July 2017

Dina Nayeri

Somewhere safe in a callous world

Throughout her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dina Nayeri wrote draft after draft of a second novel, and with each revision her editor would say, no, that’s not it, it doesn’t have the Dina magic.

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Throughout her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dina Nayeri wrote draft after draft of a second novel, and with each revision her editor would say, no, that’s not it, it doesn’t have the Dina magic.

“I remember thinking, what the hell is the Dina magic? I don’t know what that is!” Nayeri says, laughing, during a call to her home outside of London, where she now lives with her partner, the writer Samuel Leader, and their 16-month-old daughter, Elena.

Finally, her editor told her to shelve the project and write instead about whatever popped into her head when she thought about her life and what she had experienced as a displaced person. Nayeri fled Iran with her brother and mother, a Christian convert persecuted by Iran’s morality police, when she was 8 years old. She ended up, improbably, in Oklahoma as a refugee. Her father remained in Iran. What popped into Nayeri’s head were the four occasions when she had seen her father, a dentist from Isfahan, after she left the country.

These four visits, fictionally reimagined, of course, but also “pretty closely autobiographical,” are one of three beautifully braided narratives in Refuge, a revelatory novel about the lives of uprooted people. One of the narrative threads concerns Dr. Bahman Hamadi, a vibrant, poetry-loving, opium-addicted dentist who remains behind in Iran and runs afoul of the Iranian authorities during the Green Movement’s protests of 2009. Another focus is his daughter, Niloo, a high-achieving, assimilated immigrant now in her 30s. She is in a listless marriage with a sweet man named Guillaume and living in the Netherlands, where despite its progressive politics, anti-immigrant furor is rising, with shocking results.

Nayeri’s 10-page fictionalized treatment of her visits with her father, submitted at the last minute, earned her a residency at the MacDowell Colony, a “sacred space” for artists in New Hampshire, where in a burst of creative energy she completed a full draft of Refuge. At MacDowell, Nayeri also met Sam, who like her had married his college sweetheart and then divorced after 10 years. “It’s an experience that’s hard to relate to unless you’ve been through it,” she says. “We kind of realized we were each other’s person very quickly. This book is deeply tied into my relationship with Sam.”

Refuge is also deeply tied to Nayeri’s profound experiences as a young refugee. “We escaped from Iran and then spent a couple of years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S.,”she says. “There were two years when we were completely without a home. And when we arrived in Oklahoma, we were suddenly very poor. I don’t even know the words to describe the sense of loss I lived with for those first few years. I developed this kind of crazy determination to find a place for myself in the world, to have a kind of security that won’t disappear in an instant.”

Drawing on these experiences, Nayeri creates in Niloo a character who is very tightly controlled. Niloo fashions, for example, what her husband names the Perimeter, a fiercely protected corner in every place she lives that is for her alone. Unhappy at the beginning of the novel, Niloo’s journey is toward finding some sense of belonging and happiness.

“Once you’ve lost everything and there’s no going back,” Nayeri explains, “you have this sense of panic that nothing is under control. You develop these OCD-like symptoms. You want some small space that you can control—a space just small enough so you know that whatever happens you can huddle over it and it isn’t going to change.”

Nayeri is quick to emphasize that the character Niloo is not her. “I think the child Niloo is very much based on who I was. But as an adult, Niloo is not at all like me. It was so tempting to just pump in all my own feelings and experiences and reactions. Reining that in was something I had to go through a lot of iterations to do.”

"I don’t even know the words to describe the sense of loss I lived with for those first few years."

Likewise, Nayeri makes a distinction between her real father and her character Bahman. “I just love that character. He’s this other version of my dad. My dad was in his early 30s when I said goodbye to him, and Bahman in his 30s is very close to that person. Then my father and this fictional father branch out in different directions. I think I captured the voice of a real, true person and at the same time gave him a balance that maybe my father’s real life hasn’t had. Bahman is a person who has kept his capacity for joy through all his adversity. He represents to me a kind of wild, animal enjoyment of life, a quality that can’t be stamped out.”

Nayeri says she has not gone back to Iran because “it never feels safe enough.” Her visits with her father were in other countries. But she remains deeply connected to Persian culture.

“I moved away from my Iranian roots for a while in my late 20s when I was very lost and trying to become something different. But as I was becoming a writer, I jumped back in. I immersed myself in Iranian communities. I made sure my Farsi speaking and writing skills didn’t deteriorate. I listened to the music, cooked the food and celebrated the holidays. I recaptured my culture for myself.”

Her immersion in Persian culture, in addition to her experience as a refugee, enables Nayeri to create a nuanced and remarkably textured narrative about a world few of us experience.

That was apparently also the opinion of her editor when on the final day of her MacDowell residency, Nayeri and friends hit the send button on the first complete draft of Refuge.

Nayeri recalls, “Of course we went through a long editing process. But the first thing she said was, ‘This is it! This is the Dina magic!’ . . . And I still don’t know what that is.”


This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo credit Anna Leader.

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By Dina Nayeri
ISBN 9781594487057

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