Author Dina Nayeri remembers the first American books that opened her world after immigrating from Iran in the 1980s.
In 1989, my mother, younger brother and I arrived in Edmond, Oklahoma, after two years spent as asylum seekers in Dubai and Rome. I was ten years old. During our years en route, my mother had attempted to teach us English with used homeschooling workbooks that she erased by hand, audio tapes of children’s stories to which we added our own voices (for pronounciation lessons), and whatever technical words she had learned as a medical student in Tehran. But on arriving in Oklahoma, I quickly discovered that what I knew wasn’t nearly enough—especially by the cruel standards of American public school children. My brother and I spoke rudimentary, accented English and we knew no slang, no idioms, nothing that couldn’t be found in a very thin, very old children’s dictionary.
Luckily, we arrived in mid-summer and were greeted by our legal sponsors, a jovial, nurturing couple who lived away from their own grandchildren and enjoyed our noise and excitement and delight at simple things like bologna and Frosted Flakes. We lived with them for the first few weeks of our American life. The day after our arrival, a chatty, tube-topped Mary-Jean took my brother and me on two important errands: Toys R Us (a marvel to an Iranian girl who had only experienced life under an Islamic Republic and in refugee communities. Were all those toys for regular, middle class children? It made no sense. Surely we had stumbled onto the private storeroom of a Saudi prince), and the Edmond Public Library.
On that first day, I checked out thirty books, the library’s limit. Most of them were far below my grade level (I believe Goodnight Moon, Eloise, and a few mouse related stories were in the pile), but I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed. What I remember was the elation of brazenly taking so many stories, on so many topics, freely and without fear. No moral police asking about hidden political messages (the reason my favorite storybook The Little Black Fish was banned). No censored books or topics. Just piles and piles of colorful dust jackets, English letters, that inviting used book smell. Suddenly, I could read anything I wanted. I tore through all thirty books in three or four days and mustered the courage to ask Mary-Jean to take me back. She did, this time leaving my brother and me for an hour by ourselves to explore the stacks. She talked to her friend, the librarian whose encouraging face became familiar over the next few years.
Then I discovered the Judy Blume section.
To this day, I have rarely felt a thrill so raw and unexpected as that of opening a Fudge book, understanding enough to be delighted, then looking up and thinking, this new life could work out so well. For a few moments, I wasn’t missing home, a place where I fit in, where my family was the standard for normal. Right then, I was fine. I was happy. I was traveling to other American towns and neighborhoods, and no one was making me get up from beside that rickety plastic spin-stack.
That young adult spin stack became my life for the rest of the summer of 1989.
I read everything by Judy Blume. Blubber was my favorite—how could such a book even exist? In 1980’s Iran, if a volume wasn’t written by one of the greats (Hafez or Ferdowsi or Sa’adi or Rumi), and if it wasn’t educational or religious or political, it had no place on a respectable bookshelf. Children’s stories were almost aways classics, adapted folktales, fantasies, or religious stories. Reading about the trials of an overweight girl in school felt like eating a pound of sprinkles, or coloring my walls with bright pink magic marker while my parents were at the office. By the time I started fifth grade at a local public school, I had moved on to The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High, making sure to hide them from my strict Iranian mother who would almost certainly die of shock if she were to stumble onto the super racy scene where Bruce touches Jessica’s belt buckle (I’m not 100% sure this scene exists. I remember someone touching a belt buckle and my mom going bananas).
In less than a hundred afternoons at the Edmond Public Library, I had finished the young adult stacks and my fingers itched for more. When I was alone, I explored other parts of the library. I took a peak at The Joy of Sex before a librarian shooed me away. I found the college entrance guides that planted the seed for my budding ivy league obsession—an insane streak that started in the sixth grade and lasted until… well, I’ll let you know. I discovered an entire section on Native American ghost stories full of magic and ritual sacrifice and blood and messily requited love. Again, my mother went full-on bananas.
Months later, I noticed a shiny round sticker on some of my favorite books—the Newberry winners. I started hunting stories bearing the sticker. These books, of course, were more difficult to read, and required a deeper grasp of American culture and history than the high school fluff on which I had been gorging. But, once again, I was enraptured. To understand stories like Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, or A Wrinkle in Time, I had to ask questions. I had to read more. I had to figure out where I had landed in the world. I absorbed new vocabulary at a rapid clip. Best of all, those books gave me a place to go in the coming years. When the gulf war happened and I became an outcast. When puberty hit and I began to look more and more Iranian. When money became a worry. When my family changed and changed again. I was never unhappy—I had the ability to transport myself. And, as a bonus, I believe it was in that particular section, the Newberry winners, that I finally caught up to my grade level in English.