(New York: Mariner Books, 2018)
I live in a country that is allegedly free, a land that has not been torn apart by civil war in over a century and a half. My life has not been complicated by politics. This does not mean I am blind to what is occurring in the world. Nor does it mean I lack empathy. Maybe it is an overabundance of compassion that makes me sick when I turn on the news, or read what’s happening elsewhere – in the Middle East and Central America, even at our own border. People are fleeing their homes in search of something better: freedom from war, poverty, and regimes that suffocate their own people. But all too often refugees are reduced to numbers, statistics, or headlines, and we lose sight of them as people. We neglect an attempt to understand their individual stories – the lives they left behind, the losses they suffered along the way, and the regret that may linger a lifetime, even when they finally escape.
In the novel What We Owe, Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde depicts a haunting and emotional tale of survival, of what it means to be a refugee. Through the eyes of the narrator, Nahid, the reader vividly sees that fleeing a place is not synonymous with fleeing the complexity of a situation. Through language that is practically poetic, Bonde constructs a story that reads like a love letter from mother to daughter, a letter in which Nahid expresses her deepest regrets and offers the explanation her daughter always craved, but she could never verbalize.
Nahid came of age during the Iranian Revolution. Idealistic and naive, she and her boyfriend Masood joined the Marxist movement. Working underground, they hand out pamphlets and attend rallies, believing in the eventuality of freedom, until one day when she lets go of her younger sister’s hand and her life changes forever. To escape impending persecution from the new Islamic regime, Nahid and Masood, now her husband, run away, telling themselves they are doing it for their young daughter, Aram, so that she might have a brighter future. They head to Sweden and do their best to make a life far from home. Now, thirty years later, Masood is dead, cancer is killing Nahid, and Aram is pregnant with her first child.
What We Owe is about loss and regret. In her youth, Nahid was fueled by an idealism that gave her life purpose. Inadvertently, she sacrificed her younger sister to the fight for freedom, and in the end could never forgive herself. Her relationships with her mother and sisters were never the same following Noora’s death, and she ultimately estranged herself from them further by leaving Iran. Now that she is dying, Nahid questions her decisions and her actions: “I wonder now what’s worth more. Freedom and democracy. Or people who love you. People who will take care of your child when you die.”
Seeing her life in retrospect, Nahid recognizes where things started to fall apart, and how things might have been different. Her husband Masood had been a gentle and loving man when they met. He believed he could change the world. Then one day, the Islamists killed the leader of his movement, the one to which he and Nahid had dedicated themselves. This pain unleashes a demon inside of him. All his anger, pain, and disappointment crash down upon his wife in the form of his fists and feet. He beats her regularly, but as she lay dying she wonders,
We should have [cried] often, many more times. If only we cried together instead of letting the pain turn into a thorn between us, maybe our lives wouldn’t have turned out like this. Maybe then we wouldn’t have been so alone. Maybe then he wouldn’t be dead and I wouldn’t be dying.
The novel is also about what it means to have a home, to have a culture. Nahid brought her daughter to Sweden as a young child and so Aram has no memory of Iran. That fact both troubles Nahid and brings her comfort. In one desperate yet beautiful scene, while Nahid is visiting her daughter’s in-laws, she notices the trees and observes, “When you walk down the paths, roots crisscross under your feet. I feel them with my hands. They can’t be lifted, can’t be forced to go anywhere else.” This leads her to conclude, “I’m a people of sand, and they are a people of roots.” And it is this family that Aram has married into, a guarantee that Nahid’s granddaughter will also have roots.
Although her family is displaced, Aram does have a tenuous connection with her family’s culture. When she was a child, she and her mother would take long drives and listen to Persian music. This music forms not only a link to Iran but to her mother as well. In her finally moments of life, Nahid reflects, “[Aram] sings my songs, and inwardly I smile. They will sing our songs, and our songs will never die.”
Finally, Bonde’s story is about redemption and a rebirth – the cycle of life. Nahid doesn’t enjoy being a parent. She loves her child, but never wanted to be a mother. Yet now that her daughter is pregnant, now that she will be a grandmother, she feels that her life has meaning. When the cancer finally consumes her, she has one wish, one desire, and that is to live long enough to meet her grandchild. She is waiting for death while her granddaughter waits for life. As her mind weaves in and out of delirium she thinks,
We’re so close to each other, the baby and me. I’m close to death and she’s close to life, and soon we’ll both cross that thin line. Perhaps we are in the same place. I feel safe in that thought. I feel for the first time in such a long time that I am not alone. I won’t die alone. We will meet and hold hands and then push each other gently over the line.
What We Owe taps into a reader’s emotions and allows them to empathize with Nahid. One cannot help feeling her pain, her estrangement and desperation, and finally her peace. The baggage carried by refugees does not get dropped and forgotten as they cross the border into their new home. For some it gets heavier with time. Bonde’s novel gives of a glimpse of that turmoil swirling inside when someone is forced to raise their child in a foreign country, without an extended family, surrounded by unfamiliar customs.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!