'Everything Sad Is Untrue' Is Funny And Sad And (Mostly) True

Sep 2, 2020

Do you love a great story?

Try Daniel Nayeri's new autobiographical novel, his first, Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story), which begins with these memorable words: "All Persians are liars and lying is a sin."

That's what the kids in Mrs. Miller's class think, but I'm the only Persian they've ever met, so I don't know where they got that idea.

My mom says it's true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn't. Persians aren't liars. They're poets, which is worse.

This is a novel, yes, but it's also the story of Nayeri's childhood in Oklahoma. The protagonist — called Daniel — is Iranian refugee who lives with his mother and sister, and because he's the only Persian student his classmates know, he's the butt of jokes, the target of bullies, and he concocts layers of strategies to escape their abuse. And these indignities at school are actually some of the lighter moments in a memoir that explores what it feels like to part ways with your home country, and with your father.

Nayeri says the thing that really struck him about America when he first arrived was — potato chips. "The very first morning, we woke up and the wonderful woman who had taken us in had served sandwiches. We had slept in. I was very jet-lagged, and on the plate these chips I had never seen before, and they were all the same shape, and they nested into one another. And I could not believe that America had chips like this," Nayeri says. "The discovery of Pringles! The first day in America was shocking. And then that day she was very kind. She took us to a grocery store, and then to Toys R Us, and I have never seen — to this day, I'm chasing that high of shelf after shelf of peanut butter and toys. And it seemed like paradise."


Interview Highlights

On the ways his childhood wasn't paradise at all

I think the first question you end up getting asked over and over again is, what are you doing here? And you end up having to tell the story over and over again, which is sort of where my love of storytelling began. - Daniel Nayeri

Unfortunately, when you're a refugee in a place that's a little bit more homogeneous, I think the first question you end up getting asked over and over again is, what are you doing here? And you end up having to tell the story over and over again, which is sort of where my love of storytelling began. It wasn't very easy. My mother was working multiple jobs. She was a doctor in Iran, but was stripped of that when we came to the United States, and so took a lot of menial labor jobs. And I worked at night. And so we ended up having to fend for ourselves a little bit.

On the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his stepfather, Ray, and how he (and book-Daniel felt about it)

For the longest time growing up, I thought Ray was my fault. You know, I thought there was such a strong conception that we had lost our father. He had stayed in Iran. And, you know, Daniel needed a father figure. And this was something, my sister would tell me this. And so I thought my mom was sort of enduring a lot of this because then some lessons of manhood had to be imparted to me. And in order for them to be imparted to me by Ray, that was the cost of having him around.

... a big theme in the book is this idea of, what you take in in life as a child, and what you choose to produce. - Daniel Nayeri

And ... a big theme in the book is this idea of, what you take in in life as a child, and what you choose to produce. And so, you know, it does — in the early goings — tell the story of Ray and his own childhood of extreme violence as well. Ray is a character who chose to also produce that same violence. He had sort of taken it in and he was going to feed it back out.

On what kept his mom going

The answer to your question of why is the center of the book. Why would someone create such a massive inciting incident? This whole book doesn't happen if my mother doesn't give up everything in the world, her medical practice, her very high social standing, her marriage, her family, her home, her home country, why does she give up all of it? And for what? What is the thing that is most valuable?

My mother converted to Christianity because that is her belief. You cannot look at her and take that part of her lightly because it was very clearly not a cultural agreement. It was not a passive idea. It was something for which all of it was relinquished and given up. And a life of being very well-to-do in Iran becomes a life of abject poverty and abuse. And I can tell you, she will tell you, she would do it all over again. To that end, the book even says, when you look at her, you have to say, wow, this person is completely unhinged and crazy — or there is something that she has deeply and sincerely valued above all this. And that is her faith.

On the idea of a "patchwork memory" being the shame of refugees

Whatever these traditions, these ideas are, they're a linear path. And when you take one chunk of the family, a small chunk, and immediately remove them, you're breaking that line. - Daniel Nayeri

Well, when we look at family histories, we often use metaphors of the family line or the family tree. And what that really implies is the collective effort of keeping family tradition and family memories alive. If ever you are in a context of having your family around you, the context of your history, you can look and say, yeah, so when was that tree planted anyway out there? And your mom will say, go ask grandma, and grandma will say, oh, it was — and she will give you this memory. That is a linear passing of a memory that then stays alive, right? Your uncle might pull you aside in the holidays and gift you his dad's pocket knife, or your grandfather might pull you aside and teach you how to, you know, make yogurt properly.

Whatever these traditions, these ideas are, they're a linear path. And when you take one chunk of the family, a small chunk, and immediately remove them, you're breaking that line. And I think it is a shame to be so unclaimed by a family. It feels like a shame to have such a nonlinear understanding of the family and breaking the family line. This idea that the collective work that any family does, of telling each other their own story can't be done. These people have been separated. And there is no text that we can weave together anymore.

This story was produced for air by Justine Kenin and Mia Venkat, and adapted for the radio by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I love a well-woven tale.

DANIEL NAYERI: (Reading) All Persians are liars, and lying is a sin. My mom says it's true but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn't. Persians aren't liars; they're poets, which is worse. Poets don't even know when they're lying. They're just trying to remember their dreams. They're trying to remember 6,000 years of history and all the versions of all the stories ever told. In one version, maybe I'm not the refugee kid in the back of Mrs. Miller's class. I'm a prince in disguise.

