The day before my phone call with Dina Nayeri, I took her latest book, The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, to a coffee shop to finish reading it. A man sitting several feet away craned his neck as I set it on the table. He took his headphones off, his voice carrying across the restaurant. “What’s that book about?” Soon he was hovering over my table: “Isn’t ‘ungrateful refugee’ an oxymoron? We brought them here! What do they have to feel ‘ungrateful’ about?” I engaged for a few minutes and eventually the barista helped convince him to leave me alone. I held the book up while I read so I didn’t have to see his hostile expression.
That encounter was our national dialogue about refugees writ small—the boorishness, the simplistic definitions, the lack of empathy—and shows exactly the value of Nayeri’s book. The Ungrateful Refugee argues that ungratefulness is one of many appropriate responses to the circumstances in which refugees find themselves, that there are as many reactions as there are people who wear the label of refugee at some point in their life. And it is a critique of a system that asks refugees and other immigrants to perform themselves in order to fit a narrow set of definitions in order to be granted the very least any country or person can offer—safety.
I talked with Nayeri about how fiction—she is also the author of two novels, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and Refuge—informed her nonfiction storytelling techniques, her tactics for writing so devastatingly about trauma, and the complicated task of carrying refugees’ stories to a Western audience. While she says that the urgency of our current political climate made the act of writing more “frenzied,” The Ungrateful Refugee is the work of an author at the top of her game, blending the personal and the political into what Carolyn Forché terms “the social,” both “a place of resistance and struggle,” and “the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.”
—Jessica Goudeau for Guernica
Guernica: I kept thinking of the linguistic term “dvandva” while I read your book; words like “bittersweet” and “tragicomic” that pair opposing concepts in a way that doesn’t privilege either idea over the other. You often used polarized opposites to describe your state [remembering a refugee camp in Italy: “To this day, the name Hotel Barba fills me with dread and nostalgia”]. And you present several binaries you refuse to choose between, like “native-born/newcomer” and “refuge/dignity.” I wondered if it felt important to you to write within the tension of some of these ideas we often view as opposing, or as sides we have to choose between.
Dina Nayeri: The refugee situation is complicated and it brings out a lot of competing emotions for people. For example, I think about the complicated feelings people have on the other side of this issue; if they have ever had an interaction with a refugee or a migrant, it’s probably been emotionally complicated. You can’t spend any amount of time with another person and not see that they are multifaceted; you may feel a lot of things about them at any one time. I don’t want people to feel just one thing, I don’t want my book to be simple. That’s why I talk about so many of my own hypocrisies—sometimes when I feel anger at a refugee behaving a certain way, when it goes against things that I believe—because I want people to relate to the fact that you can be flawed, that no one has to be perfect on either side of these conversations.
Guernica: You present the many responses that refugees have to their situations. Some of the refugees whose stories you tell are grasping, some are thoughtful, some don’t care, some care so much—taking the time to examine both the complicated stances of the people you’re talking about and examining your own family’s internal complexities must have been difficult.
Nayeri: It helps that I’ve studied fiction because it’s kind of scary to write your opinions and to write as yourself. In nonfiction, people can be so angry, but in fiction we learn to just tune all that out and show characters in all their complexity. Because I practiced that for many years, I was able to go in and show the real people that I met in that way. And then the natural complexities of the issues come out. There’s a lot to consider, aside from this giant, overarching philosophy about whether to help refugees or not.
Guernica: You keep the complexities at the forefront, like when you write about fiction as a necessary way to get to truth, and how refugees telling their own story is in itself a version of lying since they have to fit their stories to distinct cultural assumptions. [“Refugees will spend the rest of their lives battling to be believed. Not because they are liars but because they’re forced to make their facts fit narrow conceptions of truth,” because “who can guess what Westerners needed to witness in order to believe a story.”] In the West, we often see the title of “refugee” as being reserved for the deserving few, but your book critiques the expectations placed on refugees to tell the perfect story in order to receive the immigration status and aid they need.
Nayeri: Why do we force refugees to show these extreme, black-and-white, perfect stories, and yet we’ve never told a perfect story in our lives? Even in the moments when those of us in the West are the most vulnerable, when we most need something, like when we’re applying for a job, or going on a first date—in all the daily, normal situations in which we ask people for things or present ourselves, or try to sell ourselves—we tell our stories in complicated ways. We cut all of the interesting, messy details; we include orphan details and the things that don’t matter or don’t relate. That’s what life is all about. So why do we tell all of these refugees that they can’t tell stories that way? Why?
