"They don't like the damaged, I want to say... Trust me, the American and the English, they like triumphant stories. They want to be a part of the stories... They want to congratulate themselves for something remarkable. Keep yourself undamaged."
These are the things that Dina Nayeri wants to tell an asylum seeker she meets in a refugee camp in Greece; these are the things that she has learned from her own experience as an immigrant, a refugee from Iran, who left that country when she was just a child, with her mother and brother. They escaped first to Dubai, then to Italy, before eventually coming to America, where they settled in Oklahoma. Nayeri, who now lives in the U.K., was and is what many Americans would consider a "good" refugee: She and her family (though, not her father, who stayed behind in Iran), left for reasons of religious persecution; her mother was highly educated; they were not that most shunned of refugees, "economic refugees."
And yet it is precisely because Nayeri's is exactly the kind that is pointed to as being the "right" kind of refugee experience that she has come to grapple with the immigrant narrative in her work, first in her novels A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and Refuge, and now in her new nonfiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You. In it, Nayeri shares not only her story of immigration, but also the stories of other immigrants and refugees, from her country of Iran and from places like Afghanistan. What is remarkable about the stories is both their extraordinariness and their mundanity; yes, there are tales that are harrowing and heartbreaking and full of fear and violence, but also, at their essence, these are stories of people who are just trying to live their lives, who are willing to wait for interminable amounts of time to have a chance at safety and security.
What Nayeri has done so well within this book is demonstrate the ways in which immigrants must constantly negotiate the most ordinary aspects of life, and prove over and over again that they deserve to have the same basic rights that so many of us take for granted. She does it in lucid, resonant prose that has been echoing around in my head for weeks now, allowing me to see the global problems we face through an intimate lens, reminding me the cost of neglecting the plights of so many other people.
It's a powerful and important book, and I was happy to get the chance to speak about it with Nayeri over the phone, recently. Below is our conversation about why she decided now was the time to tell her story, what it means to be a "chameleon" as an immigrant, and who she hopes reads this book.
It's your first nonfiction book, but you've written fiction before that's been informed by your life experience, though, of course, fictionalized. What made you decide that this was the time to write nonfiction?
I think the reason that I wanted to write this particular book had to do with two things: (1) is my own evolution as a person, and (2) is what's going on in the outside world. Right around 2015-16, I had just had a baby, my first, and I live in the U.K. And within a few months of her being born, the Brexit vote happened, and Trump was elected, and the world started to look a lot more menacing. And I had been kind of complacent, you know? I thought of myself as very worldly, but—"complacent" is the wrong word, I was just comfortable. I had moved on from my immigrant experience, and I felt okay in myself. And I thought, Oh my gosh, all those things I was so terrified of when I arrived in the U.S. could be possible again. And I didn't want that for my daughter. I wanted to say something more direct to the world. I wanted to say everything that I have experienced in a direct way.
How did you decide on the structure? Because this isn't a memoir, you weave your own experiences in with those of many other refugees.
I had been focusing on my own road and my own life for so long, and it started to feel a little bit narcissistic. Because the fiction, funnily enough, while not about me, was also about me. And I wanted to talk about things that affect everyone, and I wanted to focus outward to other people's stories. And I wanted to be someone who paid attention to the world, and I wanted to be someone who is attuned to the suffering of other people, because I have a daughter, and motherhood actually makes you more attuned to the suffering of other people. You also are always worried that you're missing something. I don't want to miss anyone's pain! And I don't want to be the kind of person who only writes about my own experience.
The reason I made it into five sections is because I really felt like people focus so much on the escape and being granted asylum. And then after people are granted asylum, the story is over, the problems are solved. And they're not. There's an entire lifetime with this label of refugee, and there's all of these things that you deal with in secret, and there's shame and trauma and the violence of transforming yourself. I wanted to show every stage of the things I have experienced, and I have seen experienced, and each one I wanted to find a theme, like I talk about waiting in the Camp section, and I talk about truth-telling and story-telling in the Asylum section, because I don't want people to think they're just being asked to empathize with other people. I want there to be a connection with the kind of things that we all struggle with. I want people to think, This is something I have felt too, even though I haven't lived through that story.
One thing this book makes clear is how everything in your life becomes affected when you have to view it through the lens of being a refugee. It ends up distorting all the ways you see yourself; it's just this constant negotiation of identity, which is exhausting for anyone, but compounded by all the other negotiations and adjustments immigrants must make.
It's not just the constant negotiation of identity, but it's a lot of other things too that most people never think about, that are kind of relegated to the subconscious, like: Who am I? Who will I be today? Will the way I speak give me away? Can I be brave enough to show this part of myself? Or will this be shameful? These things are not questions that most people ask themselves, especially when they're in their homes, and have never been displaced. So, it takes a lot of mental work all the time.
There's an interrogation within the book of the concept of being a "chameleon," which is something your brother calls you, somewhat accusatorially. There's one sense in which it's positive, because it means you're adaptable, and another in which it's negative, because your whole essence becomes slippery. Like, you recount how your grandmother in England says that assimilation is the only way for an immigrant to be, that the best thing to do is embrace the culture of where you are. And you write that there was a time when that would have been seen as progressive, which just reveals how much changes in terms of our perception of how we ought to be. What was the biggest revelation for you in terms of the evolution of this kind of perception?
I feel like this whole book was a revelation. You mentioned my grandmother, how she was—it's funny because I kind of always thought of her as very modern, of having female strength, and being such a rebel. And later when I saw her, I saw that she was frozen in this rebellion from a time that's so far gone that it's not rebellion anymore—it's bowing, it's like giving up your identity and your self to someone else. But that's not how she sees it.
