JULY 21, 2017
DINA NAYERI is a writer to watch. Her perspective sheds light on a theme, already explored and scrutinized, through her intimate and thought-provoking new novel, Refuge. She’s not sentimental over things that aren’t sentimental. Her mind isn’t corrupted by nostalgia.
Nayeri’s novel, her second, starts behind the closed doors of a courtroom in Isfahan, Iran. Dr. Bahman Hamidi, a 55-year-old dentist, is waiting for the final step of his third divorce. In 1987, he had sent abroad his first wife and young children, Niloo and Kian. While he waits, he ponders his decision: “Had he, with his fatherly hopes for [his daughter] and her brother, sent them off to a foreign land to struggle and to pray to deaf gods? Did she belong to a place, to a people?” This is one of the essential questions of Refuge.
Crystalline, vivid, moving, and without pretensions, Nayeri’s writing is fluid and spare. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, and even if you are claustrophobic, don’t be afraid of submerging into the spellbinding world of Refuge. Her prose doesn’t have the heaviness of the subjects she writes about, and this is a true gift. In magical ways, she creates poetry: “We are all here, still waiting […] broken from the earth like turmeric root, staining everything.”
Nayeri’s voice is that of the youth, the voice for the confused children of a generation who live in between the past and their uncertain future — between East and West. Those, who like the protagonist Niloo, barely remember those events, yet their lives have been turned upside down by an emptiness they feel but can’t yet describe or understand. They spend their lives in the search of this meaning: “For decades she’s tried to make homes for herself, but she is always a foreigner, always a guest — that forever refugee feeling, that constant need for a meter of space, the Perimeter she carries on her back …”
Nayeri’s Refuge is a fictionalized memoir; if you read her debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, which is also about a torn family and the separation of two sisters, you might think she is trying to tell the same story from different points of view. It is impossible to ignore the similarity between these two stories, and the way they complete each other. Nayeri’s two novels seem to be about the same girl (herself), divided in two. One part of her leaves and loses her home, while the other part stays behind (with a father she adores, her hero) and loses her mother and twin sister. Loss is a common theme for any Iranian life.
Twenty-two years have passed since Niloo’s arrival to the United States as a child refugee. At 30, despite her “perfect” life, she is not happy. Something is missing. Workaholic, obsessive, and perfectionist, she is unaware of her own unhappiness: “In her third year in Yale, she needed a boyfriend, so she began to accept dates […] she created a chart of the boys and scored them […] Gui [her husband] scored three standard deviations above the mean.”
You wonder whether she is in love with her husband or if this is a business partnership. She defines and sets rules for the way they should communicate and behave in different situations; she informs him through email. The only thing Niloo can’t control is her daydreaming about her bond with her father. That’s why his abandon, the fact he has only visited them four times since their departure, becomes a major wound. A wound similar to Sadegh Hedayat’s “sores which slowly […] erode the soul.” Refuge is the story of this wound.
It doesn’t matter that Niloo has built a successful life as an accomplished, sophisticated woman, and has married the perfect French husband. The wound wouldn’t go away by materialistic comfort and the Western meaning of happiness. A simple Persian song, a taste of a food her grandmother used to make, and the sight of any insignificant sign could bring back memories. Memories open her wound, and she bleeds.
Told in two points of view, Refuge’s plot has many layers. On the surface, it is the story of a difficult relationship between Niloo and her father, but it is also the story of immigration, and the experience of foreignness and alienation. On a deeper level, it opens the window to the possibility of redemption and forgiveness. As an Iranian-American writer, Nayeri goes to the core of the collision of two opposite worlds (those who left, those who didn’t) and offers both sides’ perspectives on this common discourse. Iranians are divided and angry at their own destiny. In Refuge, Nayeri questions whether they should understand and forgive each other for the choices they made in the past. After all, regardless of which group they belong to, they all have to deal with the issue of racism in the West as well as in the East. The topic is especially impactful right now, when Iranians are not the only residents of an in-between world of refugees and immigrants. Refuge is a timely novel, about a theme that touches and moves so many, no matter where you are from.
The novel is set in the middle of the events during the 2009 election, the Green Movement. Unrest has unsettled Iran, and people are protesting in the streets. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young, beautiful bystander shot, has been broadcast on Youtube. A whole country is bleeding, and the world — as usual — just watches. Bahman Hamidi ends up in jail, and then is condemned to house arrest.