CHANG: That is Daniel Nayeri reading from his new book "Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)." It's about growing up in Oklahoma as an Iranian refugee. He lives with his mother and sister, his stepfather Ray. And because Daniel's the only Persian student his classmates know, he's the butt of jokes and the target of bullies. But these indignities at school are actually some of the lighter moments in an autobiographical novel that explores what it feels like to part ways with your home country and with your father.

Daniel Nayeri, I am so glad to be speaking with you about this book.

NAYERI: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

CHANG: So we don't know exactly why at the beginning of this story, but you, your sister and mother flee Iran. You make your way to a refugee camp in Italy, and then you land in Oklahoma, where most of this book takes place. What was your first impression of Oklahoma when you first arrived? Do you even remember?

NAYERI: I do. I remember for two very particular reasons. One is the very first morning, we woke up, and the wonderful woman who had taken us in had served sandwiches. We had slept in. I was very jet-lagged. And on the plate were these chips I had never seen before. And they were all the same shape, and they nested into one another. And I could not believe that America had chips like this. But they were, of course, Pringles, which...

CHANG: You're talking about Pringles, right?

NAYERI: I'm talking - yeah. The discovery of Pringles the first day in America was shocking. And then that day, she was very kind. She took us to a grocery store and then to Toys R Us. To this day, I'm chasing that high of shelf after shelf of peanut butter and toys, and it seemed like paradise.

CHANG: Oh, my God. Well, it was paradise maybe that first day. But you make it very clear that it wasn't paradise throughout your childhood. Can you just, you know, paint a picture for us of what life was like for young Daniel in those early days, all the trials and tribulations? Like, how different did you feel from all the other kids around you?

NAYERI: Yeah. The food is great. And unfortunately, when you're a refugee in a place that's a little bit more homogenous, I think the first question you end up getting asked over and over again is, what are you doing here? And you end up having to tell the story over and over again, which is sort of where my love of storytelling began.

It wasn't very easy. My mother was working multiple jobs. She was a doctor in Iran but was stripped of that when we came to the United States and so took a lot of menial labor jobs. And I worked at night. And so we ended up having to fend for ourselves a little bit.

CHANG: And we should make it clear that your mom and you and your sister - you couldn't have stayed in Iran because your mom had converted from Islam to Christianity, which was a crime.

NAYERI: Yes, of - she had. She had sort of joined the underground church, and her apostasy is a capital crime in Iran. So she ran afoul of the secret police there, ominously named the committee - the committee. And we had to leave very, very quickly. Yes.

CHANG: Well, there is a disturbing parallel between the beatings that you suffer at school and the physical abuse your mom suffers at the hands of your stepfather, Ray.

NAYERI: Yeah.

CHANG: What was striking for me was that in this book, you're really matter-of-fact about the violence against your mom. I mean, you talk about it, obviously, from the perspective of a child. You talk about going to the ER a lot. What you don't talk about in this book is your opinion of Ray as a person so much. And I was wondering - why was that?

NAYERI: Well, for the longest time growing up, I thought Ray was my fault. You know, I thought - there was such a strong conception that we had lost our father. He had stayed in Iran. And you know, Daniel needed a father figure.

And so I thought my mom was sort of enduring a lot of this because then some lessons of manhood had to be imparted to me. And in order for them to be imparted to me by Ray, that was the cost of having him around. And so for the longest time as a kid - certainly in that time period when I was writing it - I thought she was sort of going back and always taking Ray back because it was sort of - it was intended to sort of make my life better.

CHANG: Your mom - I mean, she emerges as the hero of this story. She, as you say, is this unstoppable force. That is what you call her. What kept her going, you think, if you could put that in words?

NAYERI: You know, the answer to your question of why is the center of the book. This whole book doesn't happen if my mother doesn't give up everything in the world - her medical practice, her very high social standing, her marriage, her family, her home, her home country. Why does she give up all of it, and for what? What is the thing that is most valuable?

My mother converted to Christianity because that is her belief. You cannot look at her and take that part of her lightly because it was very clearly not a cultural agreement. It was not a passive idea. It was something for which all of it was relinquished. A life being very well-to-do in Iran becomes a life of abject poverty and abuse. And she will tell you she would do it all over again. To that end, the book even says, when you look at her, you have to say, wow, this person is completely unhinged and crazy, or there is something that she has deeply and sincerely valued above all this. And that is her faith.

CHANG: Well, your story - you know, it moves back and forth through time. And at one point, you say - I'm going to quote you here - a patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee. What did you mean by that?

NAYERI: Well, when we look at family histories, we often use metaphors of the family line or the family tree. And what that really implies is the collective effort of keeping family tradition and family memories alive, right? When you - your uncle might pull you aside in the holidays and gift you his dad's pocketknife, or your grandfather might pull you aside and teach you how to, you know, make yogurt properly.

Whatever these traditions, these ideas are, they're a linear path. And when you take one chunk of the family - a small chunk - and immediately remove them, you're breaking that line. And I think it is a shame to be so unclaimed - this idea that the collective work that any family does of telling each other their own story can't be done. There is no text that we can weave together anymore.

CHANG: Daniel Nayeri's new book is called "Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)."

Thank you so much for being with us. I so enjoyed your book and this talk.

NAYERI: Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here.

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