In her timely new memoir, “The Ungrateful Refugee,” Dina Nayeri hardly minces words. “The world,” she writes, “no longer speaks of refugees as it did in my time. The talk has grown hostile, even unhinged.”
It has been 30 years since Nayeri, along with her mother, Maman, and younger brother, escaped the clutches of an intolerant, brutal Iranian regime for America. In that time, the world has indeed changed, hardening its stance toward refugees by relegating many of their stories to the “fiction pile.”
This pervading sense of doubt is of strong interest to the memoirist Nayeri, who, in a turn away from fiction, weaves her empowering personal story with those of the “feared swarms,” asylum-seekers in Greece and the Netherlands.
Her family’s escape from Isfahan to Oklahoma, which involved waiting in Dubai and Italy, is wildly fascinating, and even by today’s standards it remains miraculous. They fled a life that was at once a fairy tale (“we had yellow spray roses, a pool. A glass enclosure shot up through our living room, and inside that was a tree”) and also a war zone (“we lived under constant threat of Iraqi bombs”).
But it was Maman’s conversion to Christianity that did them in. During the Khomeini regime, Christians were considered apostates and thus persecuted. It didn’t help that Maman was also stuck in a marriage to a raging “poppy” addict in a deeply misogynistic society. For devout and aspiring Maman, escape was the only way out.
So, too, it was for the displaced men and women relaying their more recent stories to Nayeri as she traverses lives and land allotted to them. Among them, we meet Darius, an Iranian hounded by “pitiless volunteer militia” for his involvement with the wrong woman. We also meet Kaweh and Kambiz, who fled Iran because of their affiliation with KDPI, a Kurdish democratic-leaning rebel group. With escape, however, often comes a life in limbo, the unbearable stint of waiting. In the center of Dam Square in Amsterdam, after a decade of asylum denials, Kambiz set himself on fire.
Using energetic prose, Nayeri is an excellent conduit for these heart-rending stories, eschewing judgment and employing care in threading the stories in with her own. It’s a pity that some threads run thin and frayed in parts, requiring the reader to grapple with remembering who’s who. The way the book is organized — loosely by chronology and mainly by theme — could be to blame.
Nevertheless, this is a memoir laced with stimulus and plenty of heart at a time when the latter has grown elusive. “I have a hard time,” Nayeri writes, “spotting, amid the angry hordes, the kind souls we knew … who helped us, who held our hands.” Yet hope holds out: “I know they are still there.”
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and award-winning fiction writer.
The Ungrateful Refugee
By: Dina Nayeri.
Publisher: Catapult, 350 pages, $26.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 13, Milkweed Books, Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.