Nayeri’s first work of non-fiction is as stunning and original as its title. Born into a wealthy family in Iran, she sought freedom in the West and confesses intensely lyrical resentments about her status as a refugee, first in a converted countryside hotel in Italy and ultimately to a frustrating childhood in Oklahoma. The opening chapter will hit you like a hammer, forcing you to rethink your outlook on the global waves of migration that grow larger every year. You’ll rethink, no matter what your current view is.
Make no mistake, every third or fourth paragraph, Nayeri wrote a line that stabbed at me, made me recoil in disagreement. She made me angry. I’m not recommending the book because of its insightful truths, rather because of its insightful perspective. She informs, shares with a brazen honesty that deserves appreciation, and does so beautifully.
“Every day of her new life, the refugee is asked to differentiate herself from the opportunist, the economic migrant.”
In her heart, Nayeri falls into the leftist trope of resenting Western benevolence, even the many dimensions of superiority — economic, civil, and on. Migrants desire moving to Europe and the Americas, especially (she claims) the spacious English-speaking nations. But something about the cautiousness of natives is, to the leftist, offensive, unfair, even sinister. She uses the word sinister. Moreover, Nayeri hints that the destitution of the rest of the world is the fault of the West, and this kind of thinking is rotten with hypocrisy.
In the final chapter, there’s a riveting section about the tension between ethnicity and citizenship, and I don’t think Nayeri recognizes the distinction. In an idealistic world with open borders — that same world without murder, bullies, and mosquitoes — she gets to make this complaint. That isn’t our Earth. And so yes, the French deserve every pride of winning the World Cup with players of a diversity of ethnicities and skin colors. No, the game isn’t won by “Africa” and the joke is offensive to because it steps on the idea of citizenship. Citizenship matters. Nations matter. They manifest genuine cultural and institutional differences that unite and distinguish.
This same tension that haunts Nayeri has misshapen her constant, casual reference to “white” people, a monolithic illusion (as if no white girl ever felt alienated). Does she understand how so many Europeans were never welcomed into the mythical “white” club in 20th century America? Thus, a revelation: a young refugee will have a stunted outlook that neither elder migrants or baby migrants share. Nayeri acknowledges as much when reflecting on arguments with her mother, whose appreciations are much larger. Leaving Iran at ten years of age doesn’t make the author wrong, rather it curses her with a unique dilemma.
What would she have us do with the multitude of migrants pressing now in numbers larger than ever before? In the ideal world, there would be no limits. In this world, what should the limits be? this question lingers, unasked, an aftertaste of hard policy in a bittersweet book.
Nayeri admits her beautiful frustration to the reader in the way she reacts to a half-sister’s plea for sponsorship out of Iran. It’s brutal. We don’t have the answers yet, but this book makes me want to think about the questions much more carefully than I would have before gracing its pages.