Thursday, January 4, 2018

Refuge by Dina Nayeri

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I put this book on my list after hearing the author interviewed on NPR last year. With the exception of the ending, I enjoyed it. I’ll talk about the ending at the end of the review, with an appropriate spoiler alert, in case you want to read it first. 

Refuge is a story of two generations of Iranian refugees and their experience in the Western world. It is also a story of a girl (and later woman) and her relationship to her flawed yet beloved father.

The protagonist, Niloo, is the main focus of the book, and much of the story is told from her perspective. The rest is told from her father’s viewpoint, as his experiences are separate from hers for much of the book. The book also switches back and forth from the present to flashbacks of the several meetings between Niloo and her father after they are separated.

Niloo’s father, Bahman, is an Iranian dentist - a successful, reasonably wealthy man. He is not religious, but loves poetry. He also is a (mostly functional) opium addict. Niloo’s mother is a Christian, and as such, comes into great danger as Iran’s politics become increasingly fundamentalist. She decides to flee Iran, and takes Niloo and her younger brother, Kian with her, leaving Bahman behind. He is unwilling to leave his good life (and his opium) for the likely poverty he would experience as a refugee.

Niloo and her mother and brother settle in Oklahoma (of all places), and they do okay. At least after a highly traumatic stint in a homeless shelter which leaves Niloo scarred. Niloo gets into Yale, meets and marries a Frenchman, Guillaume (Gui), and moves to the Netherlands where he practices law and she teaches and researches Anthropology. Kian pursues the study of food, and becomes a chef. Their mother muddles on, and does essentially fine for a first generation immigrant.

Bahman, meanwhile, remarries twice. In his attempt to divorce his third wife after she has a mental breakdown, he is falsely accused of treason, placed under house arrest, and basically held hostage by his third wife’s relatives who want his wealth. He finally decides he needs to flee Iran and become a refugee himself.

That’s the basic setup for the story.

In addition to the plot itself, the book examines Niloo’s interior life - and her troubled marriage. Gui jokes that she has her “perimeter,” a space to herself everywhere she goes, which she allows no one and nothing to penetrate. This is kind of her “safe space” so to speak, where she projects her fears and her rigid need for order and control. And she will not let Gui (or anyone else) in to that mental and physical space.

While living in Amsterdam, she discovers a meeting group of refugees, which becomes her focus during her spare time. It is this subplot that leads to a real life event which is fictionalized for the book.   

There are some uncomfortable questions raised by this book, and I think they are important. Nayeri essentially rejects the narrative that many of us Westerners, even those welcoming to refugees, prefer to believe. We expect that those who come here seeking refuge change themselves to suit us, and express gratitude. Nayeri counters with the assertion that seeing refugees (and immigrants generally) as fully human means according them the right to be who they are, without demanding that they become like us, or that they reject their own selves and culture to prevent us discomfort. Likewise, refugees did not ask to have to flee their homelands. In an ideal world, they would be able to live their lives in peace and safety in the lands of their birth (or choice). The evil that is in the world prevents that, and the trauma they already experience in being ripped from their lives is enough without us compounding it.

Nayeri also gives a human face to another uncomfortable reality of immigration: the loss of status that comes with changing cultures. I should mention Willa Cather’s excellent book, My Antonia, for raising the same issue. (Antonia’s father, a skilled musician, is dragged to America by his wife, and never adapts to going from respected artist to desperately poor farmer.) Refuge notes the issue in several characters. One goes from a highly educated college professor to near homelessness - nobody will hire a 60ish man to do manual labor, and all his education is worthless with marginal skills in languages other than his own. Likewise, Bahman cannot work as a dentist outside of Iran - his license is worthless, and he has no way of going through dental school all over again at his age. So what is there for him? Even on a smaller scale, I personally know a man who married a friend. His European license in a medical field won’t transfer, so he cannot work at the level he did over there without re-doing his education. It is a tough problem to solve, alas, and one that isn’t given enough credit. Instead, we kind of tacitly assume that refugees are the desperately impoverished sort, who should be grateful for anything at all.

I also want to mention the liberal use of actual quotes from Geert Wilders, the neo-Nazi far right Dutch politician. Nayeri didn’t need to make up these poisonous quotes - they are all too real. (And all to similar to the bilge vomited out by The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named, Roy Moore, and Steve Bannon and his ilk.)

“You will not make the Netherlands your home,” Wilders says to refugees and immigrants. And the nativists in our own land (and apparently an awful lot of white Evangelicals too) say the same thing. “Go home, dirty brown people.”

This is pretty heavy stuff, and the book has a serious tone overall. But it isn’t primarily darkness either. There are many humorous moments, and the relationship between Niloo and her father is compelling.

When Niloo leaves, she is a little girl in love with her father. Bahman is indeed a good father. He loves Niloo to pieces, and they do all kinds of fun things together. He instills in her a love of poetry and adventure, and a sense of justice.

The problem is, Niloo only remembers this side of her father, being unaware of his addiction, and his sexism, and his other human failings. Thus, when she visits with her father (in Oklahoma, where he nearly overdoses on unexpectedly pure heroin, in Spain, where he lands in the hospital after combining heroin and adderall, and in Istanbul, where Niloo is irritated that her father gets along so famously with Gui), she suffers from the dissonance of seeing her idol as he ages and she becomes all too aware of his flaws.

