2015 Laureate Prize Winner

Azar Nafisi

2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Public Service

Azar Nafisi first won acclaim as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which offered compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran. It told the story of how, against the backdrop of morality squads and executions, she taught Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and other classics to a small group of young women in Iran who were eager to explore new worlds.  The memoir, which has been translated in 32 languages, drew a huge following around the world and has won many awards.  Since then, she has continued to prove for meaning by using works of fiction to provide windows into her own life as well as the lives of her students.  Her most recent work,The Republic of Imagination, continues that theme.

I found a nation of readers, large and small, old and young, rich and poor, of all colors and backgrounds, united by the shared sense that books matter, that they open up a window into a more meaningful life, that they enable us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.
— The Republic of Imagination, Azar Nafisi
 Azar Nafisi with Legacy Prize winners from various years

Azar Nafisi with Legacy Prize winners from various years

Born into a well-educated and prominent Tehran family, Azar Nafisi was introduced to Persian literature at a young age. Her father, Ahmed Nafisi was the mayor of Tehran until his arrest in 1963, and her mother Nezhat Nafisi was one of the first women to serve on Iranian parliament.  Azar Nafisi was sent to school in Switzerland. In the 1970s she earned a PhD from the University of Oklahoma in English and American Literature, and received a fellowship at the Oxford University. In 1979, during the Islamic revolution, Nafisi assumed a teaching post at the University of Tehran. There she introduced her students to western literary classics, some of which had been banned by the revolutionary government. In 1981 Nafisi was expelled from the University for refusing to wear a headscarf. She moved to the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai University. In 1995 she taught a small group of students in her home, discussing works considered controversial in Iran at the time, such as Lolita and Madame Bovary. Reading Lolita in Tehran, based on this experience, was published in 2003.

In 1997 Nafisi emigrated to the United States with her husband and children. In her words:

There reached a point where I couldn’t do what I did for a living. I realized that whatever I wrote would have to come out in a mutilated form. That was one of the final blows. I felt that if I came here [to the US] I could connect to my own people in a way that I could not in Iran.
— Azar Nafisi
 Azar Nafisi with members of the Creativity Junto and Legacy winners from various years

Azar Nafisi with members of the Creativity Junto and Legacy winners from various years

Following the publication of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi won numerous literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation, as well as being a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir.  In 2006 she won a Persian Golden Lioness Award for literature, presented by the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media. In 2011, Nafisi was awarded the Cristobal Gabarron Foundation International Thought and Humanities Award for her “determined and courageous defense of human values in Iran and her efforts to create awareness through literature about the situation women face in Islamic society.” Nafisi has conducted workshops in Iran for women students on the relationship between culture and human rights; she has lectured and written extensively on the political implications of literature and culture, and the human rights of Iranian women and girls. She has been consulted on issues related to Iran and human rights both by policy makers and human rights organizations in the US and elsewhere.

In addition to Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov’s Novels.  She has published a children’s book (with illustrator Sophie Benini Pietromarchi) BiBi and the Green Voice. In 2009 she wrote Things I have Been Silent About, a memoir about her mother.