Fionnuala's Reviews > Us & Them

Us & Them by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání
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bookshelves: nakhjavání, exile, 2017

When I finished reading Us & Them, my first impulse was to turn to the first page and begin it again, so mesmerized was I by the story and the telling of it. I immediately acted on that impulse and was rewarded in the most perfect way: what I hadn't realised when I'd initially read the opening pages was that they might serve just as easily for a conclusion as they do for an introduction. They work both ways, like almost everything else in this very wise and beautifully written book: the title 'Us & Them' can be interpreted as its mirror image 'Them & Us'; the writer can be the reader, and the reader, the writer.

The first chapter opens with the words: We had been expecting this book to come out for quite some time. Such an obvious subject, just waiting to be exploited.. and closes with the following: If we wanted the world to know about us, we had to do something about it ourselves. We had to...author our own stories.
What is happening here, the reader wonders? Is the reader reading what 'we' authored? Who is 'we' in the first place? It's a puzzle the reader solves little by little, as if piecing together the shards of a broken mirror in order to construct this story of mirror images.

That first person plural point of view, that 'we' voice which is present at the beginning, dominates half of the book in alternate sections. Using the first person plural is a way of writing that is particularly Persian, the reader is told at the beginning: We use this point of view to show our modesty, to demonstrate our humility. At times, we have to admit, we also use it to evade responsibility. But that is another issue… and the 'we' voice sidesteps neatly in the first of many sidesteps. The reader, and the writer too perhaps, can only smile at such elegant trickery, such obvious satire. It is the softest soft-shoe shuffle ever.

But shuffling is a word that is used in this story in its primary meaning too; alongside the many conmen in these pages, there are elderly men and women for whom 'home' is something long ago and far away, but for whom an alternative 'far away' has provided a new 'home'. They may not fully master the language or the cultural references of the new place but they are grateful to call it 'home', and so they shuffle to Starbucks or some other worldwide coffee chain to meet with one another instead of gathering at the old familiar coffeehouse of their former lives. Sitting on plastic chairs, they reminisce about the long ago time, the time of the Shah before the Revolution. And they gossip about their relatives, near and distant, about friends of friends, those in exile and those still at 'home', the ones in prison and the ones who are dead.

In the course of the gossip, the reader gets to hear snippets about the characters who feature in the alternate half of the book: Bibi, and her exiled daughters Goli and Lili. Their story is mainly told in a different voice however, a third person point of view, which makes them 'Them'. But their lives are not dissimilar to the other exiled lives the 'we' voice tells about. And yet they are different, and their fate tugs at the reader's heart in a unique way; Bibi's stoic bravery, Goli's mangled Americanisms, Lili's impassioned rebellion, the reader experiences it all directly: we become them.

But this is satire after all, so we laugh as we read. In fact we laugh a lot. And it's ok to laugh because the author invites us to snigger alongside the characters, and to weep beside them too.

Because there is no 'Them' in the end. There is only 'Us'.
……………………………………………

Author's Website

Here's Bahíyyih Nakhjavání, writing in the Stanford University Press blog about the concept of being 'alien':

I first came across the word “alien” in a non-stellar context when I had to sign a card identifying myself as one, soon after the Immigrants Act of 1962 was passed in the UK. Even though my family had been the only Persians living in Uganda, I had never felt like an alien growing up there. But the sense of being one came home to me forcefully in cozy Rutland. I walked into the local constabulary of the small market town thinking I was a fourteen year old human being; I left, duly registered, feeling as though I had just been dropped out of a flying saucer from outer space.

Like many other adolescents, I wandered in elliptical orbit after that till marriage transformed me from one of “them” into one of “us,” and I graduated from being an Iranian student to becoming a UK-citizen-by-marriage. And my induction into this select club happened once again in Kampala, Uganda, the town of happy childhood, the place where my grandfather would be buried soon afterwards, his Jewish Iraqi bones enriching forever the blood-red soil of the high Kikaaya hill.

