Dina Nayeri, the raw truth of refugees

The works revolving around the theme of migrations have been published in recent years with the regularity of a metronome. Written by authors opting for the novel (Fatou Diome, Marie Darrieussecq, Olivier Adam, Léonora Miano …), the manifesto-poem (Patrick Chamoiseau) or the comic strip (Lelio Bonaccorso and Marco Rizzo), by researchers or journalists preferring the mode of the investigation (Taina Tervonen, Emma-Jane Kirby …), or by people delivering the story of their own journey (Behrouz Boochani, Victor Eock …), they enlighten their readers through a point of view, an angle , well defined. That of Storytellers, Dina Nayeri’s story, which comes out this Thursday at Presses de la Cité, has this peculiarity that it is that of a woman who herself lived, thirty years ago, a journey of refugee. Now a writer, she has gone to meet asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, particularly in humanitarian centers.


By comparing his personal memories – of leaving Iran, with his mother, a young doctor converted to Christianity, and his brother, on arrival in the United States, through life in hiding in Dubai then in the center reception in Italy, those of its integration in Oklahoma redneck but sure of her grandeur, her efforts to obtain a university scholarship – and the accounts gathered from people living today more or less the same situation, she tells behind the scenes how much, in thirty years, the reception reserved for migrants, whatever the reasons for their exile, has changed. “I think at the time, Westerners had a different idea of ​​their duties to the world, estimates Dina Nayeri, sitting in the Parisian apartment that she rents while spending the year in writing residency in the capital. There are also the inflammatory terms and metaphors that the politicians have managed to put in our heads, the press articles that speak of horde or invasion … The media have changed: when you select your articles on Facebook, it doesn’t there is no authority that says: “This is the real definition of what a migrant is, of what a refugee is.” People in Oklahoma don’t necessarily read the New York Times, they’re just going to log in and read what their friends are posting. “

Through this rich, sometimes funny story (the scene telling the amazement of the little girl and her brother, coming from a country where one feasts on sour cherries and fine rose or pistachio pastries, facing the chemical blue granite, supposed to be the “Best dessert in the world”, offered by the American lady who hosted them when they arrived in the Midwest, can only arouse a smiling empathy), the forty-something also explores her own relationship to these people, to their difference in social status. When you yourself have been housed in a center for asylum seekers, but have since attended the best universities, and are perfectly integrated into society, how should you behave in a humanitarian center? Can we, for example, refuse the shared food, which will be missed with certainty to those who offer it, without showing contempt?

Above all, Dina Nayeri asks a universal question, and fundamental for asylum seekers: why is one person believed, why another is not, when telling his story? “There is a very strange dissonance between my memory of being a refugee, who needed to tell my story in a way that is believed, and what I experienced later at Harvard Business School, she remarks. When I was little, I was very aware that our arrival in the United States was going to depend entirely on whether a lady [du bureau de l’asile, ndlr] believe us or not. Later, when I was at Harvard, a place where people are naturally believed, even when they lie, I found that we were really taught how to be believable, how to come across as an expert by not saying much. . ” Two courses in particular marked her: one on leadership, another on negotiation. “I was like, ‘Wow, these are manipulation lessons! I wish I had known all this when I was poor!'” she laughs.


Her next book, which she is working on these days, will continue to explore the question of “Which makes you believed or not – not just refugees, but everyone.” Is it respectability, credibility, language…? ” On this last point, Story makers Already sketching an answer: the cultural codes around language obviously influence the capacity to be believed. “I was talking about it with a Dutch asylum lawyer, who told me that we are not educated to tell stories the same way, depending on where we were born, illustrates Dina Nayeri again. If I ask you why you left your country, you will answer me directly, whereas an Iranian will begin his story at his birth, or at the beginning of the universe. It may give the asylum officer the impression that he is trying to confuse him. “

The questions that Dina Nayeri asks are basically valid for both the writer and the asylum seeker. That of truth is central. Can you tell the truth by inventing, or borrowing, details? The author herself sometimes mixes up the details of the stories she has collected, in order to anonymize and condense the stories. However, nothing that she tells is fiction.

Kim Hullot-Guiot

Dina Nayeri Storytellers Translated from English (United States) by Claire-Marie Clévy, Presses de la Cité, 379 pp., € 21 (ebook: € 14.99).


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