September 21, 2021
In celebration of Room to Read’s 20th anniversary, an anthology of essays titled “The Gifts of Reading” was published in support of Room to Read. Inspired by Robert Macfarlane’s essay and curated by Jennie Orchard, this collection of essays celebrates the joy of reading, as well as giving and receiving books.
We’re excited to share an excerpt from one of the essays, “A Life’s Work,” by author Dina Nayeri. Dina was born in Iran during the revolution and arrived in America when she was 10 years old. She is a graduate of Princeton, Harvard, and of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two novels, and her stories and essays have been published in over 20 countries in publications including the Guardian and the New York Times. Her book of creative nonfiction, “The Ungrateful Refugee,” was published to considerable critical acclaim in 2019, and was described by Robert Macfarlane as "a vital book for our times...written with compassion, tenderness and a burning anger.” Dina was 2019-2020 Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris and soon will join the faculty at the University of St Andrews.
Excerpt from “A Life’s Work" by Dina Nayeri
My father once gave me a prize, a professionally wrapped and ribboned hardback with my name written in black marker across the bright paper.
I tore it open at my wooden desk, my best girlfriends in grey school hijab, gathered around me, whispering and craning their necks. It was a children’s illustrated introduction to the universe: stars, planets, constellations. In America, such a book might reflect a parent’s hopes (‘maybe she’ll love science’), but in Iran, it was a reward. In our academic culture, when a child had performed well, her parents were asked to send a book to school, to be presented in front of the class – the more grown-up the subject, the more enviable the distinction. The ritual was designed to make children crave future distinctions, in university and beyond. That night in bed, I cradled that book into the small hours. I read every word and memorised every picture.
My mother was a Christian convert, working with the underground church. She gave me a Bible and The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, a revolutionary children’s book about a fish who craves open waters. By eight years old, I knew that I was to be academic, free-thinking, subversive to governments, obedient to God. In my room in Isfahan, I would read books at my desk and pray.
When we escaped Iran without warning in 1988, I left all my books behind. In the years that followed, no one gave books as gifts. They were impractical and scarce, expensive, and who knew what language might be appropriate in an Italian refugee camp full of Middle Eastern asylum seekers headed to America, or England, Germany, or France?
In Oklahoma where we were granted asylum, my first and best gift from an American was a library card, arranged for me by our sponsor Mary-Jean who, at nearly sixty, wore tube tops and drank blue slushies and shopped for hairspray. Mary-Jean told me that I could take home thirty books at a time, and she let me loose with hours to spend among the stacks. The gift, she thought, was time and access to words so that my English would improve. In fact, the English was easy. I was young; I learned it in no time. The real gift was the permission, the trust.
In Iran, we weren’t allowed to read just anything. Many books were banned. And my mother monitored everything we read. She was religious and strict. To be set free inside a library, to build a pile of books without having my choices checked – this was my first true taste of freedom.
Excerpted from “A Life’s Work" by Dina Nayeri. This essay is included in “The Gifts of Reading”, an anthology of essays on the joys of reading, giving and receiving books, inspired by Robert Macfarlane, curated by Jennie Orchard.
© Dina Nayeri. First published by Weidenfeld + Nicolson in the UK, now available worldwide.