Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri

I can’t remember the last time a book hijacked my day. Middle school, maybe? That was quite some time ago. Once, shortly after we were married, my husband came home from work and we started reading The Last Battle out loud and didn’t stop until we’d finished it, sometime that night. But that was only one evening.

Nayeri’s memoir exerted its magnetism on me through multiple channels–my personal interest in Nayeri’s home country of Iran; the myths and legends he seeds throughout the narrative; and the meandering nature of the storytelling, enticing the reader on, if for no other reason than to find out, “Where is he going with this?”

This latter point is no accident. In multiple asides to the reader, Nayeri compares himself with the storyteller Sheherazade of 1,001 Nights. The rather grim premise of this collection of traditional tales is that a king whose heart had been broken by a faithless wife was in the habit of marrying young women and killing them the following morning, before they could prove false. When it came Sheherazade’s turn to wed the king for a night, she offered him a story but left off between the climax and the denouement. And not only did the clever girl withhold the conclusion until the following night, she proceeded to spin out a string of nested narratives. Like a Downton Abbey viewer who has to watch to the end of season six to learn the final outcome, the king had to keep Sheherezade alive night after night to reach the end of her story-within-a-story-within-a-story.

Similarly, Nayeri’s narrative interweaves his twelve-year-old present as a refugee in Oklahoma with stories from his family’s legendary past, memories of his childhood in Iran, and accounts of their flight to and life in America. The end result is a tale that is not only captivating but rich with metaphor, symbolism, and layers of signification.

That Nayeri envisioned an audience comprised at least partially of middle school boys is manifest by the prominence of blood and poop in his vignettes, some of which get rather gruesome. Especially the ones involving blood. But he manages to make them relevant–quite relevant, in fact. Especially the blood.

It happens that blood is also prominent in the Bible. Which, I think, is the point. The book is in part a tribute to Nayeri’s “unstoppable” mother. A member of the elite group of Muslims descended from the prophet Mohammed, she nevertheless chose to espouse Christianity when Nayeri was young. When she was arrested and given one week to reveal her fellow participants in the underground church or accept death for herself and her children, she fled the country with Nayeri and his sister.

This, for me, is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Nayeri’s story. It is easy enough to dismiss Christianity in America, where belief is easy and even, in places, popular. But what can you say to someone who puts their life on the line for a faith they weren’t born into? They could just be stupid. Or looking for a handout. But Nayeri’s mother was a doctor, with ten years of medical education, and from a wealthy family. She had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Or everything. Depending on how you look at it. Or what you believe.

Nayeri writes that when his mom became a Christian she wasn’t “just a regular one, who keeps it in her pocket. … She fell in love. She wanted everybody to have what she had, to be free, to realize that in other religions you have rules and codes and obligations to follow to earn good things, but all you had to do with Jessu was believe he was the one who died for you. And she believed.”

Which brings us to the title. Nayeri relates plenty of sad and painful stories about his family’s distant past, as well as his refugee experiences in Dubai, Italy, and Oklahoma. Throughout these challenges, including remarriage to a man who turns out to be abusive, his mother never gives up, never looks back. Nayeri finds the explanation in hope–his mother’s unwavering belief “that the God who listens in love will one day speak justice. … That across rivers of sewage and blood will be a field of yellow flowers blooming.”

Nayeri casts his spell not only with his intermingling of real and legendary worlds, but by drawing the reader into his own story. He achieves this in part through his direct addresses, a la Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him). And in part through his candid, self-effacing humor. And in the midst of a story about repairing the roof during a tornado, Nayeri reveals the point of it all. Like Sheherazade, who wanted to return the king to life by relating the varied joys and trials of all sorts of people, Nayeri wants to help us step outside of ourselves and enter into the very different lives of others. (Nayeri goes on to relate how he prayed to God up there on the roof–“Reader, I think He heard me.”)

To adults and young people alike, I highly recommend Nayeri’s book, for its laugh-out-loud humor, its magical storytelling, and its unflinching declaration, artful as well as bold, of universal truth.

March 13, 2021 update: Everything Sad Is Untrue received a 2021 award from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) for excellence in young adult literature. On a more personal but interesting note, I learned that the author attended the high school in Edmond, OK, where my aunt taught English.

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