Tag Archives: non-fiction

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships. 

The Ungrateful Refugee

In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma. 

Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight. 

The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.

Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.

The story of being saved

People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.

Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country. 

We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will.  … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you.  (341-2)

Instead  of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves. 

I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.) 

Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.

I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).

Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In December 2003 Joan Didion’s husband died of a heart attack. She had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years and had worked closely with him during that time. They had a daughter who was critically ill in hospital in New York. They had just been to visit her.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.(3)

And so began Joan Didion’s year of magical thinking.

The Decades Project on Bookword has arrived at the 2000s. The project featured non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury until 2009. The Year of Magical Thinking  was published in 2005.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion is a novelist and journalist. As a writer she finds her way to her subject through the experiences of the individual, in this book her reactions to her husband’s death was the focus.

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about life itself. (7)

Except, of course, none of it makes any sense; it is ‘the very opposite of meaning’ as she says later and hence this is her year of magical thinking.

Some examples of magical thinking: she cleared out his clothes as she knows one should but she could not give away his shoes. He would need them when he returned, even though she knows he is dead.

She believes that John’s death was her fault, and that it was his fault, and that she should have prevented her daughter’s illness, that she can fix all of this if she knew what to do.

She researches online, as a good journalist, seeks for what she should have done differently for her husband and instructs medical staff as a result of her knowledge.

She had worked very closely with John Gregory Dunne in their 40 years of marriage, and must find a way to write without him by her side. It is more difficult that she can imagine.

Time, especially anniversaries, takes on special significance, as do familiar places, and these carry her down into what she calls a vortex. Even the title of the book, the book’s subject matter, is shaped by a time limit, an anniversary.

I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none. …

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. (224-6)

Death, grief and mourning

This was my second reading of her book. I had the same experience as ten years ago, that is I couldn’t stop reading it. But on re-reading I could see how she made this account so compelling. She writes with a kind of sparseness and with great precision. And she provides the voice of reason commenting on her ‘magical thinking’ and with a complete focus on herself, her husband and her daughter.

Her insights are stronger for this. For example she differentiates between grief and mourning; grief being passive, what happens. Mourning is the process of dealing with grief, and requires attention. It takes her some time to get to the mourning. And this book is part of that attention.

And here is her observation on grief and its effects:

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. (189)

It is for such insights and for the strength of her writing that Robert McCrum placed this book second on his Guardian list of best 100 nonfiction books. Joan Didion adapted the book for the stage and the piece was directed by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion (2005). UK edition by Harper Perennial 227pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 for the Decades Project I featured non-fiction by women having focused on novels in 2017. I selected one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc) and will review the Project in December.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Vagina Monologuesby Eve Ensler (1998)

The March of Follyby Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff (1971)

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The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman

What on earth can have brought this book to mind? In these worrying times, foolish people seem to have power, and foolish policies appear to be unstoppable, so my mind turns to The March of Folly. Sadly this book does not provide answers to how to prevent folly in policy. But it reminds us that power does not always reside with wise people, and we must be on our guard and maintain our democratic processes to counter folly. And the subtitle, from Troy to Vietnam, reminds us that the historical roots of folly are deep.

The Decades Project on Bookword has reached the 1980s. The project features non-fiction by women from each decade from the start of the 20thCentury. The March of Folly was published in 1984 and was written by an American.

The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman

The argument of this history book is straightforward. Folly is frequently committed by policy makers. To qualify as folly she employs three criteria:

  1. the policy must be seen as counter-productive at the time,
  2. there must exist a feasible alternative, and
  3. the policy is promoted by a group of people, not an individual.

Barbara W Tuchman explores 4 examples of folly that meet these criteria, although she refers to many others.

Her first example is the decision by the rulers of Troy to move the wooden horse into the city. The siege of Troy was a story first told by Homer and then by other historians.

Troy falls at last after ten years of futile, indecisive, noble, mean, tricky, bitter, jealous and only occasionally heroic battle. As the culminating instrumentality for the fall, the story brings in the Wooden Horse. (43)

There were warnings and caution was advised. ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,’ warned Laocoon. They were advised to burn the horse, or throw it in the sea or at least cut it open. But instead it was pulled into Troy with some difficulty and when the Greek soldiers were released it was the means to the complete defeat of the Trojans.

She moves on to consider the actions of the renaissance popes in the face of rising dissention, which allowed the Reformation to split the Christian church. Next she explores England’s policy under George III towards the American colonies, which led to the War of Independence and to the loss of the colonies by the British. Finally, in the longest section, she considers American policy in Vietnam. The book was published in 1984. It was less than ten years since the US had pulled out of their bloody involvement in Vietnam.

To account for such policies of folly Barbara W Tuchman suggests that there must exist a certain amount of wooden-headedness or mental standstill, blindness to alternatives, deafness to criticism. Sometimes the group act with folly out of self-aggrandizement, or a lust for power, or are corrupted by having power. They may even have an excess of power, she suggests. Persistence in a false action can be the result of a difficulty in admitting to errors. And there may well be a lack of moral courage.

Having presented her four case studies she finishes on a downbeat.

Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams is right, and government is ‘little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago,’ we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow. (486)

Barbara W Tuchman

Barbara W Tuchman was born in the USA in 1912 and before her death in 1989 she wrote many books of history for the general reader. She was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It is no surprise that she was criticised by academic historians for not being academic enough. Her books were very popular however.

And although it can be satisfying to see events in history that one regrets as the result of folly, she has been criticised for not explaining the rise of folly.  Her examples are recounted in increasing detail, but the circumstances that allowed the policies to persist are really only explained by – well – folly.

In 1984 she commented:

It seems superfluous to say that the present study stems from the ubiquity of this problem [the folly of policy makers] in our time. (40)

As Britain continues on its path to Brexit folly, we too must fall back on explanations of power, self-aggrandisement and inability to admit errors. We are, I am convinced, engaged in a 21stcentury march of folly ourselves.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women in each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen(1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson(1962)

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff(1971)

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