“What’s it like to BE a refugee?”, screams the blurb on the back of Dina Nayeri’s thorough, uncomfortable and thought-provoking account of her refugee journey. The Ungrateful Refugee is truthful, uncompromising and, to a large extent, makes for uncomfortable reading.
Nayeri writes beautifully, that much is clear. Her language sings with distant scents, sounds and sights. The style is enticing and terrifying at the same time, particularly when her understated childlike perspective in the early chapters translates into something utterly chilling to the adult reader; cockroaches, for example, becoming part of child’s play. Iranian intelligence officers ‘just want to have ‘a friendly chat’, belying the trauma that is to follow.
At the various stages of Nayeri’s travels the reader is reminded, again and again, of the central issue Nayeri explores: identity. Who is she? Smartest girl in school? Yes, back in Iran where it all started. Later she is the girl who comes third out of four in a swimming race. Her mother is ecstatic, because her daughter managed to fool those around her that she was one of them. Blending in, assimilating, changing. The Ungrateful Refugee holds an uncomfortable mirror up to what we expect of those who seek shelter on our shores: to lose themselves. Worse, to become a shell of themselves, to be filled with our ideals and values.
The core strength of this book is the honesty, but this is also its greatest problem. The narrative voice we keep company with throughout The Ungrateful Refugee is one of outrage, of perplexity and of implied accusation. This is not only directed at Western societies, but to a large extent at the small-mindedness in her own community too. Her Christian-convert mother, whose proselytising leads to the family’s break-up and flight from Iran, is regularly belittled and sometimes even ridiculed. Her addict father, friends, extended family, strangers, authorities – all are portrayed through a cynical lens which borders on arrogance.
Nayeri is strong enough to embrace feminism, and to reject some of the other options presented to her: religions, partners, cultural paradigms. And why shouldn’t she? Just because she is a refugee?
And yet, she is no easy company. A worthy book, certainly, which readers will admire for the poetic quality of its prose and unflinchingly honest perspective.