Each week, the My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which can now be explored virtually. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. This week, meet Kirkus Prize finalist Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee.
Dina Nayeri doesn’t go anywhere without her passport due to her refugee experience. Born in 1979 when the revolution in Iran happened, her parents were doctors and by 1985 her mother converted to Christianity and was very open about it. Says Nayeri, “She was basically advertising her apostasy to the Islamic Republic, and very soon the Islamic Republic answered.” Under threat of execution, the Nayeris escaped Iran just in the nick of time and went to Dubai. They stayed there for ten months as undocumented immigrants until they were recognized as refugees and sent to a refugee camp outside Rome, where they waited another six months before they were granted asylum by the United States. At the age of about 10, Dina landed in Oklahoma.
But life in the U.S. wasn’t exactly what they thought it would be. “We were taken to Oklahoma and suddenly the realization hit that we have nothing, we have no place in the society.” In Iran, Nayeri was a straight A student and well-liked by her peers, but in Oklahoma in the lates 80s/early 90s it was a different story. “It was Gulf War America and I was not only a foreign kid with an accent, but a foreign kid with an accent and all kinds of weird food and things like that in a time when people from my part of the world were reviled and mistrusted and suspected.”
Based on her two-year refugee experience and the not-so-warm welcome she received in Oklahoma, Nayeri became, as she says, “obsessed with security, and with American acceptance, and being an exceptional sort of American.” So throughout high school she strove and strove to get into Harvard so she could land a secure job, eventually ending up at Princeton where she studied economics. “It took until my late 20s to realize everything will be fine. No one’s going to throw me back into a refugee camp. No one’s going to kidnap me and send me back to Iran. These are irrational fears. I can do with my life whatever it is I was put on this earth to do with my life. And by my late 20s I was beginning to understand that I want to tell stories.”
And tell stories she has. Her memoir The Ungrateful Refugee was one of 2019’s most well-received books, landing on many best of lists as well as being named a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. We interviewed Nayeri as part of our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which is now available to explore virtually. Read some excerpts from the interviews below, and visit the virtual exhibit to hear even more immigrant and refugee voices.
Selected Quotes from My America
On the Refugee Experience and Dignity
“I think it’s important for people who are well-settled to understand that the hardest time in a refugee’s life is that quiet waiting time when they’ve escaped and their lives are spared and then they are stuck either in the camps or in some other places waiting to receive asylum. Even if it’s in the country they will eventually go to, still just waiting to be accepted so they can work and go to school. That time is a time of complete purposelessness and abjection and indignity and humiliation because you have no place in society and your sense of purpose starts to wither away, dwindle away. I call it a leakage of dignity.”
On Feeling Like an Outsider
“My experience of being an outsider as a child is about being Iranian in America. It’s about being a refugee in America because every single day I had to somehow answer for that. Every day I had to show I was capable and I was talented and I belonged here and my life had been worth saving. And even if some of that I had created in my own psyche, I was responding to things that were happening around me.”
On Storytelling Across Cultures
“One thing I always say is that storytelling is cultural and the part that’s cultural is how we are moved…I see people trying to get through these asylum interviews, offering up their stories to the gatekeepers to the Western world and giving their stories in a way that is the Iranian way, in a way that would move any of us. And then watching the gatekeepers: stony-faced, unmoved, thinking that [asylum seekers] are liars because so much of the cultural aspects of their story is lost in that moment.”
On Community As Home
“I used to think my home was a place. It was Iran, and I’m going to miss it forever. But as I grew older I realized that my home is precisely in communities. And for me it’s been communities of readers, communities of people who like to think and challenge themselves, communities of weirdos, communities of people who are addicted to stories and people who love to travel and to move around all the time…And I like the fact that the communities I have loved understand the transient nature of all of our time together, of our community, and we know it will be over soon. And I think that allows us, in a way, to be more present and attuned.”
On What It Means to “Be American”
“There are many ways to be American because it’s a massive country and there are many kinds of people here and it’s been made up of generations and generations of immigrants and all kinds of people. So, when we accept that there’s no one way to be American and we give ourselves up to being uniquely ourselves, we have the best chance of being anything anywhere we are, American or French or Iranian or whatever. So for me, I don’t think about what it means to be American. I don’t care. I think about what it means to be Dina.”
Selected Works by Dina Nayeri
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MY AMERICA: IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE WRITERS TODAY