What makes a really good memoir? It certainly isn’t writing style or quality alone. Is it the vividness and uncanny detail of the author’s recollections, as in Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo? Or is it some mixture of personal suffering and political intrigue, as in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago? Or maybe it’s the allure of celebrity that draws people in, a desire to read about scandals, affairs, substance abuse.

Things I've Been Silent About, by Azar Nafisi

While Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, abides by all the rules, I was not entirely impressed. It does include some lively sentences and acute observations, but it lacked that essence which makes a memoir, well, memorable. I found that Nafisi constantly repeated certain points – that her mother was a chronic liar, that her father inspired her to create imaginary worlds, and that literature was her chief escape from the dictates of the Islamic regime under Khomeini. Over and over again, she reiterated these ideas in different ways. She seemed to run out of things to say, but not out of ways to say them.

That’s not to say that her book was terrible or worthless. I did find it interesting to read about how upbringing and political climate shaped her aspirations. I learned a lot about the Iranian revolutions and how they affected the daily lives of the people. She writes beautiful sentences on the importance of not being silent, of not being complicit. She emphasizes this by relating her experience hiding her father’s romantic affairs from her obsessive mother, whom she claims suffered from “an absence of love.” She then broadens the boundaries of complicity and writes poignantly on the topic of silence and absolutist governments:

It is important not just to disobey the rules but to acknowledge one’s right to do so, and to do so openly… It is an illness in our society, the way victims become complicit in the acts perpetrated against them. This habit of pretending to give into the regime created a certain moral laxity, a spiritual laziness in all of us.

Azar Nafisi's mother, Nezhat Nafisi. (Image courtesy Azar Nafisi)

I suspect Nafisi lacks in this book what she lacked in Reading Lolita in Tehran: a willingness to reflect upon and describe her own weaknesses. She seems to pass judgment on every member of her family in these memoirs, with particular distaste for her mother. (After reading this, I found it hard to believe that she truly mourned her mother’s death, or that her mother was among those listed in the book’s dedication.) Yet she hardly takes time to reflect upon her own emotions and impressions of events. She describes them as a journalist would, detached from the events as they occur and simply relating the facts. Perhaps the emotions are too painful for her, or perhaps they’re buried deep under the surface. All I know is that I found myself seeking more.

Perhaps it’s selfish, but I wanted her to expose her vulnerabilities, to tell me something that I couldn’t have found out from anyone else. All she did was to point out the failings of others, which seemed very … inconsiderate, or even rude … to me. Yes, those are the right words, even though they’re harsh. Rude. Inconsiderate. She rails against silence while belittling everyone except herself. Somehow this book went against how I felt a memoir should be written: with a third eye turned inwards.

On a side note, I’ve been obsessively watching every FIFA World Cup match this weekend. I hope to read at least one or two of the Daily Beast’s top five soccer books before the end of the World Cup.