'I'm A Bit Of A Chameleon': A Writer Draws From Her Own Life In 'Refuge'

Jul 11, 2017
Originally published on July 14, 2017 8:55 am

Novelist Dina Nayeri always remembers something a professor told her: "You can either have roots or wings, but if you try to have both, you're probably going to fail."

Nayeri says her father, who is from a small town in Iran, is all roots. "He has his habits and his comforts ... " she says. "He feels deeply secure in his life and his place in the world."

That's never been true for her. She's lived and traveled all over the world. "I'm a bit of a chameleon, but I don't feel like any place is home," she says. "There's no place where I can really say, you know, I feel complete and at ease."

In her new novel Refuge, Nayeri tells a story very much like her own. Nayeri left Iran with her mother when she was 8 years old. Her father stayed behind. The same is true of the book's protagonist, a character named Niloo.

Niloo's father even comes from the same Iranian small town as Nayeri's father. It's "an ancient village of unpaved roads, dotted in crushed mulberries, hand-crafted outdoor rugs swept with brooms, rows of pickle jars the size of children lining every house," Nayeri writes.

Nayeri's mother converted to Christianity, so she had to flee Iran with her children to escape persecution. While Nayeri's father continued his familiar Iranian life, his daughter traveled the world, moving to the U.S. and then to Europe. The divide between father and daughter helped define her life, and it defines this novel. Refuge explores the tension between being tied to the homeland and the urge to assimilate.


Interview Highlights

On the importance of a spice mix

In many parts of rural Iran ... they make one spice mix every year. ... All of the women in the village gather together and they mix this blend with 30 different spices. It's got turmeric and cumin and coriander and all of these different things ... various teas ... rose petals ... and each year, it's a little bit different from the last.

Everyone gets their jar and that year, everyone's dishes kind of taste the same. The next year, you kind of know if people are using last year's spice. It's a very beautiful tradition. ... If you are [living abroad] and sent a bottle of that, it's almost like just having a piece of your old life appear at your doorstep.

On losing a bottle of this special spice mix, a scenario she recreates in her novel

It got tossed away by accident, and I searched for days. I looked all over. And the meltdown that I had was much more dramatic than the one that Niloo has. I couldn't let it go. I tried to, you know, remix it myself. I tried to find out what was in it. I went and looked in the garbage outside. It was gone. I couldn't find it again. ...

That particular mix, I mean, it had my grandmother's fingers in it. It had tasted like the food at home. I had another 100 or so meals in my future that would have included it. ... I have a new mix now that my mother made. It's different and it's lovely but not the same.

On whether her father has read the book

No, but he read the New Yorker article. And it's actually funny the things that he chooses to object to. For example, he was very upset that I called [his hometown] a "village" ... he said: It is a city and it has been a city for a while now. So if you're going to be a serious writer, perhaps you should research that.

And then he also didn't like little things, like, I said he was aging. He doesn't care about what people think about his choices. He made his choices. He's happy with them. He's a bonvivant, but he doesn't like being told that he's getting older or that his city is a village.

On her father coming to visit her in the U.S.

When I was a teenager, I was so embarrassed by my parents, especially by my father the two times that he came to visit. I mean, he radiated Iran and Iranian-ness. And that was a moment in my life where I wanted to put that aside. ...

Imagine the kind of divide that already exists between teenage girls and their fathers ... [it] was all of that same stuff plus the complication of the fact that this was a man from Iran. He had landed right in the middle of my world and with all of the friends that I was trying to make, and all of the images that I was trying to build for myself. And here he was just absolutely destroying them.

So I picked on him a lot about that. ... I asked him not to speak Farsi ... [to stop] negotiating in stores. ... At one point, he just got tired of it and said: You know, maybe I should just wash all this away before I come and be a blank slate.

On trying to pass Iranian culture onto her daughter

I'm trying to keep a balance. ... She already loves the food. ... We mushed it up for her and gave it to her when she was 8 months old. And she loves the music and she loves, you know, hearing my mother speak Farsi to her. But I don't want to force that on her. I want her to choose.

I think also that generation is going to be very different from us. I mean, they live in a different world. ... I don't think a girl like her will be influenced by just one or two or three cultures. ... I think it'll be a much more complicated upbringing than that.

James Delahoussaye and Jessica Deahl produced and edited the audio of this interview. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the new novel "Refuge," Dina Nayeri tells a story very much like her own. Nayeri left Iran with her mother when she was 8 years old. Her father stayed behind. The same is true of this book's protagonist, a character named Niloo. Niloo's father even comes from the same Iranian small town as Nayeri's father. Here's how the author describes it.

DINA NAYERI: Ardestoon, my father's childhood home, is an ancient village of unpaved roads, dotted in crushed mulberries, hand-crafted outdoor rugs swept with brooms, rows of pickle jars the size of children lining every house.

It has two rivers, two gardens, an orchard connected to a natural pool with ducks, a mosque, a medium-sized mountain and a famous two-story aqueduct, an 800-year-old structure that the people of the village don't even realize they should be proud of because they are too busy living uncomplicated lives that Baba calls overflowing and poetic.

SHAPIRO: Dina Nayeri's mother converted to Christianity, so she had to flee Iran with her children to escape persecution. While Nayeri's father continued his familiar Iranian life, his daughter traveled the world, moving to the United States and then to Europe. The divide between father and daughter helped define Dina Nayeri's life, and it defines this novel, "Refuge."