But Uganda was to haunt me some years later, as I stood in a queue at Pearson International Airport, waiting to pass through Canadian immigration. By then, although the passport had stuck, the marriage had not, and having entered the US on one visa, I was obliged to leave it to apply for another, as a divorcée. However, as bizarre as American logic seemed to me, even then, it was nothing compared to the Canadian sequel waiting for me on the other side of the border.

By a stroke of fate, my arrival in Toronto coincided with that of some two thousand Indians fleeing Uganda from Idi Amin. And given my links to that country, the immigration officer behind the desk, whose nametag clearly announced Polish ancestry, was understandably suspicious. So I was hauled to one side and subjected to a cross-examination. Who was I? Where was I coming from, and where did I really belong? Was I an illegal immigrant...


Read more of this article here

Another blogpost from the author on the divisive rhetoric of our times:
The Language of Nowhere

Here's an interview with the author posted in the EuropeNow blog of the Council for European Studies (CES):
http://www.europenowjournal.org/2017/...
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Reading Progress

February 9, 2017 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
June 6, 2017 – Shelved
June 6, 2017 –
page 31
11.4% ""Your address in Sidney?" the young woman repeats.
We have written the address on the immigration form she is holding between her fingers, but suddenly, in a panic, we cannot remember what is on it. We crane to the right, to the left to see it, but her hands are hidden behind the ledge of the desk; the form is out of sight. We grip the ledge with whitened knuckles, feeling the sweat rising. Why do these people always"
June 6, 2017 –
page 104
38.24% "But you can't look distrustful when you are waiting to be picked up at a station; you can't look suspicious, when bearded, foreign, and surrounded by odd-sized baggage. You have to look bright, cheerful, and professional. So we wiped the worry off our faces and smiled in an unfocused but significant way at people drifting by. No one stopped. No one responded. Then we started to look at the passersby more closely…"
June 6, 2017 –
page 114
41.91% "People think that Persians are good at plots. They think we are masters of storytelling, the "and then and then and then" of Scheherazade. But it's metaphorical logic we prefer. Metaphors are our forte. We love the way metaphors and similes shift and change, ignoring consequence, reversing temporal directions. Conspiracy theories we have no trouble with, but we're not so hot on plot, at least in the narrative sense.."
June 7, 2017 –
page 143
52.57% "You had to be careful with words. Trees were proof of it, she thought, gazing around the [Paris park]. There was no free press for trees here. They were pruned fiercely every year, despite their attempt at silence. Their shade was restricted to a narrow circle on the gravel path. Their trunks were hemmed around with metal spikes. None of them was allowed to grow any higher, taller, broader, or thicker than the others"
June 7, 2017 –
page 165
60.66% "Besides, the worst with them isn't the lack of language: it's the missing links, the gaps of understanding, of comprehension. These 'farangis' just can't read between the lines; they simply can't register an innuendo. They have absolutely no capacity to pick up on the unspoken. In some ways, it's a blessing, of course. It's an advantage that they don't understand what we are saying. And at least there's no 'taarof'.."
June 7, 2017 –
page 171
62.87% "Since when had her son-in-law permitted himself to hug her in such a familiar fashion? He had always bowed before, with his right hand pressed against his heart, in respectful deference...But everyone seemed to be doing it in America; they all kept throwing their arms around each other...The proximity of Bahman's fruity aftershave and his bulk suddenly woke her up to where she was. America had torn down the walls..."
June 8, 2017 –
page 247
90.81% "To be honest. It was a phrase he used all the time. To be honest, I never studied American but I just love reading; I read books all the time, to be honest. Now that was a bald-faced lie, like everything else in the man's mouth, including the teeth; he read nothing except his lottery tickets. Goli never learned the language properly but at least she read what they called literature in California: diet brochures.."
June 8, 2017 –
page 261
95.96% "There is no wailing here, no loud lamentations. Back in our country, we advertise our grief, like street hawkers selling their wares, but here, cemeteries are an excuse for silence or else a quiet sort of gardening. People don't sob in communal sorrow here; they don't beat their breasts, or cry noisily as we are wont to do. They sniff discreetly into handkerchiefs, nod gently, and then turn away to pull up weeds..."
Started Reading
June 16, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 58 (58 new)


message 1: by Antigone (new)