Nayeri has said that Refuge isn’t strictly autobiographical in its plot, but that the complex relationship between Niloo and her father does have autobiographical elements. There is no doubt that Nayeri makes this relationship come alive. I couldn’t help but love Bahman, just as Gui does. He is frustrating, infuriating at times, but he is so alive and real and absolutely like some force of nature we all have in our lives somewhere. (Nope, not disclosing who…)

It is Bahman who is the source of most of the humor, from his imperfect - and hilarious - translations of Farsi idioms into English (About a good meal: “"This is good. Is wedding in my ass.") to his all too accurate assessment of kale (“What this is? Is like lettuce fell in love with a piece of fabric.”) to his astute observations about life (“Clerics and politicians, as everyone knows, have no appreciation for the individual and no ear for stories; they are blind to everything that happens in the quiet hours when nothing is happening. That is what makes them dangerous.” I wouldn’t want to suffer Bahman when he is high or in withdrawal, but the rest of the time, he would be a gas.

In contrast, Niloo is a difficult protagonist to like. I sympathize with how tightly wound she is - I can be like that too - but she is so self absorbed that she seems incapable of seeing the good of others around her. In this sense, Nayeri is an outstanding writer. The character that is most a stand-in for herself is written with no illusions as to who she is - as unflattering as that is.



It is this that makes the ending so frustrating to me. Let me say that I do not like it, but not because it is a bad ending, or bad writing. On the contrary, it is good writing, it is entirely consistent with the rest of the book, and it fits the characters well.

My problem with it is that it means that Niloo never becomes likeable, and I felt that instead of growing or changing for the better, all she does is take a step backward towards infancy, damages innocent people, and sets herself up for problems later.

In the end (here’s the spoiler), she leaves Gui (who is also a loveable guy, trying his hardest, and succeeding better than most of us ever will at listening, learning, and doing the right thing.) Niloo’s own demons prevent her from ever embracing him. Instead she uses, then discards him, without truly feeling any remorse. I mean, she knows she hurt him, but she never becomes aware really of how she has wasted a decade of Gui’s life, while he endlessly gives of himself to try to make it work.

Hey, I deal with failed marriages all the time. For the most part, there is fault everywhere. But there are a few where one party truly has been wronged. And it isn’t typically the one with an affair or abuse, oddly. In most of those, both parties have serious issues. Not that that excuses abuse, ever. It doesn’t. But it explains why a person might choose to be with a horrible person. It is the ones where one party (and often it is a woman) appears to have picked someone they never truly loved, and then proceeded to mentally abuse the spouse for not being the person they could love. I feel this is Niloo in this book. Gui was convenient. He represented her fantasy of success in the Western world. He gave her everything she asked for, or at least tried to within the limits of human ability. And she never gives back. Not really. She just uses him.

To use Nayeri's own words, Gui isn't allowed by Niloo to just be an ordinary, mediocre husband. To have his own needs and traumas. 

And then, at the end, Niloo has essentially retreated into the womb. She is with her parents again, living with them, and trying to recreate her childhood in some way. This is not healthy, in my view, and will ultimately lead to problems. Her parents are oldish, and they will eventually be gone. And Niloo doesn’t really have any other close relationships. When her parents are gone, she will be alone in a world without roots. I can’t see that ending well, and I wonder exactly what Nayeri intends by leaving the story with that ending.

I will grant that Nayeri does make excellent points about the refugee experience, and I don’t wish to seem to lecture refugees and immigrants in that regard at all. I am not pushing for assimilation - that actually happens pretty universally by the third generation anyway.  Hey, I lived in a largely minority neighborhood growing up, and I knew plenty of immigrants. My ancestors followed the same basic pattern too, for that matter.

The issue here to me isn’t the overall experience of immigration. It is the more personal. Niloo has her trauma, but she also has plenty of opportunities to make connections, both within the refugee community, and outside, and she seems intent on burning all the bridges and just retreating into the womb.


Okay, that said, I’ll return a bit more to the book itself. Notwithstanding the fact that I want to argue with the protagonist, I really do think this is a good book. It addresses some crucial questions, introduces characters you really care about, and sucks you into the story. 

I also want to mention here the excellent article Nayeri wrote about the same issues in The Guardian. Take time to read it. I believe the point that accepting refugees isn’t some heroic act. It is basic, elementary human decency. And if you can’t muster that up, sorry, you are a horrible person. Rather, if you want to go beyond the kindergarten level minimum ethical behavior, you have to grant the same options to those who seek refuge. The option to just be mediocre, to be normal, to be themselves. To have problems. To not remember to always be grateful.


  1. ... "When her parents are gone, she will be alone in a world without roots. I can’t see that ending well, and I wonder exactly what Nayeri intends by leaving the story with that ending."

    For people from that social/economic class in that culture, this is not fiction. It is what really happens. We have lived it. Of course, it happens in other cultures and social classes as well. I have seen and experienced that, too. Gothard and his ilk encourage/mandate a similar infantilism.

    It never ends well, but does the author intend the reader to be terrified or to acquiesce?

    1. I'm really not sure what the author intends here - the book really ends without significant closure. The best I can say is that I think she points to Niloo transitioning from a "western" identity to rediscovering her Iranian roots. Which might (perhaps - it isn't stated) mean she eventually finds love with an Iranian immigrant? Quits her university job and becomes an activist? Many things are perhaps hinted at, but I can't find anything definite. I think the author does want the reader to think Niloo is at least on her way to being authentic rather than trying so damn hard to be someone she is not. But honestly, I don't know why that meant Gui had to go. He was pushing her in the right direction already - he just wanted to be part of that part of her life too. Oh well, tough to figure out what it is supposed to mean.

    2. And oh yes, on the Gothard thing. The whole appeal of his schtick (to parents at least) is that he promises that parents can make their kids cultural and political clones of themselves.