Literature’s Lonely Hearts Club: An Interview with Azar Nafisi
The bestselling author talks about the enduring beauty of Carson McCullers’ classic novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the light and heat in Southern writing and the power of great literature.
by Cerith Mathias
Azar Nafisi is a visiting professor and the executive director of cultural conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks and won several literary awards.
Her latest book The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction sets out a vision of America, a map of its culture and society drawn from its literature, specifically through an examination of a number of American literary classics: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi argues that fiction is central to our understanding of culture and to our understanding of each other. She quotes Virginia Woolf who wrote that “fiction is like a spiders web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”
As part of our celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Cerith Mathias spoke with Azar Nafisi from her home in Washington, D.C.
CM: Your latest book The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction is an examination of a handful of novels you say define American culture. Why did you choose to include Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter among them?
AN: In this book, what I want to show is that many of the great American novels became Huck Finn’s progenies. Beginning with Huckleberry Finn, most of the great American novels have protagonists who are orphans. Now they might not be orphans in the sense that they don’t have any parents, but they are orphans in the sense that they are homeless, they’re outcasts, they’re marginals. What they represent is the other side of the American dream, that this dream is not all about prosperity only in terms of money and wealth, but it is also about prosperity in terms of how each individual can be fulfilled and can fulfil their passion. And Carson McCullers to me seemed perfect for this. Especially The Heart is a Lonely Hunter because in all of her novels, but specifically in this one, what she does is take these characters who are marginal in a small nameless Southern town that itself is marginal, and these characters suffer from deep isolation to the point that they cannot articulate themselves to one another, to people who respond to them and they all choose a deaf-mute to talk to and to open up to, and this mute himself cannot articulate his own love for the other deaf-mute. So it talks about the deep isolation of the people who each have a passion, whose life is centered on that passion, but they live in an environment that completely ignores them and leaves them alone, and leaves them helpless and paralyzed with this inner desire to do something and to connect.
CM: McCullers describes loneliness as “the great American malady.” Is the isolation she depicts in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter particular to America and her corner of the South, or is it more universal than that?
AN: I think that is all of the above, in the sense that McCullers herself says that the town she is describing could be anywhere in America, but is particularly a Southern town. And then I would go further and say that what she’s describing could be anywhere in the world, but it is also particularly American. I think that is where the greatness of every great book comes from, that it entices us as readers by offering us something that is new, because it belongs to a very particular place, in a particular time and particular characters, but if an author has that talent, has that genius she can at the same time present to us a state of being that is also universal. While McCullers takes us to a Southern town, at the same time I’m sure that we’ve all felt that sort of loneliness if we have all had a passion within us through which we could not connect to the world but which we very much wanted to connect. That sort of haunting loneliness I think is very universal.
CM: You mentioned some of the other greats of Southern writing there: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner. Do you think that McCullers is different in her outlook to them? You mention in your book that she doesn’t hark back to the glorious and difficult past of the South. Do you think that sets her apart from the others?
AN: That is one thing with Southern literature, all of these writers mentioned and some other great ones like Robert Penn Warren, or less great ones like Erskine Caldwell, despite the fact that they all had something in common, at the same time they were very distinct. Especially McCullers. I believe that McCullers is very different from Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor, who I really adore. By the fact that her topic is a different kind of isolation, the past is there but the past doesn’t rule over the novel. What rules over the novel is loneliness in a town that has become industrial and modern. So all those traditional ties which belong to the old South are taken away from us. The relationship has changed, but the conditions to provide these people with the means to grow and fulfill themselves as individuals is still not there.
One of the most brilliant characters in the novel is Dr. Copeland. His parents were slaves. He’s not a slave — he has the title of doctor — but he’s still treated as if he were a slave. No matter what he does, he will still have the identity that the town folk bestow upon him. And each of those characters in different ways has the same problem. In literature of the South at the time that McCullers was writing, light also plays a great role. But in each novel, if you read Eudora Welty or William Faulkner or Huckleberry Finn, light is very different to the way it is described in McCullers’ novels. It is scorching, and very present — smothering. And that is what McCullers does that is different.