NAYERI: I remember a professor telling me that, you know, you can either have roots or wings, but if you try to have both, you're probably going to fail. And my father has roots, he's deeply rooted. He has his habits and his comforts. And then at the same time, he feels deeply secure in his life and his place in the world. I, on the other hand, have seen much of the world and have traveled and I'm comfortable anywhere.

I'm a bit of a chameleon. But I don't feel like any place is home. There's no place where I can really say, you know, I feel complete and at ease.

SHAPIRO: In so many ways, this book explores the tension between being tied to the homeland and to the urge to assimilate. And one of the ways that tension plays out is through a literal taste of home, an actual spice mix.

NAYERI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Describe this.

NAYERI: (Laughter) Well, you know, in many parts of rural Iran but also in my village, Ardestoon, they make one spice mix every year so that all of the women in the village gather together and they mix this blend with 30 different spices. It's got turmeric and cumin and coriander and all of these different things - like, various teas and, you know, rose petals and things.

And each year, it's a little bit different from the last. And, you know, everyone gets their jar. And that year, everyone's dishes kind of taste the same. And the next year, you kind of know if people are using last year's spice. It's, like, a very beautiful tradition.

SHAPIRO: And do people use it in everything from meats to fish to vegetables?

NAYERI: In most things, yeah, in most things. I think turmeric, for example, is a staple of Iranian cooking. But in those villages, they have the mix. And the mix is the staple of the cooking. And, you know, imagine if you are sent a bottle of that, it's almost like just having a piece of your old life appear at your doorstep in this modern city.

And, of course, in the novel, she loses it in such a sad way. I - you know, funny enough, that actually did happen to me.

SHAPIRO: It did?

NAYERI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Tell me the story.

NAYERI: Oh, the story. Well, it was a very similar thing. It got tossed away by accident. And I searched for days. I looked all over. And the meltdown that I had was much more dramatic than the one that Niloo has. I couldn't let it go. I tried to, you know, remix it myself. I tried to find out what was in it. I went and looked in the garbage outside. It was gone. I couldn't find it again.

SHAPIRO: And this is a spice mix that would have been used up anyway. It's not something permanent. Explain why your reaction was as strong as it was.

NAYERI: Well, because, I mean, that particular mix, I mean, it had my grandmother's fingers in it. It had tasted like the food at home. I had another hundred or so meals in my future that would have included it. I could have, you know, taken that memory and solidified it, you know, in my taste buds so that maybe, yes, it would have been gone at some point but maybe a few years later, I would have remembered if I ate that dish often enough.

I could have frozen some of it, you know, some of the...

SHAPIRO: I hear that you're still feeling the loss of it.

NAYERI: (Laughter) Yes, I do. I do. I have a new mix now that my mother made. It's different and it's lovely but not the same. But then again, these things, you know, they don't last forever. And they're not any easier to let go of for that.

SHAPIRO: Your character Niloo has so much in common with you. And her father has so much in common with your father. He is displayed in sometimes unflattering ways, even though the love there is clear. His human failings are on full display. Has your father read this book?

NAYERI: Well, no, but he read The New Yorker article. And it's actually funny the things that he chooses to object to. For example, he was very upset that I called Ardestoon a village, and I should probably...

(LAUGHTER)

NAYERI: He said, it is a city and it has been a city for a while now. So if you're going to be a serious writer, perhaps you should research that. And then he also didn't like little things like I said he was aging. He doesn't care about what people think about his choices. He made his choices. He's happy with them. He's a bonvivant, but he doesn't like being told that he's getting older or that his city is a village.

SHAPIRO: You quote him at one point in this New Yorker article in which you describe your visits with him over the decades where he came to visit you in America. And he said, next time before I visit, maybe I should stop in Dallas for a brain disinfection and stomach pump to wash away all the embarrassing Iranian things.

NAYERI: Yes (laughter). When I was a teenager, I was so embarrassed by my parents, especially by my father the two times that he came to visit. I mean, he radiated Iran and Iranian-ness (ph). And that was a moment in my life where I wanted to put that aside. And, you know, again, imagine the kind of divide that already exists between teenage girls and their fathers.

I mean, here was all of that same stuff plus the complication of the fact that this was a man from Iran and he had landed right in the middle of my world and with all of the friends that I was trying to make and all of the, you know, the images that I was trying to build for myself. And here he was just absolutely destroying them. So I picked on him a lot about that.

I, you know, I asked him not to speak Farsi. I asked him not to, you know, oh, gosh, the negotiating in stores...

SHAPIRO: Oh, like, haggling on prices.

NAYERI: Yes, exactly - all of those things. At one point, he just got tired of it and said, you know, maybe I should just wash all this away before I come and be a blank slate.

SHAPIRO: And now you're trying to infuse your own daughter with some of these things that you were trying to squelch in your father.

NAYERI: I'm trying to keep a balance and because, yes, absolutely I would love for her to understand Iranian culture. And I - she already loves the food. And I...

SHAPIRO: At age 1.5?

NAYERI: Yes. Oh, yes. She loves the food. We mushed it up for her and gave it to her when she was 8 months old.

(LAUGHTER)

NAYERI: And she loves the music and she loves, you know, hearing my mother speak Farsi to her. But I don't want to force that on her. I want her to choose. And I think also that generation is going to be very different from us. I mean, they live in a different world. There is no - I don't think, you know, a girl like her will be influenced by just one or two or three cultures.

You know, I think it'll be a much more complicated upbringing than that.

SHAPIRO: Dina Nayeri, thanks so much for talking with us.

NAYERI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her new novel is called "Refuge."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POLISH AMBASSADOR SONG, "TAKE WING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.