Dina Nayeri is an essayist and novelist with a keen eye for details and exposing unspoken ethical frameworks. Her debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was translated into fourteen languages. Her second novel, Refuge, was a New York Times editor’s choice. But Nayeri first came to my attention with her electrifying essay, “The Ungrateful Refugee,” which eventually became a longer, book-length project: The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize. Her writing pushes the limits of both genre and political conversations. I can’t think of a book I would recommend more in our current political landscape.
Image: I love your work so much—it is a blend of creative nonfiction, memoir, and powerful ethical reporting on an issue (forced displacement) that defines our world today. And yet it is so rare to see these genres blended in the ways you do. What brought you to this style of writing? How did you make the choice to weave your own story (coming to the United States with your mother and brother from Iran when you were nine) with the threads of following the stories of other people seeking asylum and resettlement?
DN: I had very little choice in how I wrote the book. It felt so urgent and that urgency manifested in the structure. I had things I wanted to say: rhetorical, reflective responses to what was going on in the world. And those things had to be said as me, in my own voice, in an essayistic way. I wasn’t in the mood to plant them subtly as one does in fiction. (I love doing that in fiction, but I felt that this wasn’t the time). At the same time I was undergoing a change. I had a daughter in the age of Trump and Brexit and old fears were returning. I wanted to focus outward, to look at other people’s stories. I was a bit sick of my own story. So the book started with the reporting plus the essayistic portions. After three decades, I was going to summon the courage to return to camps and to witness this story that I had lived, and to see how it had changed, and to let it ignite my memories so that I could say something important and helpful. But soon after I realized that there was no way I could do this without telling my own story. Where would I get the authority? I was here because of how I had lived. I had a right and an obligation to say these things because of how I had lived. And I could see details in the lives of these new refugees because I had been one of them. My story was necessary to tie the reporting to the fiery opinions.
Image: You focus on an injustice rampant in the asylum seeking process many people overlook: the obsession with boiling down the complexities of human experience and stories of suffering into what makes someone a “good” or “bad” candidate for resettlement. In one moving section, you uncover the complexities inherent in asking people from a variety of backgrounds to prove they are gay or Christian in ways that western authorities accept. Why is this practice so unjust?
DN: There are several levels to this question. On the philosophical level, I find it immoral for one person to have to justify their existence, their truth, their need for safety to another who was born into privilege and safety. On the practical level, it is impossible to determine apostasy or sexual identity or any of those fundamental things in a single interview, particularly when the audience is hostile and badly trained and not terribly reflective or intuitive or tolerant of human complexity. Then there is the question of culture and education: if you were raised in a homophobic culture where you’ve spent your life being made to feel ashamed, you’re not going to arrive in a new country and immediately be able to confess everything. There is shame and fear, but there’s also self-reflection. Not every society is so navel-gazing as ours. People don’t question their every impulse; they don’t organize it into their own personal arcs. Sometimes, the only way a person manifests or expresses their sexuality is through sex. And when an officer asks “how did you realize you were gay?” he can’t answer in a way that would satisfy the western standard for self examination. Many LGBT refugees arrive into a new country and they deny being gay. They give some other story. Then, when they’ve lived in freedom long enough and are able to come out, they’re stuck with the first story they told. They are accused of lying, of being coached. Really, they just had the time to accept who they are. Same with apostasy. In Iran, it’s perfectly possible to have a moment of change, of devotion to a new god. An American would never convert that way. They would read and think and consider every option, because they are free to do so and have been taught to relate that way to their faith. Finally, there is the fact that faith and sexuality both fall on a spectrum and they are mixed with fear, with hope, and with other people’s influence. There is no clean answer to “why did you convert? Was it real devotion or was it because you were afraid of living in Iran? Or because you hoped to leave?” Devotion contains fear, and hope, and a thousand other things.
Image: Did you make any conscious decisions about how you would write about trauma and how it intersects with the stories and lives of people who have experienced displacement?
DN: I didn’t make rules before I heard the stories. Each story is different. I can’t decide how to tell it before I’ve heard it again and again. But I did know that, during a trauma, the senses heighten, and so I knew that the refugees I met had many physical details stored in their memories. I pressed for those, and I listened for a long time as the stories slowly came out. I recorded the many singular and strange sensory details that they offered, and I used them to bring the stories to life. I also knew that when a trauma is happening the part of the brain that’s responsible for contextual information doesn’t function as strongly. So I knew I’d have to fill in context from research, and that was part of what I was offering as a professional writer, the chance to complete the story.
Image: Your mother, a doctor, converted to Christianity while in Iran. She had the kind of experience I read about constantly as an American evangelical child: the persecuted woman who, stopped by the authorities for handing out Bibles and inviting people to the underground church, flees to the United States. In many ways it was a revelation for me to see a fuller, more fleshed out version of the story I read about constantly as a child. Does your mother still tell her story in the same way—her “three miracles?” How have you seen this change over the years?
