BASS 2018: Dina Nayeri, “A Big True” from The Southern Review 53.3

“A Big True” began as an experiment. For months my mother and I had fought about my fiction, which she thinks of as an excuse to twist the truth. “You write about these loser parents all the time and you use my details. You lie about me.” “But they’re not you!” I’d say again and again. She said, “And yet somehow you can’t write a parent who’s not a loser, or a child who isn’t perfect.” She was so wrong, but still I set out to prove her even more wrong (yes, I know). I said, “What if I write a story about a parent who’s wildly different from you, a man maybe, whose daughter refuses to understand him? What if I make him an artist and she’s the bland one? What if I show the color in a simple life and the dreariness in a seemingly successful one?”

~ ~ Dina Nayeri, Contributor Note

One of the reasons I so enjoy BASS every year are the contributor notes. Sometimes they’re hints to the deeper levels of the story, sometimes they’re tutorials on the art of writing, and sometimes, as now, they’re little stories in themselves, mini-stories reflected in the story. The quoted portion above is not, I should hasten to add, the end of the mini-story; for the twist ending, read Nayeri’s article at Refinery29.

The story includes the promised father/daughter conflict, but focuses on Rahad as he lives his simple life. He’s the son of a famous Irani musician, and was himself famous in Iran. Now his only claim to fame are a couple of internet sites, as he wanders from YMCA to houses of friends and distant relations to yet another YMCA, playing his sitar on the street, and trying to connect with his daughter, a techie at Google.

Amid the hundreds of promises he had made to her on the day they left Iran, he had offered only one to himself: if exile was to demean and bruise him, fine; but it wouldn’t clip his wings, replacing his craving for music with drudgery and fears of risk. And yet, the fates are crafty and they had inflicted his daughter with the very disease he despised. Yasmine, who had an American accent, who never mixed up her idioms and knew an insult from a joke and exactly what to say next, a girl who had every opportunity, had taken to taking root – a provincial instinct. At ten years old, she had set down her little suitcase, sharpened her pencils, and, like many good Iranian immigrants, set to work on her sensible American life: study, then do something joyless and technical with a steady paycheck.

I have always objected to this idea that there’s a hard line between science and art, but here, layered in with Rahad’s guilt and Yasmine’s adolescent insecurity and the usual intergenerational disputes, it works, if somewhat stereotypically. I can see why Nayeri’s mother saw this as the same story – the daughter is right, the father is a loser – but it is in fact quite different as I read it. And, most importantly, it’s clear that each views the other as a loser – but neither, in fact, is, when judged on an appropriate scale. Jake Weber points out the three subgenres included in the story in his blog post, which continues to raise the question of how we classify and judge things.

That issue aside, it’s a pleasant read as Rahad begins a reluctant friendship with Wyatt, a YMCA neighbor who claims longstanding American residence but presents as a new immigrant. This character is pure genius, and formed for me the best part of the story, as I found Yasmine to be a stereotype of the histrionic daughter with a father who’s an embarrassment. This poisoned Rahad’s interactions with her for me. Yet I have to admit, this might be because I saw in him how my father often saw me: I was the younger generation insisting my ways were better, while he was defending a past rapidly disappearing into the 60s. I know now how he felt as we disappear into this era, whatever it’s called.

But if the father/daughter dialogue is the annoying, if limited, sound of snowplows crunching on icy asphalt (sorry, first snow was last night), it’s Rahad’s interaction with Wyatt that sings above that and steals the show:

In their short friendship, Rahad had overlooked so much that had been hidden in the artificial cracks of this man’s speech. And yet Wyatt had knocked on Rahad’s door every day, hoping that, after enough afternoons together, Rahad – a true and verified musician of Tehran, a traveler and student of the worlds many strange rhythms – might say, Stop pretending now, my brother. I know your sound. But Rahad hadn’t heard; maybe he was no master at all.

Intellectual humility: the willingness to look outside your certainty and find that maybe, just maybe, other certainties also exist. Mom wasn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean Nayeri was wrong. And if Rahad and Yasmine could listen to each other, as Rahad learns to listen through Wyatt, they might find neither of them is wrong, either.