by Lisa Peet
Dina Nayeri emigrated from Iran in 1988 at age eight, after her mother converted to Christianity and became the target of religious persecution; her father, a dentist, remained in their home city of Isfahan, where he still lives. Nayeri, her mother, and brother ultimately landed in Oklahoma, via a circuitous—and sometime harrowing—route, seeking asylum in Dubai and Rome. She became an American citizen at 15, going on to earn a BA from Princeton University, a Master of Education and MBA from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was published in 2014. Her second, Refuge, was published in 2017 (both Riverhead). Refuge drew heavily on her own experiences, painting an affecting portrait of the relationship between a young Iranian woman who escapes to the U.S. and her father, who stays behind, but Nayeri had more to say about what it meant to be a refugee—not only the ways in which her own story had spooled itself out, but the trauma, frustration, and bureaucratic hypocrisy that immigrants have contended with worldwide. This year Nayeri’s first book of nonfiction, The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You (Canongate, UK; Catapult, U.S.)—a moving hybrid of memoir, narrative, and investigation—was published to wide acclaim.
I had the good fortune to speak with her on a panel I moderated for Library Journal’s Day of Dialog, which invites authors to talk about their recent books to an audience of library workers. Publicity for The Ungrateful Refugee was just getting ramped up—it has since landed on a host of Best Of lists, and has been named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction—and it was wonderful to talk about the book and her writing process with fresh eyes. As panels do, we ran out of time, so I was doubly pleased to speak with Nayeri again for Bloom.
Lisa Peet: You come from a tradition of storytelling. When did you realize that you wanted to take that to another level and become a writer?
Dina Nayeri: I had been raised around storytellers and lovers of old poetry—we were from an Iranian village, and everyone was well educated, so the voices of Hafez and Sa’adi and Rumi and Ferdowsi were always in our ears. But when I became a refugee, and spent 16 months without a home, and then when we arrived in Oklahoma to a very different financial situation than we once had, I became a bit obsessed with security. I toiled to get into Princeton and there I studied Economics. I went to Harvard Business School. Only in my late twenties did I ask myself, “Dina, what do you do for pleasure? That is what you should do with your life.” I finally convinced myself that I’d never be tossed back into poverty, and that I’m allowed to seek happiness in my work.
What were some of your cultural touchpoints as a child in Iran, and later when you immigrated to the UAE and Europe? How about as an adolescent in the U.S.?
Most of the storytelling from my childhood was oral. Even the great Iranian tales were told to us by grandparents. But now and then, a children’s book would escape the censors (who often didn’t understand its underlying meaning). So, I read Are You My Mother? and The Little Black Fish (which is actually quite subversive: about a fish who leaves his small pond and remakes his life).
In the UAE and Italy we were far too busy learning English, plus we were refugees with no access to a library. We read English language readers and used workbooks. Only when I arrived in Oklahoma did I begin a daily practice of reading for pleasure. I devoured the Newbery [Award–winning] books, and serials like The Baby-Sitters Club and Ramona. I loved Judy Blume. Blubber was my favorite. As a teenager I became obsessed with Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Flies. I had a dark little soul.
When you began writing, did you feel that there was a choice you needed to make between writing fiction or nonfiction/memoir? Does writing fiction feel like a layer of protection over your lived experience, or is it riskier?
I did think it would be safer to write as someone other than myself, but it ended up not protecting me at all. No matter how much I tried to disguise certain parts of myself, I couldn’t. I angered people. And the one book review critique that I truly regret is that I sanitized a character too much. I had been so afraid to give offense that I had short-changed my readers. That was a great lesson. I realized that fiction was no protection at all and that I should go about it honestly. My loyalty had to be to the work, and to my characters.
It was a vital step in empowering me to write nonfiction, as myself, knowing that I’d endure criticism and anger. But funny enough, this whole process of embracing my own voice has made me crave the imagined ones again. I want to return to fiction, and to be braver, and to let people speculate all they want. I will never again disguise a character so much that they lose dimension.
What was the process behind the decision to tell your and your family’s story?
I have been telling my family’s story through fiction for years. And I’ve been telling it in private to friends. And I’ve been telling it to myself. The decision to write a nonfiction book wasn’t really about telling my story, but about telling the stories of others and articulating frankly what I believe is happening in the world.
This book has three kinds of narrative: my memoir, reportage of other refugee stories, and essayistic reflections on the phases of the refugee life. What drove me to write it wasn’t the memoir portion, but the other two parts. I included my own story because it felt necessary to be candid about who I am, and to be bold, and (for the first time in book form) to be openly myself. It was difficult at times to reveal so many of my most humiliating flaws, as I do in this book, but I had to, because I wanted those who find fault with my views to recognize why I see the world as I do—I wanted them to find my views thought-provoking even if they think I’m damaged, and I wanted them to be reminded how easy it is to care for someone (or a voice in a book) though you may disagree with them.
Also, the parallel between my refugee experience and the ones today struck me as important, because the world has regressed into tribalism and xenophobia, and it’s vital that we recognize that regression and consciously return to the kind of conversations we were moving toward 20 years ago (when we more or less accepted our duties to the world’s most vulnerable).
