Dina Nayeri's Refuge
Refuge charts the deeply moving lifetime relationship between a father and a daughter, seen through the prism of global immigration.
Refuge: A Novel, Dina Nayeri, Penguin Random House, 2017
'Nothing feels finished enough, ever' sighs Niloo, the protagonist of Dina Nayeri's Refuge. Though Nayeri offers a moving and nuanced account of contemporary refugee history, it is not a totalising one. If anything, the disparate experiences of the book’s characters are connected by a shared sense of profound incompleteness, the varied instances of which are narrated by Nayeri in detailed and delicate prose.
Though Refuge features many parallels with Nayeri's own experiences, its author is keen for it to be read as work of fiction, and concedes the resemblance between her story and that of Niloo only in its epilogue. Set against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, the novel traces the young Iranian Niloo's flight from Isfahan with her mother and brother, following the persecution of her Christian mother. Their father remains in Iran, a domestic fracture which provides the novel's overarching structure. Nayeri's motivation to compose the story derives not, however, from her journey from refugee to university-educated US citizen – the common refugee story preferred by the media - but by the self-immolation of Iranian refugee Kambiz Roustayi in the Netherlands in April 2011, who was faced with deportation following an eleven-year struggle for asylum status.
The fictionalised adaptation of this shocking, if now forgotten, event in Refuge expresses not just the collective and individual trauma which results, but the normalisation of such an event through the tepid reaction of the state; Niloo bitterly predicts that 'the Dutch immigration authorities... will offer up the word tragic and drop the matter.' In a challenge to Nayeri's insistence on its fiction, her narrative includes numerous verbatim quotations from Geert Wilders' racist and Islamophobic ravings. These are exposed in their full malignancy within the novel, as they are placed in sharp contrast with Nayeri's meditative exploration of the psychological anguish and material hardships experienced by a variety of Iranian refugees.
Nayeri has elsewhere spoken passionately about the equal right of all people to their own 'private tragedies,' a right often denied to refugees, whose gratitude for their safety is expected to subsume any personal struggles. Through its richly illustrated and complex characters, the novel actively rails against these unequal dynamics of 'gratitude politics,' and the idea that the right to a personal and interior life is contingent or negotiable in any way. Safe spaces are a human entitlement, and the novel demonstrates that the experience of seeking them brings its own pressures. The trajectory of Niloo's journey is a positive one; the precariousness of her time as a refugee is followed by resettlement in the US, the completion a degree course at Yale University, her marriage, and the acquisition of an academic position in anthropology. Nonetheless, Niloo's efforts to cling to her good fortune place a mounting strain on her sense of identity, provoking an inner turbulence which spills over into all her relationships:
'For decades she's tried to make homes for herself, but she is always a foreigner, always a guest - that forever refugee feeling, that constant need for a meter of space, the Perimeter she carries on her back. Over the years, she has learned to adapt, to start over in each new place and live as if she belongs there. It feels like lying...'
In the concluding pages of the novel, her father Bahman wonders 'how could someone related to him be so out of touch with her nature?'
The narrative oscillates back and forth between Niloo's and Bahman's respective memories of their rare and disparate family reunions. This non-linearity reflects the disjointedness of uprooting, migration, and restricted freedom of movement. The novel lurches towards the present moment with its head turned over its shoulder; a retrospective gaze that seeks to give a sense of continuity to otherwise fragmentary familial bonds. Niloo's relationship with her father is frozen in the moment of her departure from Iran; her 'real Baba is a thirty-three-year-old storybook hero: untouchable, unquenchable a star.' Yet, the narrative is also punctuated by moments of genuine tenderness, and of laugh-out-loud humour. Bahman's clunky translations of Persian idioms to English for the benefit of Niloo's French husband, Guillaume, show an endearing effort to traverse a yawning chasm of social, cultural, and linguistic disparities:
'One day, at a kabob house overlooking the Bosporus, Baba tried a pistachio-lamb skewer and he muttered, "This is good. Is wedding in my ass." Gui's jaw stopped moving mid-chew. Kian snorted into his palm for a full minute. Baba grinned, happy that his mischief had been noticed. "What? You never hear expression?"'
Nayeri's writing is sensuous and poetic, underscored by a trope of home cooking which sutures the characters together across differences of age, gender, and geographical location. Frequent scenes of makeshift dining areas and shared meals in temporary accommodation possess a beguiling intimacy, while constantly reminding the reader of the protracted precarity that dictates the daily life of refugees and asylum seekers. Bahman's profession as a dentist gives rise to a running metaphor of teeth throughout the novel; observations of varying states of dental health and decay gesture to both the tenacity and the vulnerability of its motley assemblage of characters.
As a novel, Refuge contemplates the meaning of community, but remains inconclusive on what may lead to its flourishing, or its demise. What is not in question, however, is Nayeri's arresting portrayal of the search for refuge when 'the road is walking too.'