Antigone I have a great fondness for the Persian voice (as you may recall), and your review excites me with the prospect of a fresh encounter! Thanks for the introduction, Fionnuala!


message 2: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Yes, I do recall your comments about the 'communal' Iranian mind in your review of another book about exile and being an immigrant, Antigone. Remembering that one, I'm certain you will really appreciate Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's novel.


message 3: by Laysee (new)

Laysee Fascinating exposition of the Us & Them theme, Fionnuala. Sounds promising. I've not read any book that's Persian.


message 4: by Angela M (new)

Angela M What a thoughtful review as always , Fionnuala. Had not heard of this book but definitely will look into it .


message 5: by Eleanor (new)

Eleanor A lovely and intriguing review.


message 6: by Magdelanye (new) - added it

Magdelanye we love your scintillating review


message 7: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Sounds like exactly the kind of book I like to read, Fionnuala! Shifting perspectives, voices, interpretations ... mixed with satire. I couldn't be more interested in soon becoming one of "THEM" who can say "this book pleased US".


message 8: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Laysee wrote: "Fascinating exposition of the Us & Them theme, Fionnuala. Sounds promising. I've not read any book that's Persian."

It is excellent, Laysee - I've never read anything so insightful about exiles/migrants before.
But I have read several other books by this author, among them The Woman Who Read too Much set in nineteenth century Persia, which you might like, and Saddlebag for which
Goodreads friend Kalliope wrote a review which is well worth taking a look at.


message 9: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Angela M wrote: "What a thoughtful review as always , Fionnuala. Had not heard of this book but definitely will look into it ."

I've added some links to the author's website, etc, Angela, to give you a further idea of how relevant this book is to the world of today.


message 10: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Magdelanye wrote: "we love your scintillating review"

And we love getting comments like that, Magdelanye!


message 11: by RK-ïsme (new)

RK-ïsme An insightful review Fionnuala. We will add this to our to-read list and read it as soon as we can. Thanks.


message 12: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Jean-Paul wrote: "We also loved your heart-tugging review, Fionnuala, and we say it in a loud voice, taking complete responsibility for our words."

No soft-shoe shuffling there, Jean-Paul!
You may remember commenting on this book before - I posted links to the author's website and her excellent and very topical blogposts under the French edition of this book, Eux & Nous way back in February before the English edition came out. Even though the French edition came out first, the book was originally written in English so if you choose to read it, I recommend the original version - though the translator at Actes Sud did a great job too.


message 13: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Eleanor wrote: "A lovely and intriguing review."

Thank you, Eleanor. Nakhjavání gives us an insider view of her chosen group of exiles. And while their experiences result from their particular exile circumstances, yet they are universal too. That's the magic here.


message 14: by Dolors (last edited Jun 11, 2017 01:53AM) (new) - added it

Dolors What a huge discovery you've brought about, Fionnuala. I noticed there are no ratings for this particular title, but I have a feeling, that after this review, this is going to change soon.
The piece of the essay on the concept of being "alien" reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri, but it seems to me that Nakhjavání's writing reaches deeper territories, so I am adding her with no further delay. Thanks!


message 15: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Lisa wrote: "Sounds like exactly the kind of book I like to read, Fionnuala! Shifting perspectives, voices, interpretations ... mixed with satire. I couldn't be more interested in soon becoming one of "THEM" who can say "this book pleased US"..."

I think you will really appreciate both the themes and the writing, Lisa. I suspect that one of the unique things about this book is that it has not been written for any specific market. As you can see, it hasn't been published by a big publisher so it didn't have to fit into any marketing genre. It didn't have to fit into an 'east' perspective aimed at a 'west' audience - as so many other books have had to in order to gain an audience.
On the other hand, in this case, the 'west' audience isn't dependent on a translator's interpretation, or the small chance of the book being translated in the first place, since it is written in English. But the writing crosses the bridge between east and west; the words are English, the style is Persian.


message 16: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala RK-ique wrote: "An insightful review Fionnuala. We will add this to our to-read list and read it as soon as we can. Thanks."