Guernica: You tell some of the most traumatizing aspects of their stories, and your own story, in such a matter-of-fact tone, which makes what happened worse.
Nayeri: I learned that in fiction, too. You have to learn to write fiction in order to learn how to tell the truth. In fiction, if you dare to write anything more than what actually happened, then you’re very quickly told you’re being sentimental. And that would be absolutely true! It’s way more powerful to allow readers to find the power and the emotion and the heartbreak for themselves.
Guernica: There are these devastating throwaway lines, like one story of a woman in a car in Afghanistan or an Iranian refugee who casually mentions his “three-month coma.” Your stark language matches theirs.
Nayeri: I interviewed these people and I heard them tell the story and it helped me put it in their point of view. That man has nothing to say about the three-month coma, because he was in a coma! He was gone, he woke up, it was three months later, and his body felt light, and his mouth felt cottony. And that’s what happens when you wake up from a coma. When you’re telling your own story, it naturally follows the rules of good fiction writing. I would listen to the people I interviewed and be like, “Huh, that’s so funny, he’s staying in point of view!” And then I would laugh, because yeah, of course he’s staying in point of view, because he’s himself.
Guernica: This book blends the narrative portions and the essay portions seamlessly—the essays critique and point back to, both subversively and overtly, the stories you tell. You’re telling us what Western asylum officers value and reward, while using Western fiction techniques to give us nonfiction stories of real refugees’ lives.
Nayeri: In the essayistic portions, I let loose. Inside people’s stories, I try to restrain myself. I thought the one value I could add to these people’s stories was that I’ve been trained in the art of good storytelling. I did want to tell their stories in the Western way, I wanted to say, “Here’s a true story.” Even if it might not be believed by an asylum officer, because they make refugees strip the story down. But I wanted to give them that: a story that is told not only in a Western way but in a way that you can’t help but believe. This is something they could do for themselves with five years of practice. But unfortunately refugees don’t have five years to wait.
Guernica: How did you deal with writing these stories while around us, in both the US and Europe, support for refugees is falling apart? Did it feel different from writing your novels, which deal with some of the same topics?
Nayeri: It was very different. This was much faster, it was more frenzied, it had many more distinct parts—there was the research part, and the drafting part, and of course I threw myself into it in a way that was holistic and immersive. I was out there, trying to understand other people’s lives. With fiction, you take everything you understand about other people’s lives after decades of living on this earth, and you sit there slowly, quietly, piecing together a story, with no deadlines. You do it in a slow, peaceful way. It’s slow-cooked; I feel like in some ways, this book was flash fried. But there were also parts of it that have been simmering for a long time—because I’ve lived these issues for thirty years, since I arrived in the US. The revolution in Iran was forty years ago. Those experiences informed the essayistic parts that came together over a very long time. And learning to write it this way happened years. But the year or so of drafting the first draft, was very immersive—finding these stories, shaping them, trying not to lose any details, throwing myself into research about the time period they were telling me about so I could give it color and background and context.
Guernica: There is so much urgency in this book, and in the refugee resettlement situation right now. I feel that in my own work—I can’t write fast enough to keep up with the changes in policy right now. With the news that the Trump administration has lowered refugee admission numbers to historic lows, it feels like this system is crumbling fast enough that those of us who write about refugee situations can’t keep up. But you also focus on how little things change for refugees, especially in the many ways in which they’re forced to wait, often for years, for anything to change.
Nayeri: I didn’t really feel like I was struggling against what was happening at the time the way that you did, because I was using people’s stories with things that had already happened, fifteen or twenty years ago, or things that were ongoing—I was in the slow arc of waiting in camps. In camp, it feels like nothing is moving. It never felt like, “Oh my God, this is going to change.” Sadly, I knew that each of the stories I had chosen was not going to change for a very long time. And I wasn’t really talking about policy, I was talking about immigration philosophy. I’m talking about things like the abjection of waiting, the asylum storytelling, things like that that are not going to fundamentally change. What, we think asylum officers in the next month are going to change?
Guernica: These stories help us see how these policy issues affect real people; by doing that, you offer both critique and give hope.
Nayeri: We’re not very good at taking individual experiences and extrapolating them up to policy level—when we look at the macro level, we tend to blur out all identity. We blur out humanity, and make it this big, foggy thing we can address from a philosophical point of view. It becomes much more complicated than that when you allow yourself to enter human complexity.