I’ve been thinking about a book I read as long ago as May; one I’m now wishing I’d included in my roundup of travel books of the year, even if it’s something of a radical departure from that genre.
Travel is something to plan for, to anticipate, to savour once it’s under way. Unless, of course, it’s been forced on you, and you’re homeless, stateless and in fear of your life. In The Ungrateful Refugee (Canongate, £16.99) Dina Nayeri, who fled Iran at eight with her mother and brother, eventually finding asylum in the United States, combines her own experience of the refugee journey with reporting from today’s camps. There, she says, it takes no talent to coax out stories, for everyone wants to talk. It does, though, take talent to write them, and Nayeri, who is the author of two novels, has it in abundance.
While doing research at a camp in Greece, she asks herself why, when she has a home of her own now in London, and a family, she’s returned to such a “wretched limbo”. She answers:
I’ve come because the world is turning its back on refugees, because America is no longer America and Europe is going the same way: these once-Christian nations have abandoned duty in favour of entitlement and tribal instinct. I’m here because I have a skill, born out of my own idle refugee days. I’ve watched people when they’re ordered to do nothing and I know just how life reasserts itself, like that first bubble in still water before the whole pot comes to a boil. I’m here to make a few stories leap out from the tepid simmer of information and to carry those stories to the West, a mother who once adopted us, the exiles and outcasts, and now needs us to intervene as callouses harden fast around her heart.
And there is another reason too. Now that I have a daughter, it’s time I made sense of my own story and identity so that she can be certain of hers.
I have reservations about Nayeri’s mixing of reportage and the techniques of fiction (she declares at the outset that she brought the escape stories of others to life “using sensory details that I found and imagined”), but The Ungrateful Refugee is still an urgent and important book.