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What do you get when you bring together two world renowned authors and another world renowned author, journalist and editor? A lot of wisdom with a side of humor and optimism.

On Sunday night the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) hosted a discussion with Azar Nafisi and David Grossman moderated by Leon Wieseltier. The theme of the evening was “The Freedom of the Writer and the Cruelties of History.” Iranian Nafisi and Israeli Grossman both come from countries where the freedoms of expression and speech have a complicated, often tumultuous relationship with the government.

So how, exactly, have these writers and others like them been able to rise above the limitations that their governments have imposed on them? Imagination. “If we can imagine,” said Grossman, “we are still free.”

Grossman, whose best selling novels include To the End of the Land and Falling Out of Time, spoke of the ways in which art is still able to flourish in his home country of Israel. In Israel art has prospered as a way of feeling and as a way of nurturing imagination. Grossman vocalized his opinion on the notion that to insist on nuances of language is to resist using the language of an oppressive government. Grossman is often linked to the Israeli authors Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua because of the recognition he has earned as an outspoken peace activist.

“In Iran the first thing the rulers want to do,” said Nafisi, “is to turn you into figments of their own imagination.”

Azar Nafisi currently serves as a professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies where she is the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the school’s Foreign Policy Institute. She is best known for her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Things I’ve Been Silent About (a memoir), and The Republic of Imagination. Through the development of her characters Nafisi establishes a sense of what she calls a democratic trust. In her stories, and in Grossman’s, even the villain has a voice. It is their job as authors to tell their stories democratically.
Leon Wieseltier ushered in the end of the conversation by stating that fiction is powerful because of it has a way of being universal through focusing on the particular – the particular being the individual characters in an author’s story. And so Nafisi, Grossman, and Wieseltier came to the conclusion that the power of the individual, along with a strong sense of imagination, can challenge anything.

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