The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Trigger warnings for discussion of rape and suicide.

When she was eight years old, Dina Nayeri’s mother began to be harassed by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and morality police. It wasn’t long before thing got so bad that she packed up her two children and fled Isfahan. The Ungrateful Refugee is a blend of memoir and nonfiction that recounts Nayeri’s experiences as a young refugee, with additional narratives from other refugees from Iran who looked to Europe and the United States as safe havens only to go through years of brutal hardship and callous bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that this book is full of righteous anger at the way refugees are treated by the Western world. This is absolutely a book for our times.

As Nayeri relates her experiences as a refugee and, later, naturalized American citizen, she frequently returns to the same ideas. First, there is the fear of being displaced and the shame of having to beg for food, shelter, and safety. Nayeri shows us how humiliating and confusing it is to be a refugee. Many refugees have to navigate not only different languages they may not know well, but also completely different ways of looking at the world. Which leads to the second themes: fundamental misunderstandings and casual cruelty by the bureaucrats who handle requests for asylum. Lastly, Nayeri calls out Western nations who compound the misery of refugees by making things as difficult as possible in a time of growing global instability and rising nationalism.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the plight of refugees will be familiar with the stories told by refugees seeking asylum. They are fleeing not just police harassment, like Nayeri’s mother, but also torture, rape, and death threats. I would have thought that anyone with a heart would immediately open the gates for people who cannot “go back.” Nayeri, however, raises a point that had never occurred to me. One of her contacts, an asylum “fixer” in Amsterdam, talks to Nayeri about how refugees (especially Iranian and Middle Eastern refugees) communicate in very different ways from the Dutch, the British, and the Americans. Where the Westerners want facts, dates, and documents, refugees are often unable to provide these for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are because of trauma. There is ample research on how trauma can affect memory that apparently has not reached the bureaucrats in the asylum offices. Some of these reasons are cultural. Nayeri notes that Iranian culture and language are high-context cultures (though she doesn’t use this terminology). In high-context cultures, there is a lot more subtext, layers of meaning, an indirect communication. Western cultures tend to be the opposite; everything has to be said to be understood. The fixer spends most of his days coaching Iranians in how to talk to Westerners in order to be understood and win their asylum cases. It was heartbreaking and fascinating all at the same time.

Nayeri closes The Ungrateful Refugee with something of a resolution to her own identity struggles. Most of her life, Nayeri had to repeatedly transform herself in order to get along in the vastly different environments in which she found herself. She tried to be a dutiful daughter in Iran. In America, she worked desperately hard to get into an Ivy League college and get the hell out of Oklahoma. As an adult, she sought a way to reconcile all of her selves. At last, in the last chapters, she talks about how she has reclaimed her Iranian heritage…but also became a powerful (and published) voice for refugees.

I hope that many readers pick up and share The Ungrateful Refugee, especially in the United States. We have, as Nayeri and others mention, a society that has “gotten ours” and feels a need to close the metaphorical gates behind ourselves. I agree with Nayeri that we should open the borders. I agree with Achebe, whose essay collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child is quoted by Nayeri: “I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety.” And, above all, I hope that the millions of people who are currently seeking refuge can find a safe place to call home at last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

At one point in Monique Truong’s novel, The Sweetest Fruits, one of the narrators tells her interviewer that it’s not enough to just get the story of one person: you have to also get the stories of the people around them. And that’s exactly what we get in this novel based on the life of author Lafcadio Hearn and three of the women in his life. (Technically four, if you count the excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland‘s biography of her friend.) While we learn a lot about Hearn, I was more fascinated by the lives of the women who loved him than I was about a man who often struck me as selfish and fussy. The women tell us about love, sacrifice, abandonment, difficult choices, compatibility, and so much more. This book is an amazing piece of writing that, while it hews very close to actual history, amplifies it in ways that only faction can do.

The first narrator we meet is Rosa Cassimati (Rosa Antoniou Kassimatis), Hearn’s Venetian Greek mother. She is returning to her home island of Kythira after spending unhappy years in Dublin, with her Anglo-Irish husband’s aunt. She tells her story to her maid, to dictate her words into a long letter to her son to explain why she left him in Ireland. Rosa takes us all the way back to her adolescences, when she was a virtual prisoner to a father who was trying to “protect” her from the outside world. Just before she is sent off to a convent, she meets Charles Hearn and the pair fall in love. Things get out of hand and the two are forced into more entanglement than they perhaps wanted. Rosa’s letter to Lafcadio is brutally honest and deeply colored by her regret.

