Iranian-American author Dina Nayeri’s work has garnered her many accolades, including the 2018 UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Prize. Her short stories and essays have appeared in such notable publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.
In her first book, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (2013), Dina tells the story of Saba, an 11-year old growing up in a small village in post-revolutionary Iran. When Saba’s mother and twin sister disappear, she believes they have gone to live in the United States, an idea and place that had long fascinated she and her sister.
The juxtaposition of Saba in Iran and the imagined life of her twin in the U.S. illustrates the dual nature of Iranian-American identity. For Dina, who was born during the tumult of Iran’s 1979 revolution and spent her early childhood years in Iran, those experiences were integral in shaping her character. In an interview with NIAC, Dina shared more on this:
“Iran has shaped me entirely. I lived there for my first 8 years. Experts say that our personalities are largely formed by the time we’re 3. I can’t separate the Iranian influence from my larger identity. I’m Dina, and being Dina includes the grandmothers from Ardestoon, and the lavashak, and sour cherries, and Vigen songs, and Hafez recitations over breakfast, and a certain kind of cheese served with lavash bread and sweet tea, and the Shahnameh, and ghormeh sabzi and shole zard and trips to the Caspian and Norooz.”
When sharing her memories of those early years in Iran, Dina notes both the good and the bad:
“I enjoy remembering big dinners in Ardestoon, hiking in the hills, swimming in the river and the pond, my grandmother’s tanoor oven, my grandfather’s stories. I remember the food, going out to pick fruit. I remember tearing into a watermelon on the steps of my house, spearing a well-kneaded pomegranate with a sharp straw. I remember cream puffs in my dad’s dental office, a giant photo of me hanging on the wall of the waiting room, a finger on my nose, telling people to shhhh. But there are things I don’t like remembering too: moral police, hijab, my ominous school, the teachers in long black chadors walking the halls with their rulers and scowls. The war. The bombs. The taped-up windows…”
While those experiences and memories are part of the author’s personal story, growing up in America had its own implications. However, writing provided an outlet where navigating identities was unnecessary:
“I don’t have two identities. I have one very specific one — Dina Nayeri — and that includes many aspects. Before I realized this, of course, I had my American face and my Iranian face, and I was proud of being a chameleon, able to change to fit the situation. I’m still proud that I can adapt to lots of different environments. But I no longer think I’m getting away with anything. I’m simply choosing one aspect of my personality to showcase for a day or an hour. But I don’t navigate myself when I write. I see the world through my unique lens, and I try to present what I see as accurately as possible. Inevitably, I see American traits and behaviors through a more Iranian lens, and Iranian traits and behaviors through a more American one, and that makes for funny, moving observations and stories.”
Growing up Iranian American affords much of our community the benefit of learning and drawing from two distinct, rich cultures. The beautiful literature that results from this synchrony is but one welcome consequence. But the tensions that have long existed between these two states have other effects on the Iranian-American psyche — particularly as the tumult between Iran and the U.S. continues:
“What makes me sad is that I see so much to love about both cultures, so much that my friends and loved ones miss about each other, because all the focus is on the tensions and fears and hate. I wish I could show my American friends Ardestoon and Gilan. I wish I could show my Iranian friends a good southern barbecue and tubing on a lake in Oklahoma. I suppose I do that with my stories. It doesn’t feel like enough. Especially lately.”
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