Niloo has two memories of her father: in one, he is the hero of her childhood in Ardestoon, the family village; the other father is the opium addict who sits on a toilet in a hotel room and is so high he couldn’t even recognize his daughter. “All I could think to do was to run away, leaving him there to recover or not.” Since her departure, Niloo has decided to avoid Iranians. She hasn’t a single Iranian friend. She doesn’t even speak Farsi with her parents. The only times she might speak a few words of Farsi is during her father’s visits. Before each visit she is excited, longing to find the father of her dreams, but each time they meet, she is horrified by his Iranian-ness. In her perfect world, there is no room for an embarrassing father with a terrible accent and dehati clothes — an addict who has broken his every promise. “Iran is like an aging parent, they say […] I don’t want to see Baba because I’m afraid of decaying too.” Every visit with her father brings more disappointment and anger. “I was too young then to see the sadness in his eyes when I crossed my arms and looked away […] his arm perched awkwardly on my shoulder as I shifted my weight the other way.” She continues: “He deserved to feel every bit of this guilt, but I wanted to spare him a deeper wound.”
Per her husband’s suggestion, Niloo joins an Iranian poetry group as a hobby and a low-key pastime. Reluctant at first, Niloo is insecure and distant, but slowly as other Iranians share their poems or stories, she feels she can also contribute to the discussion. Almost everyone in this community has an uncertain future, waiting for their refugee status. Soon, she spends all her free time with the group. Iran finds a new face for her, and she immerses herself in this new life in which she participates in the protests and is moved by the ordeal of refugees.
During her father’s 2008 visit in Istanbul, Niloo shows signs of maturity: “the words caught in my throat. I hugged [Baba] carefully, because maybe he would break.” Still, as they say goodbye to one another, she keeps her composure, holding back her emotions, even as her father’s voice breaks with an affectionate calling of her name: “Niloo joon.”
Even though the reader would consider Niloo to be the main protagonist — especially in light of Niloo’s and Nayeri’s similar life journeys — the character who really carries the novel is the father. He is present even in the scenes without him; he is the heart of Refuge and the reason you root for this father-daughter reconciliation. Bahman Hamidi, a strong character who overshadows everyone else, represents the tragedy of Iran in the years after the revolution. An ordinary man, not a hero, who falls apart and decays as his daughter observes. Nayeri brilliantly describes the experience of addiction and goes deep into the soul of an addict who struggles with both physical and emotional loss. At the same time, he is real, funny, poetic, emotional, and caring, but also a liar, womanizer, and manipulator — an unforgettable character:
That first time he smoked, his body brimmed with love for the universe, for every woman in it […] He wanted to be part of it and to change it. He wanted to suck its marrow with enough recklessness to break the bone, break his jaw, break with the earth and float in the ether. The first time, it wasn’t oblivion he wanted but to be a deity in his own orbit.
But maybe this is also the main (and only) issue of the novel — Bahman’s character is so well developed, it makes every other character pale in comparison. Even Niloo sometimes appears too reserved, as if Nayeri is scared of pushing her protagonist beyond her comfort zone, and to break the walls she builds around herself. Like many an inward prison, Niloo wouldn’t grant anyone access to her innermost thoughts, sometimes not even the reader.
While this all seem like a solemn portrait of a broken family, Nayeri is actually very funny, and the book is full of color and flavor. One particularity of her writing is the use of literal translations of Persian idioms and expressions. For example, she uses “Rubbing yoghurt” instead of covering up a troublesome issue or “Dirt on my head” for self-cursing, or chai instead of tea. At times, she uses certain expressions in a wrong way that even in Farsi make no sense. Still, there is a certain charm in her effort to let her readers into the unknown linguistic realm of Persian language, and she should be applauded for her courage.
Refuge is filled with Persian food, Persian spices and recipes, and the scent of Persian sceneries. There are certain details and descriptions which go beyond the actual memories of an eight-year-old. Somehow, they feel invented, like a secondhand memory, like a photo-op to attract tourists. Does Niloo really remember this all? Then how come for years she avoids any contact with the Iranian community? There is a paradox between her conscious isolation, against her obsession with her grandmother’s jar of spices and memories of Ardestoon, a place her father cannot leave without losing himself.
Niloo’s character, who at the beginning is self-aware and has a clear mind about her “wants,” slowly succumbs to her Iranian roots — or, should I say, lack of Iranian-ness. Like a twirling dervish, she wanders to find herself. As if no matter where you escape, Iran will find you and cover you with its joy and its sadness, wrapping Niloo in huzun, an undefinable melancholy that is not related to a person’s particular situation, but the result of centuries of history and cultural heritage.
Iranian stories rarely have happy endings. But I understand why Nayeri makes this choice. The last chapter reads like her wishful thinking. Nayeri has good intentions. Hope, this main drive to overcome life’s struggles, is the right direction.