For the rest of The Sweetest Fruits, I wondered if his parents relationship was foreshadowing for the rest of the writer’s life. The second part of the book, narrated by Hearn’s first wife, Alethea Foley, had me thinking that Lafcadio might be the second coming of Charles Hearn. Alethea was enslaved in Kentucky before the Freedom, as she calls it. Afterwards, Alethea moved to Cincinnati and worked as a boarding house cook. Her relationship with Hearn started slowly; I wasn’t always sure if they were deliberately courting or not. Alethea’s retelling of their story—told to a reporter in an effort to help her gain her rights as a lawful wife—also had me wondering if Alethea knew that their relationship was doomed. In retrospect, Alethea can definitely see the warning signs: Lafcadio’s sudden realization of what having a black wife would mean for his social standing, his anger over things like what’s for dinner and how it’s prepared, the stress of living close to the bone, financially speaking. When Lafcadio departs for New Orleans, it feels more inevitable than anything else.

An 1889 portrait of Lafcadio Hearn, by Frederick Gutekunst (Image via Wikicommons)

The last part of the novel, narrated by Hearn’s second wife, Koizumi Setsu, has a completely different emotional tone. Setsu is in mourning, but she doesn’t seem to carry the deep regret or anger of our first two narrators. Where Rosa was fleeing a place where she didn’t fit in and Alethea speaks from a place where Lafcadio couldn’t fit in, Setsu reveals how Lafcadio found a home in Japan. There is conflict between the two, but Lafcadio seems to find whatever he was looking for all his life in this new country, far from where he started in the Mediterranean Ocean. Setsu describes their life together as creating their own country and language. They are not the foreigners or the outcasts anymore; everyone outside their circle is a foreigner. I think this is what Hearn was looking for for so long. In Ireland, he was a half-Greek dependent suddenly dropped on a family that didn’t want him. In the Untied States, he was an Irishman who married a black woman, making him double outcast. In Japan, however, he was welcomed—so much so that he became a Japanese subject.

After reading The Sweetest Fruits, I don’t have any desire to learn more about Hearn. His lifelong need to make the world around him just so bothered me, especially as so much of it came through unacknowledged emotional labor from the women who tell this story. I had much more sympathy for the narrators. So much so, that I loved getting their stories as they made room for Lafcadio in their homes and lives. This book is so rich in the ideas and themes that come up that I think a literary-minded and/or feminist book club would also devour it. Truong’s writing is also beautiful as it gives each narrator her own distinct voice, motivations, and experiences. The Sweetest Fruits is an astonishingly great read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Messenger of Athens, by Anne Zouroudi

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

If it weren’t for the helicopter in the book’s prologue, I would have thought that Anne Zouroudi’s The Messenger of Athens took place decades or even a century ago. The attitudes of the people of the fictional (I think) Greek island of Thiminos are very…conservative about gender roles, is probably the most diplomatic way to say it. Women have limited options. They are expected to be faithful housewives and fruitful mothers. The men are almost as limited. The men are supposed to be the breadwinners and patriarchs. A lot of them are lecherous scoundrels but, as long as they don’t go too far, their bad behavior is dismissed as “boys will be boys.” Our protagonist, Athenian investigator Hermes Diaktoros, wades into this festering setting to investigate the death of Irini Asimakopoulos, whose death is being swept under the proverbial rug.

Hermes is nearly constantly described in The Messenger of Athens as “the fat man,” with white sneakers that he calls his wingéd shoes. (Because Hermes.) He arrives on Thiminos and almost immediately starts making a pest of himself with the local police, especially the terrible, corrupt Chief of Police. It takes him a lot of time and effort to get people to talk to him about what happened to Irini and why. Flashbacks to one year before her death help fill in a lot of details as Hermes pieces things together. The more we learn, the more tragic the story becomes. There is doomed love. There is jealousy. There is betrayal, loneliness, and claustrophobic desires to leave the island for the wider world. And yet, Zouroudi devotes loving sentences to the beauty and quiet of the island. Is it possible to fall in love with a place when most of the inhabitants are awful?

