Dina Nayeri is the author of The Ungrateful Refugee, one of the most widely shared 2017 Long Reads in The Guardian. Winner of the 2018 UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts literature grant (2015), O. Henry Prize(2015), Best American Short Stories (2018), and fellowships from the McDowell Colony, Bogliasco Foundation, and Yaddo, her stories and essays have been published by The New York Times, New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, Granta New Voices, Wall Street Journal, and numerous others. www.dinanayeri.com @dinanayeri
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Tehran, lived in Isfahan until I was eight, then spent sixteen months as a refugee, arriving in Oklahoma when I was ten years old.
Did, or do, your family ever talk about life in Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution?
Constantly. The nostalgia around pre-revolutionary Iran was so visceral that it became a part of my growing up. All the joys and the rituals and the arts went underground or behind closed curtains, but we still had them. And our parents talked all the time about what Iran used to be.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
You had to be careful about what books you kept. So my parents kept very few novels, history books, or anything cultural, political, or even allegorical. Of course we kept the old poets: Rumi and Hafez and Sa’adi. There was The Shahnameh, of course. And lots of medical books. Shelves and shelves of medical books.
When your mother fled to the United Arab Emirates taking you and your brother with her, did she consider herself to be an economic migrant, or a refugee? How do you feel about these labels?
I don’t like this distinction. I think it’s self-serving and callous. It’s arbitrary and egotistical to tell someone that the life they escaped was “good enough” or that they weren’t in enough danger to seek refuge behind your borders. A life wasted in poverty, without opportunity or education, is also in danger. And I think it’s important for those born lucky to ask whether they are entitled to all the resources to which they have access. Why should they be entitled to things they didn’t earn? Why should they be born into rights that others don’t have? And how did the world’s richest countries come into their wealth to begin with? No one deserves to be born into a hell created by others.
In The Ungrateful Refugee, your mother says, “You can only accept so much charity before you lose sight of who you once were.” How have you retained a sense of self through your experiences? What kept you going?
Books and writing kept me going. Words are my greatest source of comfort and I feel lucky that I’ve found my life’s singular purpose. I plan to keep whittling away at this one skill, getting better and better at the craft of storytelling and prose writing, until I die.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I’d want to be in the audience the first time Freddie Mercury sang publicly. Or maybe I’d like to see what Anne Boleyn really looked like.
Who are your favourite contemporary writers?
Kazuo Ishiguro. Margaret Atwood. Marilynne Robinson. Leslie Jamison. Chang Rae Lee. Alice Munro. Jhumpa Lahiri.
Five favourite films or TV series?
These change too often. My partner, Sam, tells me I have bad taste in films. I really loved Freaks and Geeks. And I love movies where people dance, or triumph in some big way, or both. Swing Kids. Rudy. I’m told my taste is cheesy.
Five favourite musicians or bands?
Queen (Freddie). Leonard Cohen. Viguen. Hozier. Talking Heads.
What are your hopes for the future?
To write better and better. To help create a space in the hearts of the native-born for the displaced.
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