Safety, stability and a sense of home are things easily taken for granted, until you don’t have them any more. Dina Nayeri knows this. The author, who fled Iran with her family in search of asylum aged eight, has spent most of her life looking for things that might bring her happiness and security. Growing up in suburban Oklahoma, after two years in the purgatory of refugee camps, Dina became, in her own words, “obsessed with the idea of succeeding in America”. That meant pursuing an Ivy League education, marrying the right husband, and undertaking a spell at Harvard Business School.
But she would also learn that success and stability don’t always follow an easy blueprint. At the back of her mind, even as she made all the “right” decisions, Dina felt a pull away from the rigours of her chosen world, towards writing. In her late twenties, she left her job as a management consultant, separated from her husband, and became a full-time writer, studying fiction at the Iowa
This was the kind of gamble Nayeri had spent her life avoiding. Her experience as a refugee had led her to play it safe at all costs, to carve out a particular place in the world for herself. Now, alone, and facing yet another new start in a new place, she had to figure out how to navigate without a map.
The publication of her first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, in 2013, proved that her gamble had essentially paid off. More importantly, perhaps, Dina is happier, too. She is raising a family in the UK after years in Europe and America, creating a definition of home that doesn’t depend so much on one particular place or one way of doing things.
This summer saw the publication of Refuge, her ambitious second novel, which takes in Iran’s Green Movement, opium addiction and the challenges faced by placeless people around the world. In the novel, the lives of Niloo, an Iranian girl who escapes to America, and her father, who stays behind, diverge as Niloo grows up into a cosmopolitan young woman, eventually involving herself in nascent immigrant communities in Amsterdam. The novel deals with questions of family, identity and diaspora, weaving these issues deftly into a story about very universal problems and the decisions we make.
Dina has made her mark in non-fiction, too, writing essays for The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times on the experiences of refugees and immigrants. We meet in central London on a wet summer’s day, weeks before the novel’s publication, to talk about what went into it, and how its themes dovetail with Dina’s own experience.
I loved Refuge. I don’t know a lot about Iranian storytelling, but it seemed to carry the hallmarks of the oral tradition: humour, character, a certain visual quality… I felt it, almost as if you were telling it to a crowd of people. Was that on your mind at the time?
Yes. It’s not actively on my mind any more, but it’s something that is in my writing, in my subconscious. Because, you’re right, Iranian storytelling does come from oral tradition, and people do tell each other stories as a part of their entertainment, in a way that I haven’t seen people in the West do as often. So the way I tell stories, out loud and when I write, is infused with that. It’s interesting that you picked that up – I find it wonderful that you did.
How has writing fiction allowed you to reconnect with your time in Iran and your family there?
It was the primary way that I reconnected. I haven’t been back to Iran since I left as a child. After I left, there were a lot of different places that I lived, a lot of moments of readjusting, having to become an entirely different person. Over the years, I lost a lot of my Iranian identity and, eventually, I just wanted so much to become American, especially as a teenager. Then I went to college, and was so into my own world, trying to get stability back into my life, to become successful, to do all the things I thought would save me from ever having to go through anything like that again…
So I didn’t connect with my Iranian roots for a long time, except in speaking with my parents or through cooking. I found, in writing my first novel, the biggest joy was the research: remembering, looking at old photos, videos, listening to music and discovering different foods. Getting involved in Iranian communities. At the time, I lived in Amsterdam, and then in Iowa. It was not only having my memory jogged, in terms of all the things that were buried in my mind, but also learning all this new stuff about Iran that I didn’t know. That was my way back.
So, writing is almost like a physical connection. In Refuge, I really like the role that food plays, and how, no matter where the characters go, they can reconnect with somewhere they’ve been before through cooking.
Yes. Food connects us to so many of our memories. I think it’s a universal thing; I read somewhere that the sense of smell is the strongest tie to memory, out of the five senses.
It has that power, to really bring you back to a specific time.
Exactly, and cooking uses all five senses, and is something you remember so vividly from various moments in your life. A lot of celebrations involve food, a lot of mourning involves food. Big emotional moments are somehow always tied to food. And, of course, it’s very, very unique to a person’s culture, so it’s an easy way to get into a particular world.
In the novel, Niloo has a bag of important objects that she has to keep in a particular physical place, called the Perimeter. Was this something you can relate to yourself?
