Interview: Daniel Nayeri, Author Of 'Everything Sad Is Untrue'In his new novel Daniel Nayeri fictionalizes his own experience of arriving in Oklahoma as an eight-year-old Iranian refugee and dealing with the difficulties of leaving his home and father behind.
Try Daniel Nayeri's new autobiographical novel, his first, Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story), which begins with these memorable words: "All Persians are liars and lying is a sin."
That's what the kids in Mrs. Miller's class think, but I'm the only Persian they've ever met, so I don't know where they got that idea.
My mom says it's true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn't. Persians aren't liars. They're poets, which is worse.
This is a novel, yes, but it's also the story of Nayeri's childhood in Oklahoma. The protagonist — called Daniel — is Iranian refugee who lives with his mother and sister, and because he's the only Persian student his classmates know, he's the butt of jokes, the target of bullies, and he concocts layers of strategies to escape their abuse. And these indignities at school are actually some of the lighter moments in a memoir that explores what it feels like to part ways with your home country, and with your father.
Nayeri says the thing that really struck him about America when he first arrived was — potato chips. "The very first morning, we woke up and the wonderful woman who had taken us in had served sandwiches. We had slept in. I was very jet-lagged, and on the plate these chips I had never seen before, and they were all the same shape, and they nested into one another. And I could not believe that America had chips like this," Nayeri says. "The discovery of Pringles! The first day in America was shocking. And then that day she was very kind. She took us to a grocery store, and then to Toys R Us, and I have never seen — to this day, I'm chasing that high of shelf after shelf of peanut butter and toys. And it seemed like paradise."
On the ways his childhood wasn't paradise at all
Unfortunately, when you're a refugee in a place that's a little bit more homogeneous, I think the first question you end up getting asked over and over again is, what are you doing here? And you end up having to tell the story over and over again, which is sort of where my love of storytelling began. It wasn't very easy. My mother was working multiple jobs. She was a doctor in Iran, but was stripped of that when we came to the United States, and so took a lot of menial labor jobs. And I worked at night. And so we ended up having to fend for ourselves a little bit.
On the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his stepfather, Ray, and how he (and book-Daniel felt about it)
For the longest time growing up, I thought Ray was my fault. You know, I thought there was such a strong conception that we had lost our father. He had stayed in Iran. And, you know, Daniel needed a father figure. And this was something, my sister would tell me this. And so I thought my mom was sort of enduring a lot of this because then some lessons of manhood had to be imparted to me. And in order for them to be imparted to me by Ray, that was the cost of having him around.
And ... a big theme in the book is this idea of, what you take in in life as a child, and what you choose to produce. And so, you know, it does — in the early goings — tell the story of Ray and his own childhood of extreme violence as well. Ray is a character who chose to also produce that same violence. He had sort of taken it in and he was going to feed it back out.
On what kept his mom going
The answer to your question of why is the center of the book. Why would someone create such a massive inciting incident? This whole book doesn't happen if my mother doesn't give up everything in the world, her medical practice, her very high social standing, her marriage, her family, her home, her home country, why does she give up all of it? And for what? What is the thing that is most valuable?
My mother converted to Christianity because that is her belief. You cannot look at her and take that part of her lightly because it was very clearly not a cultural agreement. It was not a passive idea. It was something for which all of it was relinquished and given up. And a life of being very well-to-do in Iran becomes a life of abject poverty and abuse. And I can tell you, she will tell you, she would do it all over again. To that end, the book even says, when you look at her, you have to say, wow, this person is completely unhinged and crazy — or there is something that she has deeply and sincerely valued above all this. And that is her faith.
On the idea of a "patchwork memory" being the shame of refugees
Well, when we look at family histories, we often use metaphors of the family line or the family tree. And what that really implies is the collective effort of keeping family tradition and family memories alive. If ever you are in a context of having your family around you, the context of your history, you can look and say, yeah, so when was that tree planted anyway out there? And your mom will say, go ask grandma, and grandma will say, oh, it was — and she will give you this memory. That is a linear passing of a memory that then stays alive, right? Your uncle might pull you aside in the holidays and gift you his dad's pocket knife, or your grandfather might pull you aside and teach you how to, you know, make yogurt properly.
Whatever these traditions, these ideas are, they're a linear path. And when you take one chunk of the family, a small chunk, and immediately remove them, you're breaking that line. And I think it is a shame to be so unclaimed by a family. It feels like a shame to have such a nonlinear understanding of the family and breaking the family line. This idea that the collective work that any family does, of telling each other their own story can't be done. These people have been separated. And there is no text that we can weave together anymore.
This story was produced for air by Justine Kenin and Mia Venkat, and adapted for the radio by Petra Mayer