rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Borrowed from [personal profile] rax.

This short but incisive book is a critique of what Keshavarz calls the New Orientalism, as exemplified by Reading Lolita in Tehran: a set of narratives, purporting to be factual, by people who at least theoretically have inside knowledge of a culture due to upbringing or heredity, which use this insider status to reinscribe a stereotypical and two-dimensional view of the culture in question. Older Orientalist works tend to be the views of outsiders-- traveler's tales, exoticism and sensationalism for an audience presumed to have no familiarity with the region described. In a world connected by air travel and the internet, the audience cannot be assumed to have less familiarity with any given place than any given traveler-- but the audience can still be assumed to have less familiarity than a person who was born in that place and raised in that culture.

New Orientalist works can be very popular and very insidious, because they sound to a Western audience as though a person who ought to know is saying 'everything you surmised is true', whereas in fact they have significant blind spots and often genuine factual inaccuracies about the cultures they are describing. Part of Keshavarz' project, in this book, is to illustrate facets of Iranian culture that do not fit the vision that most Westerners have built from the media and popular memoirs.

Keshavarz describes the multiplicity and variance of Persian literature, with particular attention to the writings of women in the twentieth century, especially bestselling poets and novelists. She contrasts this with the idolization of Western literary figures the female lit students have in Reading Lolita in Tehran, mentioning a sequence in which one of the students secretly names her daughter Daisy after Daisy Miller because Daisy Miller is the first woman she's had to look up to in literature. Keshavarz points out that as a child, she herself looked up to Shirin, the lover, queen, and educator from the twelfth-century romantic epic Shirin and Khusrau. She describes the stunned grief of her entire high school class at the news of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad, a woman whose life and work were intimately familiar to every girl there, and points out that this kind of loving engagement by a large public with modern poetry pokes a serious hole in one of the main Orientalizing myths: the idea that, say, Iran has produced great works of art and culture, but that that was long ago in a glorious past, which is completely removed from the present and can never come again.

Keshavarz also attacks the Western critical myth that the novel never became a major form in Middle Eastern countries by offering a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), a post-revolutionary and very popular work of feminist magical realism that I have to go out and read immediately.

And she goes through Reading Lolita in Tehran with a steady hand, pointing out inaccuracies, biases, rhetorical devices, emphases, hidden priorities-- it's one of the better takedowns of a book I've seen in a very long time. The ignorance of Iranian literature she proves would alone be stunning, but she also describes serious problems with the book's explanations of theology, and demonstrates via quotation that everything in the book associated with America has positive adjectives, and everything associated with genuine Islamic faith negative ones. I find her argument entirely convincing. In addition, she mentions several other works that she suggests are also part of the New Orientalist narrative, such as The Kite Runner, and hopes that other critics will go into detail about the differing ways various works fall into this pattern.

Jasmine and Stars has given me a significant list of Iranian writers, painters, filmmakers, and theologians from the post-revolutionary period to look up, and it's also provided a quite useful critical framework. Keshavarz speaks of the New Orientalism in the context of Islam, of course, but I think that either that term needs to stretch to cover work about other cultures or we need an exact equivalent. (If there is one, someone tell me! The Keshavarz is from 2007 but is still most of what I get when I Google the term; but I do not claim to be as up on theory as I might.)

Because, you remember that book by Amy Chua I reviewed the other day, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? If that's not a New Orientalist text, nothing is. That's a person claiming to have insider knowledge about a culture using that supposed insider knowledge to reinforce hegemonic discourse, and the fact that it's about parenting rather than about an actual country obscures this a little, but the basic pattern is there, including the fact that both Chua and the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, are writing from an internalization of the hegemonic discourse because it is what they use to regulate their own experiences, rather than having a consciously stereotype-reinforcing agenda. Of course these books are bestsellers: they combine the appearance of presumptive authority with the reassurance of preaching to the choir.

But, as Keshavarz so beautifully explains, they're bad for you. Because, and this is starting to become my personal motto both for writing and for life in general, things are always more complex than that. Hearing the same myths over and over will not help anyone really develop empathy for people from other cultures.


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March 2017

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