Hermes reminds me a lot of Hercule Poirot. He enjoys good food and company, though he’s not nearly as fussy about his appearance (apart from his shoes). He is a quiet detective, who keeps his cards close to his chest while he asks people uncomfortable questions. Hermes is also a lot more flexible when it comes to administering justice than your average detective. The ending of The Messenger of Athens astonished me for its brutality when people start to take their revenge. I’m not sure what it says about me that I approve of Hermes’ actions more than not. The crime he uncovers is one that traditional justice would struggle to adjudicate. No one would be satisfied with whatever the judicial system did. Above all, I am very satisfied that someone is standing up for poor Irini. Hermes will not let people forget until the guilty parties have been (creatively) punished for her death. The Messenger of Athens is an astonishing, disturbing read.

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Lament from Epirus, by Christopher C. King

36236097Years ago, I read a long essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan about his discovery of the music of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Finding their records after they were lost for decades sent Sullivan on a quest to find out who these women were, where they came from, and where they went. The essay sent me on my own dive into early blues and hot jazz, a dive I still haven’t really come up from yet. So reading about Christopher King’s moment in which he discovered Epirotic music, preserved on 78 records from the 1920s and 1930s. In Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Music, King tells us about his dive into a strange music that captured his soul.

King found out about Epirotic music on a trip with his family to Istanbul. On the Asian side of the city, he found the Street of Gramophones and luckily stumbled on 78s from before World War II, rare ones that he’d never heard of and in a language he couldn’t read. When he got home to Virginia, King put on record and it changed his life. This music offers a connection to the mystical, the ineffable, and the past—so King argues in this freewheeling and erudite book about the history of Epirus and its music. There are parts of King’s book that lose me. I was only in band for a few years and I barely learned how to read music. When King talks about scales and majors or minors and such, I have to skim because I have no idea what he’s saying.

Kistos Harisiadis is one of the Epirote musicians King chases.

In the first chapters of Lament from Epirus, King draws connections between Epirotic music and Delta blues. Both genres express deep sorrow in a way that no other music can. Their ability to tap into that emotion comes from centuries of hardship and violence, but also faith and tradition. Later in the book, King writes about how music is not an aesthetic, philosophical experience—at least not in Epirus or in Mississippi. Instead, this kind of music can heal. It can also connect us to our pre-Christian past, remind us of our ability to wordlessly commune with each other over potent alcohol and cathartic dance moves. For King, music is a religion and he tends to get a bit poetic about it.

What I found most compelling about Lament from Epirus is King’s argument that music and culture are inextricably tied together. Music can be enjoyed without its cultural context, but it’s missing something. Epirote Greeks have been listening and dancing to their laments for centuries. Because the music is so tied up with religion, mythology, and local history, there are levels to it that outsiders will never fully understand it. It’s like the way white people can enjoy Delta blues, even love it, but will always know that the music is not really for us.

I enjoyed Lament from Epirus even more than I expected when I requested it from Edelweiss. King wanders from musical theory to anthropology to Ottoman history to the proper methods for making tsipouro, in just the kind of interdisciplinary mishmash I love. Like the laments he has come to love, King repeats little details—like the time he lost all the skin on his right forearm at a festival—before launching off on another tangent that becomes relevant after a few pages. This book is very well done.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 29 May 2018.

A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

30407998As a translator, the narrator of Katie Kitamura’s complex examination of a dead marriage, A Separation, has a unique awareness of what is meant, what is interpreted, and what is going on underneath the surface of what people say to each other. In the opening pages of A Separation, we learn that our narrator has been separated from her husband for six months and that he has gone to Greece without her. We also learn that the husband and wife have agreed not to tell anyone that they’ve separated—which makes things very difficult when the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law and finds out that said husband has gone missing.

After that call, our unnamed narrator takes off for Greece (but is also sent by the mother-in-law, who booked everything in advance). Our narrator, who is rather passive about a lot of things, is not surprised to learn that her husband has been flirting with women all over the souther Peloponnese. She’s mildly bothered by the husband’s infidelity, but she already knew about other affairs and, besides, they’re going to divorce anyway. It might annoy some readers at how little the narrator actually does in A Separation. Rather than trying to dig up leads about where her wayward husband went, she lets information come to her.

While she makes a terrible investigator, our narrator is very good at observing people around her. She’s almost obsessive about teasing meaning from gestures, tones of voice, body language, and word choice. This hyper-attention to details means that she knows a lot more about what’s going on behind peoples’ speech than they’d like to admit. She also turns that attention on herself and her uncomfortable family situation. She keeps maintaining the fiction that she and her husband had not been separated, romantically and physically, even after a hard truth is revealed to her in-laws.