I disagree with those critics who say that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is something to read when we are young, and we go on to greater books as adults. I don’t make that distinction.
CM: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Is the novel still relevant to the reader of today? How far have we moved on from the struggles of inequality, poverty and injustice contained within its pages?
AN: That is the miracle of her novels and particularly The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Each of the main characters who are trying to connect to the deaf-mute has a grievance and a passion. Today, I can completely see how frustrated the life of an activist could be, like Jake in the novel — that you just seem to be talking to stone faces. Even the people whom you are “fighting for” or trying to represent don’t see that their salvation is in expressing themselves and uniting. The same is true of Dr. Copeland, and of course right now in America the issues of race-relations and poverty have come to the surface again. Things have changed amazingly in America, and I for one am very proud of those changes, but at the same time you see that the old issues are there, and the issue of connecting race with poverty is still there. And that rage and sense of frustration is still there.
Someone like Mick, the young girl who loves music, which is so universal, that will never go away. I feel in society now —specifically right now, our elite, even our academic elite in humanities who should know better — are all treating works of imagination: music, art, literature as objects of luxury. So many times during my book tours I have had young people coming to me and saying how they want to go into literature or they want to go into art, but their parents are not letting them. One told me that when he was in college, his English teacher would try to dissuade them from going into literature. As a society, we are right now moving more toward material wealth and vocation and becoming an enemy of imagination, so you can wonder how Mick would have lived under these circumstances.
CM: You’ve touched upon the fact that McCullers was writing during a time of great social changes not only in the South, but the Western world over. Modern life, and its impact on our ability to communicate, for her was at the root of the loneliness and isolation that plagues her characters. Today, advances in technology have made connecting with others easier now than ever before. Would McCullers have welcomed this kind of communication? Or was she searching for something more meaningful?
AN: Technology in and of itself has no culture. It would depend on how we use it. And what scares me is in this culture that is now so dependent on efficiency and movement, that it is not just taking us away from art and literature it is taking us away from the real world. Because, especially with a novel like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is so sensual. I feel the scorching sun on my skin when I read it, I feel the frustration. And literature and art relate to our feelings and emotions. They are also very dependent on reality, and if we sit opposite one another and just text we are becoming more and more unaware of reality, of the sensuality of life, of how this life in terms of joy and pain should be lived to the full. And that really scares me.
We all use technology, I’m very new to it myself — tweeting and using Facebook and the web. When this book came out, I finally decided I need to connect online to people who feel the same way that I do. But I only use it to connect on issues that matter to me and I don’t use it as a way of communicating with people I love. There is a distinction.
CM: A lot of people who read McCullers take her outlook to be very bleak, along the lines that we were just discussing, that people are unable to connect and despite efforts to right this there is no salvation. What are your thoughts are on that?
AN: I think that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is not optimistic, but it is hopeful. It sees the potential in people who are obstinate and faithful to that inner passion which connects. At the end of the novel, there is this glimmer of hope for each of these people. There is no hope for the deaf-mute, because he is completely cut off; his passion is not a passion in something outside of himself but it is his friend, and with the death of his friend he dies. I think that is a crucial point — that for each of us there is hope as long as we connect to others, and the only way we can genuinely connect to others is through something that we love that is inside us. And that possibility of one day being able to do it, to connect, it takes a lot of pain to get there. Nothing is as easy as we’re telling our young people it is. It takes effort, it takes time, it takes sacrifice. Do we yield and surrender? At each point of every era I think people are faced with this question: do they give up or do they say no, and like Mick and the others, try to make it good.
CM: In The Republic of Imagination, you say that literature is one way of making such a connection, of transcending barriers and boundaries and finding common understanding.
AN: Yes, it is fantastic. You and I, each of us coming from such different worlds, now talking about McCullers — this other woman who has come from a different world and time. That is what literature does that nothing else can do. That is its beauty.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her blog here.