DN: We all change our stories according to the audience. I imagine she tells the story in much the same way in churches. But she’s only human and she has a range of complexities and motivations (as we all do), and so I’m sure different parts of the story come out when she’s in different settings. Certainly for me that is the case. I never tell the same story twice. Which is also why I marvel at the fact that refugees are forced to tell the asylum offices a story two to three times, months apart, and then the transcripts of those interviews are compared for consistency. I would fail such a test. Because life is full of inconsistency, and every retelling is unique. The only solution to this is to recite a wooden story, which is what refugees end up having to do.
Image: I was deeply moved by how you honored the stories of religious people of both Christian and Muslim backgrounds. You write a bit about your faith journey in the book: converting to Christianity as a child, then slowly losing it throughout the years. How would you describe your relationship to faith or religion now?
DN: In emotional moments, I find myself longing for a higher authority, a higher love. I want very much to believe that I’m serving a larger purpose, and that someone all-knowing is in charge of how that will go. But as a thinking person who believes in science, I recognize that these are human needs, rooted in my psychology and upbringing, and that the love or purpose I’m seeking can be found in humanity and society, and there are human balms that probably will never be enough. That’s just the trouble with being a part of an imperfect world. I can’t possibly believe in something as fanciful as a god. In everyone I’ve known that belief has made them abdicate some of their responsibility to the earth, to fellow humans, to the present.
Image: You have an extraordinary ability to find and tell stories, and then address profound ethical questions through them. I think my favorite part of the your essay was this line: “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories.” To me this is you getting to the heart of the individualism of Western countries and showing the shabbiness of an ethical framework which doesn’t want to give up cultural or religious or ethnic supremacy. What has been the public reaction to your work along these lines?
DN: That ethical framework is indeed shabby. The way individualism has manifested in the West horrifies me. It is becoming grotesque, no longer about individual achievement and responsibility and the sanctity of a private sphere, but much more about entitlement and tribalism and exerting might. And this is affecting what we teach our children. It’s an outgrowth of the “you’re special” culture of parenting. It follows that all the adults who have been told that they are special and will achieve things because of that specialness (and nothing else) would think that they’ve gotten where they are without help, and therefore they have the right to shut their doors and keep others out. Maybe they think that the displaced of the world have done something to deserve their situation. But to answer your question about the public response to my work: those mired in the entitlement and tribalism have sent me hate mail; the caring, thinking native-born who want to open their doors and to help and to welcome their new neighbors have sent me encouragement and love and asked me what they can do; and fellow refugees have sent me thanks and solidarity and invitations to have tea. And the reaction of the last two groups is all that matters to me.
Image: At the very end of your book you state that the idea that nations should welcome refugees due to the benefits they will receive is “barbaric” and an outdated product of colonialism (yet espoused by educated people). It is refreshing to hear your voice advocate for something deeper, richer, and more fundamental: our obligation to fellow humans. How do you navigate for these principles of responsibility to each other in a world that grows increasing xenophobic and nativistic?
DN: It’s easy for people to dismiss these deeply philosophical ideas as impractical and just point to the data. I find myself always having to remind them that actually, I’ve studied data. I’m not being obtuse; I’m inviting a broader examination of the kind of world we want to live in. Let’s forget about the impracticalities and the politics and the resource constraints for a moment. What is good? What is fair and just? What do we owe to our fellow man? Yes, I understand that there are issues to iron out. There are public funds and open space and border chaos and jobs and GDPs… Briefly, let’s put that aside. Because that’s what you discuss after you’ve agreed on what the ultimate purpose of society should be. I like to invite people to think about the Rawlsian “Original Position,” a thought exercise about what society we would create if we didn’t know what body we would be born into. Would we create a society like the one we have now? Would we allow room for billionaires, when in all likelihood we would be a working class person in China or India?
Image: I wish I wasn’t asking you these questions on a day where refugees were in the news, but the Trump administration announced yesterday they were lowering the cap on refugees admitted to the United States to the historically low number of 18,000. How do you process news like this? What is your hope for your writing in this profoundly immoral cultural moment?
DN: It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of refugee, according to the Geneva Convention of 1951 (whose language is so often used to turn away people whose lives are in very real danger). If a refugee is anyone who can’t safely go home due to race, religion, politics, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, then how can you put a cap on that? You have to hear their stories first.
Also, it’s grotesque. We are a country that has so much. I don’t know how we can continue allowing billionaires to exist when we have global problems like this. I don’t know how the billionaires aren’t disgusted at themselves. Why aren’t they all donating everything beyond some reasonable amount of wealth to the world’s refugees?
Image: Who should be on our radar for those of us to want to move beyond the demand for easy narratives when it comes to stories of immigration and forced migration?
DN: In terms of displacement narratives, I recommend these books.
Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
+ Click here to make a donation.
+ Click here to subscribe to Image.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: D.L. Mayfield
D.L. Mayfield likes to write about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics. She is the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne). Her second book is forthcoming in 2020. She is trying very hard to be a good neighbor.