It’s a thing that I have! That was completely from my own life. And I didn’t realise how bizarre it is until much later. I noticed that other people don’t do this, and maybe I’m just a little OCD. I need to have this corner, it needs to be demarcated, and it needs to have my most precious things in it. And these things all have to do with being able to escape. Things like passports, valuable items, rings and jewellery. It’s such a strange thing to need to do. But I just thought, “Well, everybody puts their precious things somewhere.” When my current partner noticed it he pointed out how strange it was, and how it definitely feels like it comes from a fearful place. It’s something I started to do after we left Iran. As if I think only a small space can be mine, and everything has to be in there, and it needs to be easily transportable. I’ve had that habit since then. Again, it’s tied to my experience as a refugee.
”Storytelling is the most powerful form of persuasion, because people don’t have their guard up against it”
This novel is being published at a pertinent time. How does it feel to have your own experiences become timely and current in this way?
Well, I know that on a macro level, it was easier to be a refugee when I came to America than it is now. Statistically, it was more likely. But on an individual level, it wasn’t easier, it was the exact same experience, so I’ve spent all of my adolescence and all of my twenties battling the demons that invaded at that time. The fact that the world is now paying attention to this issue doesn’t put it any more to the forefront of my mind – it has always been at the forefront of my mind! But it makes me feel much, much more hope that the world will pay attention. Although it is dispiriting to remember the reason why the subject is on people’s radars: because so many countries are turning their back on refugees.
Thinking back on those years when I was in suburban Oklahoma, it wasn’t a big topic, at least in the communities where we lived – simply because it wasn’t so much part of the political discussion at the time. But still, I feel like all of the decisions that I made, personally, in my adolescence, all of the things that I was trying to do in my life, were all coloured by [being a refugee]. So, yes, now, suddenly, this is in the public’s imagination, whereas it’s been in my imagination the whole time.
Do you believe fiction is useful as a means of discussing these topics?
Of course. Storytelling is the most powerful form of persuasion, because people don’t have their guard up against it. When people know that they’re about to read an argument, or to hear some form of rhetoric, they’re ready with their own views. When they hear a story, they’re just there to be entertained, to hear someone else’s reality, to be moved and transported. That puts you in a place where you’re unguarded, and you’re open, for a moment, to being in someone else’s life – and that is how you understand. That is how you’re persuaded and moved. So, in that sense, storytelling is more powerful than any other kind of communication, I think.
Do you think it’s essential for a person to have somewhere they can put down roots, ultimately?
I have a hard time calling it essential, simply because I haven’t been able to do it myself. I do feel it as something vital that is missing. Having roots, being a part of something, even if your roots are not in a physical place but in a particular habit or a particular kind of people or whatever. You need roots to survive, though my own are so tenuous, I’ve had to learn to survive. I know many people who have learned to adapt. When I was in business school, one of my favourite professors said, in his final lecture, when he was giving us advice: “A lot of you will make the mistake of thinking you can have both roots and wings, and you can’t.” You can’t have both of those things, so you have to decide. If you decide inadvertently, you’re going to find yourself deeply missing the other thing. It’s not something you can just plug into later. I’m really mangling this metaphor! But it’s not something you can just create for yourself later. You have to be aware of what you need, earlier.
You wrote an essay for The Guardian, earlier this year, in which you talk about your experiences, about assimilation and what Western societies expect from refugees. One thing it grappled with was the way we talk about refugees. I think we can all agree that refugees are treated too harshly in the media but, beyond that, do you think there is a need to change the way we talk about refugees and how they exist in society?
Absolutely. A couple of weeks ago I was driving through the English countryside, somewhere near the Cotswolds, and there was a horrible UKIP sign that said INTEGRATION, NOT MULTICULTURALISM. You’ve seen those signs. It seemed to me such a bizarre thing to say. It’s so openly disdainful of other people’s cultures. It forgets about these rich cultures, other people’s backgrounds, what stories they bring to us. Oh, forget about that. Integrate immediately. Whitewash yourself from the second that you arrive. It reminds me of when my father came to visit Oklahoma when I was a kid. One of the things that I remember, through the years, was that I kept pushing him not to speak Farsi and not to be too Iranian around my friends. And, finally, he got frustrated one night and said: “Why don’t I just stop in some in-between country next time and wash all the Iranian from myself, so I can be completely nondescript and unrecognisable here in your new world?”
I remember thinking he was being so difficult at the time, but now I understand that sentiment so much. You know, this is exactly what signs like that are asking for. They’re asking you to come as a blank slate and saying that’s the only way you can be respectful of them. Well, that’s an atrocious thing to expect from someone. It’s a sort of violence, in a way.
It’s impossible to do that.
Yeah. You’re asking them to murder their past self. And they can’t do that.