Book Review: The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri
“I sure do get it,” Dina Nayeri recalls being told in an Oklahoma church after her family secured asylum in America, “You came for a better life.” “I thought I’d pass out,” Nayeri remembers – a better life? A pool and a garden full of spray roses exchanged for a parking lot with cigarettes thrown into oil puddles? But this assured statement, placed near the beginning of The Ungrateful Refugee, captures a theme that comes back throughout the book: the idea that refugees should be forever grateful for the “better” place they have been allowed. Nayeri blends memoir and reportage in beautiful, powerful prose, intertwining her own memories of fleeing Iran as a child with the more recent narratives gathered from other refugees. Timely and empathetic, The Ungrateful Refugee will force many readers to confront and re-evaluate their assumptions – even (or especially) those arising from good intentions.
Nayeri unfolds the narrative by splitting it into five sections, corresponding to the five “stages” of displacement: escape, camp, asylum, assimilation, and cultural repatriation. The book switches back and forth between her own experience and the reconstructed accounts of the people she interviews and reads about. Despite the different backgrounds, timelines, and circumstances, there is a thread connecting all stories: the life-or-death importance of storytelling itself.
“If believed” is key in this statement: correct facts will not automatically translate into a convincing narrative. To pass an asylum interview, the tale needs to be constructed with flair: refined and well-structured; told with just the right amount of detail; not too original, not too mundane; and, of course, tailored to the audience (Americans enjoy drama, the Dutch want facts). There should also be a visual element: perhaps a bit wearier stride, or kids covered in sweat and ketchup. But then, maybe not – “who could guess what Westerners needed to witness in order to believe a story.”
If the requirements sound absurd, that’s because they are – and the necessity of being a Hollywood-worthy storyteller means that some people are trapped in limbo for months and years, bursting with increasing bitterness and frustration. These narratives capture a tragedy that seems to be rarely discussed when talking about the refugee experience: that of a wasted potential. “Isn’t being ‘underused’ in your twenties the greatest tragedy for the mind and the spirit?” Nayeri asks; instead of being allowed the place and resources to thrive, people are left waiting to begin their lives, often with no promising end in sight. And then, of course, they still need to constantly prove – to society, to other refugees, to suspicious officers always on the lookout for an inconsistent thread in the story – that the escape is real; that one is not an opportunistic migrant, as if hoping for a decent life was something to be condemned.
Like the refugees refining their stories to be believed, Nayeri dramatises facts “in service of a larger truth.” Her prose is brought to life by evocative details: sour cherries and sesame candy, a road slick with rain, a disappointing sip of a blue slushie. There is certain irony to this parallel, of course, which Nayeri recognises: “Writers and refugees often find themselves imagining their way to the truth. What choice is there? A reader, like an interviewer, wants specific itches scratched” (14). And The Ungrateful Refugee certainly scratches that itch: it’s a deeply personal, captivating and beautifully written book.
The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri is published in the UK by Canongate on 30 May.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.