We are glad to hear that, RK!
There are some scenes set in Canada - and many other parts of the world too. This is truly a book for the whole world.


message 17: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Dolors wrote: "What a huge discovery you've brought about, Fionnuala. I noticed there are no ratings for this particular title, but I have a feeling, that after this review, this is going to change soon..."

I hope so indeed, Dolors. While Nakhjavání's themes are the themes of today, her writing is as stylish and elegant as any classic author I can think of. That's a perfect combination in my book!


message 18: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Jean-Paul wrote: "Yes, and the stunning cover image too! Duly changed my "want to read" to the original language version. :-) ..."

Yes, I love the cover of the French version!
Eux & Nous by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání

But the English cover is very fitting too - the kaleidoscopic reflections of a bevilled mirror - or a cut stone perhaps. The design is by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein.
Us & Them by Bahíyyih Nakhjavání


message 19: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat lovely review, like walking past a house and smelling the dinner cooking inside


message 20: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "lovely review, like walking past a house and smelling the dinner cooking inside"

Oh, there are lots of references to food in this book, Jan-Maat - how clever of you to have sniffed them out!


message 21: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala You have such a good eye for images, Jean-Paul!


message 22: by Carol. (new)

Carol. Lovely, as always.


message 23: by Matthias (new) - added it

Matthias I think I saw that article before, and I associate you with that memory. Lovely review with a touching closing line. I'm adding this :-)


message 24: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Carol. wrote: "Lovely, as always."

Thanks, Carol :-)


message 25: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Matthias wrote: "I think I saw that article before, and I associate you with that memory. Lovely review with a touching closing line. I'm adding this :-)"

This book is very rewarding, Matthias, well worth the time spent. I'm still thinking about it days after finishing.


message 26: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Dolors wrote: "...The piece of the essay on the concept of being "alien" reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri, but it seems to me that Nakhjavání's writing reaches deeper territories, so I am adding her with no further delay. Thanks!"

From the few short stories I've read by Lahiri, I see what you mean, Dolors, and I think you are right in surmising that there is more depth and universality in Nakhjavani's analysis of exile.
I have Lahiri's The Namesake and I will read it soon - with an eye to a more careful comparison.


message 27: by Agnieszka (new) - added it

Agnieszka A very interesting and thought provoking review, Fio. Both the author and title are alien to me but I liked the sound of it. And I liked your final conclusion that in the end there is only " us ".


message 28: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Agnieszka wrote: "A very interesting and thought provoking review, Fio. Both the author and title are alien to me but I liked the sound of it. And I liked your final conclusion that in the end there is only " us "."

It's true that the author isn't as well know as, for instance, the more famous Jhumpa Lahiri or Mohsin Hamid, both of whom I'm currently reading, Agna, and it's a real shame because she's up there with them in terms of the intelligence and sensitivity of her approach and the elegance and creativity of her writing. I just wish she had their giant publicity machines behind her!


message 29: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse Intriguing and playful observations on the use of 'we', Fionnuala, highly inviting to discover how we would experience this witty nosism ourselves - thanks to your wonderful review Nakhjavání' can be sure of a wider audience!


message 30: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala I do hope this book gains a very wide audience, Ilse. It describes the dilemmas of all those who are crossing the nowhere space between emigrant and immigrant just as Mohsin Hamid's Exit West does, and it also examines the problems of a particular community of emigrants: Persians in exile. But unlike Hamid's book, this novel approaches such serious subjects in a truly amusing way. It's a rare thing, a serious book that is also funny.


message 31: by Seemita (new)

Seemita Now that's a rejig I might get lost in! Beginning and End; and yet no dead-end? With three of her books in my TBR, I guess its time I read her to understand those rather interesting quirks :) All very lovely!


message 32: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala This book is just so topical, Seemita - now is the really the time to read it.
I've read two more books on the dilemmas of 'exile' since reading this one, Exit West and The Namesake, and I'm convinced that Us & Them is the most thought provoking and worthwhile of the three.


message 33: by Seemita (new)

Seemita Fionnuala wrote: "and I'm convinced that Us & Them is the most thought provoking and worthwhile of the three..."

