way around, but I do not agree with this criticism. It’s true; both books deal with her experiences of living in Iran. Then again, what else did you expect? Personally, I really enjoyed reading both these books, as they seem to compliment, instead of repeat, each other.
In this memoir we get a glimpse of Nafisi’s whole life. Much more attention is given to her childhood, her growing up, and her family life in general. Things that are only mentioned in passing in Reading Lolita in Tehran are given full attention in this memoir. Therefore, this book has a more personal ring to it. The reader gets to experience her emotions in a more direct manner: her sadness, her anxiety and her happiness are all expressed blatantly, instead of through her thoughts on books and reading.
Nafisi’s relationship with her father, but especially her complicated relationship with her mother is strongly emphasized in Things I’ve Been Silent About. At first, I was rather annoyed by the time she had mentioned her many fights with her mother for the 8th time. But, towards the end of the book I started to enjoy reading about it. There’s a sense of growth throughout the memoir. At first, Azar Nafisi only shows us the more negative sides of the relationship, but towards the end she starts to reflect on what made her mother act in that manner and the description becomes touching, if nothing more.
Of course, like Reading Lolita, the Revolution and its consequences, and especially its consequences for women, are given a lot of attention. Out of all her observations on the revolution, this is one that stood out for me:
“Looking back at our history, what seems surprising to me now is not how powerful religious authorities have been in Iran but how quickly modern secular ways took over a society so deeply dominated by religious orthodoxy and political absolutism.”
Out of all the observations on women, however, there are many that are worth consideration. I especially felt a need to note down all the glimpses we get of the anxiety Nafisi experienced, not through the Revolution and its obligatory veiling, but the general opinion and opportunities given to women that were far more widespread, even before the revolution. And that, dare I say it, sound very familiar to some situations women find themselves in all over the world, “even” in the West. These involved her confusion when she’s sexually intimidated by a close friend of the family, as well as her feelings of shame and guilt surrounding her first marriage and sex:
“But I did absent myself from my body. From then on, for decades, sex was something you did because it was expected of you, because you could not say no, because you did not care, could not care and so you would be coy about it to undermine the seriousness of comments you made, such as Please don’t hurt me.”
I’m going to leave you with two remarks on identity that I couldn’t help but note down, because I loved them so much:
“We define ourselves not through what we reveal, but what we hide”
“I sometimes think we become so dependent on the images we create of ourselves that we can never discard them.”
I really enjoyed reading this book & reading the personal observations of one woman on the 1979 Revolution in Iran. It’s true, the book details her whole life, but at the same time, it’s very much about the revolution. Throughout the text, there are sentences that either refer to what’s to come or reflect on what has happened. Although I couldn’t yet tell you whether I liked it more, or less, than Reading Lolita in Tehran, I can at least conclude that this might hold a stronger appeal for people who enjoy a “straightforward” memoir better than a thematic one.