On Wednesday, Dina Nayeri, acclaimed Iranian American novelist, essayist, and short story writer, read an excerpt from her nonfiction book, The Ungrateful Refugee, followed by an interactive question and answer session surrounding topics that challenged how people define refugees, community, and belonging.
Nayeri was the third guest speaker of this academic year in the Lowell Humanities Series. Her virtual lecture was co-sponsored by the Fiction Days series and the English department at Boston College.
She was introduced by BC English professor Elizabeth Graver, who described how Nayeri’s virtual visit to BC in a pandemic paralleled Nayeri’s ability to unite people even when connection is challenged.
“The format of tonight’s event feels oddly fitting as we welcome a writer whose central quality might be to make connections when it’s hard to,” Graver said.
After being introduced, the author read the first few pages of her novel.
“We became refugees. Somehow it felt more settled than what we had been for the past 10 months, hiding out in the United Arab Emirates,” Nayeri said. “There, we were illegal. All the same dizzying displacement uncertainty and need, but we had to find our own shelter.”
Nayeri explained how she and her family fled their natal home, Iran, in 1988 after being threatened with execution. Shortly after, a young Nayeri and her family briefly stayed in Dubai and later Rome in an improvised refugee camp until eventually being provided asylum in the United States. In her partially autobiographical novel, she shares these personal experiences—as well as those of other refugees like herself.
Nayeri said she first realized the importance of sharing stories in Italy, where she found herself displaced from her home along with many others with whom she shared nothing but the longing for shelter.
“I craved everyone’s stories,” Nayeri said. “I was becoming some later version of myself. In a refugee camp stories are everything. Everyone has one, having just slipped out from the grip of a nightmare. … Everyone is a stranger in need of introduction.”
After her reading, the author answered some pre-submitted questions as well as new questions that emerged throughout the lecture. During this question and answer section, BC professors Graver and Dana Sajdi joined in the discussion with Nayeri.
During the discussion, Nayeri also explained the factors that predetermined whether or not one would receive asylum. These factors include if the refugee had a lawyer, if their culture could easily be assimilated to Western culture, and if they were able to create “the right story” to convey why their life was in danger, according to Nayeri.
The conversation between Nayeri and the professors surrounded the suffering of families who are often perceived as opportunists or a threat when all they are doing is searching for decent conditions to live in, according to the hosts. Nayeri’ spoke about the duty of creating welcoming communities for diverse people, especially those who seek help and instead face harmful labels or no response at all.
“And while we grumble over what we are owed, and how much we get to keep, the displaced wait at the door,” Nayeri said. “They’re painters, surgeons, craftsmen, students, children, mothers, the neighbor who made the good sauce, the funny girl from science class, the boy who can really dance, the great uncle who always turns down the wrong street. They endure painful transformation, rising from death, discarding their faces and bodies, [and] their identities without guarantee of new ones.”
Screenshot by Sofia Torres