But for me, I think the same kind of thing can be said in terms of achievement... I lived through so much war, and I went through the refugee camps, and then coming out on the other side, and coming to a prosperous America, but one that was also at war with my part of the world, the best I could do was just be the very best American I could be, and to achieve and achieve and achieve. And also to prove that I'm not one of the riffraff from Iran, you know? I'm not some war-mongering kid.
And the best I could do was was work so, so, so hard to prove myself. And I think that's an instinct that's hard to get rid of. And I don't want to get rid of it—I'm a hard worker, and I love proving myself. It's who I've become, it's who I am. But I had to really deal with the hurtfulness of thinking that I have to be that way for the sake of other people, that I should judge myself by other people's standards. Like my grandmother, I had a nose job. I changed my nose to a Western nose. I've been trying to be American and Western for decades, and I keep thinking of that, and displaying that that's the best way to be. And some of it is a benign small little thing, my physical appearance. And some of it is a bigger thing, like my inability to be okay with who I am.
The refugee story shouldn't be a story of great success and achievement. It should actually be a story about humans not being so horrible that they shut the door on dying fellow humans. That's what the story is. If a country was burning, and all you could get was hundreds of grandmothers, then you should take them because lives matter. So, really, I have to internalize that and tell myself that I matter just because there's blood flowing in my veins and I have breath and that's all.
It seems like such a simple, easily digestible concept, that we should value a life because it's a life, and yet it's not that easy for many people to grasp.
Here's the thing: You put people one-on-one, across from another human being. You put your most avid, Trump-voting, anti-immigration person in front of a teary-eyed kid from one of those border cages, and you say, Okay, should he get in, and it will cost you X dollars, I believe that most humans will say, Yes, fine.
The thing is that makes it so easy for them to dismiss all of these people is because the other side has been very successful at aggregating these people to faceless numbers, a horde, a swarm, a flood. They use this language that's dehumanizing. And they've been successful at doing that. Because people don't think about individual people. They don't think, Here is someone of flesh and bone, sitting across from me, afraid. They don't see the heart beating through their chest. They don't see their fingers shaking. I think if they see those things, those human reactions from other people, they often behave with empathy. But, unfortunately, we don't get those one-on-one moments before we vote on horrifying policies.
The other thing is that the people who are often the most xenophobic and the most terrified of a disruption to what they see as their right to a certain way of life don't even have any experience with immigrants. And, on the one hand, how can you hate someone you don't know? And on the other hand, well, that's actually the only way to hate someone, by not knowing them.
We are not a hateful species. We do things because we follow leaders. When faced with one-on-one decisions, we would choose friendship. We would always choose love. And the funny thing is—the ironic thing is—the people who haven't really met refugees, they are the ones who would benefit the most from having them in their communities. They're the ones who haven't traveled, and who would benefit from seeing something of the rest of the world. They're the ones who often have the values that match those of the refugee families; like, they're all about community, they're about families and local things. Most refugee families are more like that than they are like more typical progressive, urban millennials. It's so ironic that the amount of cultural difference is so small between the people who see the biggest gulf in their imagination.
It shows what living under a politics of fear and divisiveness does to people. As both of our countries are experiencing governments run by xenophobic monsters, it's horrifying to think of these lessons being repeated over and over again.
Unfortunately, people, as loving as they can be, they are also very unthinking, and they follow, and they don't question things. I have seen people who have a refugee or an immigrant friend, and they will literally say, "Well, he's an exception, but really we should stop letting the 'bad' immigrants in." And you want to say, "Your friend over there, he's typical. There's just more like him. There's no other monsters lurking." But people have a hard time going beyond their own personal experience. People want to protect themselves from the unknown, and often do that against their own observations and rationale, in order to believe.
The whole idea of the "bad" versus "good" immigrant, this eagerness to assign morality to the idea of a refugee, is so destructive, even as it's so common. One of the things your book does is really challenge readers to think about immigration in a different way, and interrogate their perceptions. What are you hoping that readers will get from this book?
I wish for a different thing from different kinds of readers. First, there are the people who are native-born; the lucky, settled people with good hearts. The thing is, there are the people who are too far gone, and those are the people I will never reach, so I wanted to write to people with big open hearts who don't know how to help but want to, and they want to hear all of the different things we can tell them. For those people, what I hope I can give is a heartwarming experience of feeling like they understand us a little bit more, and maybe they love us a little bit more, and they know how much love immigrants come into a new country with.
Another thing is I hope I can capture some people on the fringe, the people on the fence, who are a little apathetic, who come from the parts of America where they're not necessarily part of the movement, they just go with the flow. And I want them to feel a little defensive and perhaps get angry on behalf of their neighbors and friends, so they can see how much pain and pride and hard work these people feel to be in their world.
And then I want immigrants and refugees who maybe haven't had the three decades of changing that I've had [to read this]. Because there are things that I wouldn't have been able to say until now. It took me a very long time to be able to say these things. So I hope people can read it and think, That's very much like my experience and thank god you said it. And I hope they're not embarrassed by anything I've said. And I hope they think I've helped them somehow.
And there's one other group: I really hope that anyone who works in immigration—asylum officers, asylum lawyers, people who work in social services—I hope they can understand that while it makes sense for a job to feel rote and bureaucratic, and it might feel as though it's better to just turn off your heart, that is not the best way to do that job. These jobs are important, and it's important to know exactly what goes on in the heart and mind of the people you're interviewing, the people you're giving social services to. It's important to get back in touch with the purpose of your job, especially for an asylum officer. You're not there to keep people out. You're there to decide who needs rescuing and to offer that rescue.
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri (available now).
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