Towards the end of A Separation, this situation and the narrator’s thoughts about it got a lot more interesting as she reflects on the tension between the fictions we prop up to avoid disappointing or angering people we esteem and what’s really going on. Other readers might think of the narrator as a coward for the way she constantly ducks confrontation. I don’t think “coward” is the right label. The best word I can think of for the nameless narrator is passive. She’s not so much avoiding conflict as trying to detach from her unhappy in-laws and the social conventions that she’s still propping up.

I suspect that only very specific kinds of readers will actually enjoy reading A Separation. I’m not one of them. I have a hard time with characters who let things happen to them and let little unkindnesses pile up. I’m also not too keen on literary fiction about broken marriages. I picked this book up because I thought there would be an intriguing mystery for the narrator to pick apart. A Separation is more mundane than I wanted. What made me carry on was the intellectual puzzle of polite fictions that keep a family functioning in spite of underlying turmoil. Also, it’s a short book.

My Last Lament, by James William Brown

Aliki’s tragic life seems appropriate for a professional lamenter. We learn about her life as she records her story on tapes that were left for her by an American ethnographer—who really only wanted Aliki’s laments and talk about Greek “funerary customs”—in My Last Lament, by James William Brown. The novel jumps back and forth as Aliki tells us about her left in the present and between 1943 and 1948, when Greece was occupied and then tried to get back on its feet after World War II.

The book opens with Aliki in the present, as an ethnographer explains what she wants in baffling (and hilarious) academese. Aliki lives alone in her home village and is occasionally called out to compose spontaneous laments for the oldest members of the community. Aliki is willing to humor the American, but she takes the opportunity to tell her own story in between recalled laments and village goings-on. She takes us back to 1943. Her village in mainland Greece has been occupied by German forces and everyone is hungry. We meet young Aliki just as her father has been executed for running a secret squash garden.

After Aliki’s father is killed, a neighbor takes her in. Unbeknownst to Aliki and Takis, the neighbor’s son, Chrysoula is also hiding a Jewish mother and son in her basement. When disaster strikes just as the Germans are about to leave the village, Aliki flees with Takis and the Jewish son, Stelios. The trio have their own odyssey across mainland Greece, Crete, and a remote Greek island over the next few years. Bad luck and bad decisions hound them along the way (though there are no sirens or cyclops). Aliki and Stelios are such strivers that, after a few chapters, I just wished that they could find a bit of peace and happiness.

My Last Lament offers a look into a theater of the war I didn’t know much about. I knew even less about post-war Greece, which seems even more dangerous than the Germans because there are so many armed factions fighting for control of the liberated country. I wish there had been a bit more about Aliki’s mystical laments, but this book is laced with Greece puppet theater and customs that I very much enjoyed. (There are descriptions of food that will probably send readers to the nearest Greek restaurant.) Brown also pulls off the trick of making both the past and present sections of the book equally interesting. If you have a taste for the tragic, My Last Lament is a terrific read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.

At Twilight They Return, by Zyranna Zateli

Zyranna Zateli’s meandering collection of tales, At Twilight They Return (translated by David Connolly), reminds me of sitting down with an elderly relative. Bits are fascinating. Others seem like tangents until the storyteller gets back to their original point. Yet more parts are shocking, tragic, or both. At Twilight They Return tells ten stories about various members of the Christoforos clan at the end of the nineteenth century.

The sprawling family lives in a smallish town (unnamed) in northern Greece. We learn that they’re well-off, own numerous commercial enterprises and have tenant farmers and shepherds. Their chief characteristic, however, is marrying, having children, and, if their spouses die, repeatedly remarrying to have yet more children. Christoforos, the patriarch, has three wives over the course of his life. I lost count entirely of his children, step-children, and adopted children. One of his sons manages to have six children by six different women before his siblings browbeat him into getting married so that someone else has to take care of all those kids.

There is simply too much plot in At Twilight They Return to adequately summarize in a review like this. The best I can do is to say that this book draws a rough arc from the height of the family’s fortunes to a slow decline after an earthquake destroys their inn. The earthquake, as near as I can tell, takes place around 1899. After that, sickness, accidents, and mental illness start to prune the outrageously complex family tree.

I could tell from the very first tale that At Twilight They Return is not going to be for everyone. I’ll admit that I started skimming once I hit the two-thirds point. I was genuinely entertained by parts of this book, but there was so much plot and so many characters to slog through. Readers who enjoy wandering tales that slowly circle around major events and eventually get back to their original plot will adore this book. Readers who want things laid out more linearly will be frustrated.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 25 October 2016.