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A manifesto for readers: The Republic of Imagination reviewed

The task Azar Nafisi sets herself here, to build an argument for fiction in western culture, is one that has driven her personal and professional life.

The Republic of Imagination: a Case for Fiction 
Azar Nafisi
William Heinemann, 338pp, £18.99

What made Azar Nafisi’s “memoir in books”, Reading Lolita in Tehran, such a remarkable success? Published in 2003, Nafisi’s reading of some of western literature’s greatest works, set in the context of revolutionary Iran, struck a chord with readers around the world: it appeared in over 30 languages and spent 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The title alone catches the eye and the mind, with the contrast between what we know of Vladimir Nabokov’s seductive, shocking tale of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, and what we know – or think we know – about living under an oppressive, theocratic regime. Even before we open the book, we are invited to think creatively, to envision another life. It is that kind of creative thinking that has been the driving force in Nafisi’s life, and which powers her new book, too.

Nafisi, the daughter of a prominent Iran­ian family (her father was once mayor of Tehran), was expelled from the University of Tehran in 1981 for refusing to take the veil. She left Iran for good in 1994, first for Oxford and then the United States, where she is now a visiting professor and the executive director of cultural conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. This book, The Republic of Imagination: a Case for Fiction, has been on her mind a long time. She was at work on it before she wrote Things I’ve Been Silent About (2009), a memoir prompted by her mother’s death. The task she sets herself here, to build an argument for fiction in western culture, is one that has driven her personal and professional life. It is a kind of answer to Reading Lolita in Tehran – and a necessary one at that.

Like that book, The Republic of Imagination blends personal recollection and impression with close literary analysis, this time focusing on just three books. “Huck”, “Babbitt” and “Carson”, her chapters are called: the three books she has chosen as exemplars of why fiction must be central to our understanding of culture are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). There is an epilogue, too, centred around the work of James Baldwin.

These are very American books; indeed, all but one of them, I venture, may not be on the shelves of British readers. But Nafisi is concerned that they may not be on the shelves of American readers, either (though the McCullers novel got a bump from Oprah’s Book Club a few years ago), and while this work is about the state of American culture, what she has to say applies to what is happening on this side of the pond, too. Of the bookshops and libraries she toured to promote Reading Lolita in 2003, many were gone by 2009 (including 12 of the once 14 bookstores in Harvard Square).

But this isn’t just about the rise of Amazon: “The crisis besetting America is not just an economic or political crisis; something deeper is wreaking havoc across the land, a mercenary and utilitarian attitude that demonstrates little empathy for people’s actual well-being, that dismisses imagination and thought, branding passion for knowledge as irrelevant.”

How can reading Huck, Babbitt and Carson reverse this crisis? What do these books have in common? Like almost all great novels, they portray the societies in which they are set through the eyes of highly individuated characters. Nafisi argues passionately against the idea that we learn by “identifying” with these characters; it is the fact that the people we encounter in books may be very different from us that allows our imaginations to grow and to change. They are books that shine a light on the societies out of which they were built; reading them closely means looking not only at the worlds they sprang from but the world around us, too. What has changed? What has not? Who are those people and who are we? This is what great fiction does.

Nafisi quotes Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. It is this almost magical attachment that connects readers to a book and to the world. Nafisi’s book calls the reader to return – or to turn for the first time – to the texts she discusses, to look through their authors’ eyes. But the spider’s web is fragile, for all its silken threads are strong; it needs champions like her.

The irony of prizing literature in Iran, where it was considered contraband, and coming to the supposed freedom of America, which disregards what can be consumed so freely, is not lost on her. “But do we need the stark contrast with a totalitarian society to be reminded of the value of free thinking? Why do tyrants understand the dangers of a democratic imagination more than our policymakers appreciate its necessity?” 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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