Finally, I told my own story because it seemed necessary to assure the reader that my lens is indeed a good one through which to examine other displaced lives—not only because I understand so much that goes unsaid, but because I do judge harshly sometimes and I succumb to dark thoughts, and I wanted the reader to know exactly where those come from. So, the memoir was a kind of scaffolding that I needed. In every phase, certain lessons have presented themselves intensely in my own life, and I wanted to show them honestly before reporting other stories. I wanted the reader to understand just how I’m able to see what’s happening in these other lives in moments of silence, secrecy, or heartbreaking posturing.
Can you talk a bit about some of the decisions you made in structuring The Ungrateful Refugee? I’m particularly interested in the shifting, not always linear, timeline. Your fiction also uses a nonlinear time frame.
The book had to be written this way. This isn’t just a memoir, but an analysis of the many secrets that refugees and migrants keep. These secrets build on each other from stage to stage. There is the burden of escape, the abjection of waiting, the humiliation of having your story dissected. These things happen in a certain order and the refugee psyche is formed by the nature of that progression. Also, I wanted very much to find themes in each stage that are also a part of the settled life.
In the second chapter, “Camp,” for example, I talk about waiting and the humiliation of being made to wait. I describe my own time in a refugee camp, then follow new arrivals suffering in the same purgatory. From there, I go into the story of my grandmother in London, a woman whose obsessive, unrequited love caused her to wait for decades. She imposed the limbo on herself, though she was free. She drained her inner world of all its color, turning herself into a refugee.
These visceral thematic connections between displaced and settled lives bring out the universal nature of migration. We are all migrants through time: as we move away from our childhood conceptions of home, as we become strangers to our best selves, as we are removed from the places where we were most authentically ourselves.
Along somewhat similar lines, in The Ungrateful Refugee you make a strong point about how different cultures’ storytelling styles influence how immigrants’ stories are received by the authorities they interact with. Was your own storytelling style on your mind as you were writing?
I was taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop that if your style is on your mind, you will write badly. So I’ve trained myself to write without thinking of it. But I’m absolutely obsessed with how other people tell stories and what is perceived as truth and what is called lies. I’m obsessed with who decides what is true. My next book will be shaped by these questions.
Do you get angry as you write? How do you counter those feelings while writing in order to keep the story still palatable?
I try to channel my anger in a loving way, as I would with my daughter. I am angry with the way American discourse is going, but I haven’t stopped loving America. I want to help my adopted country to find her heart again. And yes, I do get angry as I write. In the first draft, I allow all that emotion onto the page. But that’s why editing is so important. As I edit I put away emotions and focus on arguments, on logic, on precise writing. Often most of the angry prose falls away and I’m left with something compelling and nuanced that can carry many emotions at once: love, anger, disappointment, hope.
In your memoir, you talk about the very basic human need for dignity. Do you see this as something that can be addressed at an institutional level? How can something so unquantifiable be changed?
It may be unquantifiable but it isn’t vague or intangible. There are policies that very specifically rob the displaced of their dignity. The rules against working while you wait for asylum. The lack of education in the camps. The demeaning condition of the camps—the endless waiting. The hostile culture of asylum offices across Europe and in America. The plainly wicked policy of separating children from their parents. The definition of truth in the asylum process. The definition of who is a refugee in the first place, who deserves temporary protection status, who has suffered in just the right way, who gets the life-saving privilege of a lawyer (hint: whoever has money).
After months, years, of waiting to be heard, after finding the courage to relive their most traumatic experiences, refugees are often disbelieved because of the way asylum officers are trained and incentivized. How does that not crush a person? How does anyone keep their sense of purpose and worth when they’ve been forbidden to work for a decade? When they’ve lost their profession and identity?
So many of the laws in the U.S. and Europe seem designed to push people’s faces in the dirt. In the UK, after asylum seekers are granted refugee status (when they’re finally allowed to seek work), they’re given 28 days to vacate their housing. The clock starts the moment they’re accepted, even if their acceptance is in the mail for a week. They have four weeks to find a job, a place to live, a bank account. It’s impossible. So, there is often a period of homelessness—how long does it take to undo the psychic harm of that time? How long to live down the shame?
I love the cover of the hardcover edition of the book. How much input did you have? (I had to Google to see if the flower bore any resemblance to turmeric, since you have a line in Refuge about a turmeric root pulled from the earth.)
Wow, what a wonderful connection. The flower is an iris. The first version of the cover was so beautiful, but the flower was a tulip. I loved the root very much but found the bulb menacing. I asked my brilliant designer to choose something softer, more vulnerable and beautiful to symbolize the fragility and potential of the uprooted. And she came through with this incredible image (she even made sure the flower/root pairing was correct).
What are you writing now? Is there more of your own story that you didn’t have the chance to address?
I’ve decided that it’s time to write a fully imagined work—a novel not at all based on me, though it will certainly be based on things that interest me, like displacement and rebuilding. I’m also interested in how individuals are forced to make horrific decisions because of failures of systems around them. Healthcare, for example. So I’m working on a novel about that. But I can’t let go of the nonfiction. I’ve pulled so many fascinating threads while writing The Ungrateful Refugee, and I need to follow those, and to learn more about how we have organized our world, how we divide our resources, and for whose benefit we’ve set up our systems. I want to follow those questions to the kind of quietly moving stories that may have gone overlooked, and I want to share more of those stories with the world.
Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Photo of Dina Nayeri by Anna Leader
Turmeric root photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari via Wikimedia Commons
Featured image via Max Pixel
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features