This year, European Literature Days, one of my favourite literary festivals, was held in Krems, lower Austria, and posed the question “What defines a good life?” Austrian heavyweight, Robert Menasse (whose satirical novel, The Capital, is translated by Jamie Bulloch and published by MacLehose Press) gave the opening talk and we were introduced to an array of international writers, all with some deep connection to Europe.
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. Continue reading Interview | Dina Nayeri | Author of the Week
“Unlike economic migrants, refugees have no agency; they are no threat. Often, they are so broken they beg to be remade into the image of the native.”
A blend of memoir and reportage, The Ungrateful Refugee packs a powerful punch and should be recommended reading for secondary school aged children.
Dina Nayeri describes her personal experience intertwined with that of the people she interviews as they all flee from persecution and death. Boats are braved and seas crossed by people fuelled by terror, courage and hope. The refugees are rescued and pitied — often by the regimes that created the trouble and strife they are escaping from in the first place. This small but important fact is invariably overlooked as the new arrivals are demonised by populist rhetoric that is bolstered by polices that reek of organised selfishness. Refugees “need friendship, not salvation.”
Nayeri revisits her own chaotic past in 2016 when she becomes a mother. “I had changed my face and hair, my friends, my education, my country and job so often, that my skin felt raw.” The five sections of her narrative — Escape, Camp, Asylum, Assimilation, Cultural Repatriation — recount the fate of individuals from different backgrounds as well as refugee support volunteers, lawyers and other decent human beings. The uniting theme is that refugees be given a voice, an identity, and that their stories be heard. Continue reading Review | The Ungrateful Refugee, Dina Nayeri | Canongate Books
So refugee week is over. The fact that the UK is the only country in Europe where refugees who arrive looking for a safe haven are detained indefinitely, and are often sent back home to face persecution, torture or death, will be kicked into the long grass once again. Certain politicians continue to use the language of disaster and provoke fear by swelling numbers of arrivals, backed by box-ticking Home Office officials.
Lucy Popescu is a author, editor and arts critic with a background in human rights. She worked with the English PEN for over twenty years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. Her most recent anthology is A Country to Call Home which focuses on the experiences of young refugees (Unbound, 2018). Lucy is the chair of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award; teaches creative writing at the Working Men’s College in Camden; curates literary evenings at Waterstones; is a Trustee of the JMK Award for Theatre Directors; and mentors refugee writers at Write to Life, Freedom from Torture’s creative writing group.
Tell us about your childhood and where you grew up I grew up in Oxfordshire. My late mother was the children’s author, Christine Pullein-Thompson so I was put on a pony before I could walk. It’s a beautiful part of England and I loved hurtling round the woods and hills on a pony – following in my mother’s hoof steps – she grew up in Peppard. Years later, I found out that I had lived in a world that many horse mad girls envied.
Were your parents great readers? What were the books that made you fall in love with reading? I come from a family of writers and grew up surrounded by books. I read hand me downs of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet and loved C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books as a young child. I also read all my mother’s books and then the books written by her sisters . . . That took some time. I was a precocious reader. I wanted to know why, aged nine, I was banned from reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I also read Wuthering Heights too young and thought Heathcliff was a romantic hero. I devoured JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a teenager.Continue reading Interview | Lucy Popescu | Author of the Week