Taken note, Fio. Thanks.


message 34: by Adina (new)

Adina Interesting review. I've never read anything about a Persian writer. I might choose this novel to be my first experience.


message 35: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala One of the great things about this book for those of us who can't read Persian but who can read English is that we get to experience Persian voices first hand, Adina. There is no translator acting as our go-between here; the metaphors are first-hand.
I read a book by a Persian author called Shahrnush Parsipur a few years ago, and while I enjoyed it, I was curious about the metaphors used in it. They were unclear at times, and though I enjoyed the book, I had to wonder how far what I was reading was from the original text. It was one of those times I was really frustrated at having to read a translation.


message 36: by notgettingenough (last edited Jun 20, 2017 07:46AM) (new) - added it

notgettingenough I must read this - we are living in a world where what is happening to language is critical to understanding that world. I supposed that's always true, but doesn't it seem even more so now? She puts it perfectly in 'From The Language of Nowhere' to which you link:

'How did we get here and where in the world are we? What kind of international diplomacy depends on tweets? And which self-respecting language would allow the term “misspoke” to serve as a substitute for factual misinformation, calculated misrepresentation, at best a blatant mistake? Even The Guardian now tells us that a person can “walk back” from a statement, as if you can approach or leave words behind you, as if they were static objects you could step over, like stones, and didn’t follow at your heels like hell hounds, and didn’t haunt your dreams, like the Eumenides.'


message 37: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala notgettingenough wrote: "I must read this - we are living in a world where what is happening to language is critical to understanding that world. I supposed that's always true, but doesn't it seem even more so now? She puts it perfectly..."

Oh, please do read this book, not, and then write about it.
As you've pointed out, Nakhjavání's opinions are at once hugely intelligent and remarkably sane, and the world rarely needed intelligent and sane voices as badly as it does right now.


message 38: by Renata (new)

Renata Your review captivated me from its opening lines! Rare are the times I have been compelled to immediately turn the book over and begin again and those books are pure magic taking up residence in my spirit forever more. Beautifully written review! I'm looking forward to reading this exploration of Us Them and We!
Thank you for the links . As someone who carried s green alien card for quite a few years, I truly related to her comments.


message 39: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Renata wrote: "...Thank you for the links . As someone who carried s green alien card for quite a few years, I truly related to her comments."

If you like Nakhjavání's blogposts, you'll love the book, Renata. There's the same quality to the writing with the added benefit of a story and characters we can really relate to.


message 40: by Adina (new)

Adina Fionnuala wrote: "One of the great things about this book for those of us who can't read Persian but who can read English is that we get to experience Persian voices first hand, Adina. There is no translator acting ..." That is indeed an important aspect. Translations can change elements from a novel and alter its overall character.


message 41: by Fionnuala (last edited Jun 28, 2017 03:48AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Adina wrote: "That is indeed an important aspect. Translations can change elements from a novel and alter its overall character..."

Unfortunately for us readers of world literature, that is true, Adina, but how grateful we are for translators all the same.


message 42: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Here's a very topical interview with the author of Us & Them posted in the EuropeNow blog of the Council for European Studies (CES):
http://www.europenowjournal.org/2017/...


message 43: by Jan (new) - added it

Jan Rice Thank you for your review, Fionnuala. Somehow it brought tears to my eyes although I'm not sure why. When I looked at the big photo accompanying the EuropeNow review, I felt like I knew her!


message 44: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala I'm certain Jan, that your tears were inspired by your intuition that behind the satire in this book, behind all the humour, there is the real 'fact' of the displaced lives of millions of 'corridor' people from every corner of the world. This is a theme shared with Mohsin Hamid's Exit West which I read right after this book. It was interesting to see how the two authors treated the same theme. I have to say that Hamid's 'corridor' people seemed much less real to me than Nakhjavání's.


message 45: by Violet (new)

Violet wells Never heard of this. Interesting the complimentary comparisons you make with Exit West because so far I'm finding Hamid's novel puzzling rather than inspired.


message 46: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala The reason you may not have heard of this book, Violet, is one you know well, and it is the same as the reason that explains why you are reading Hamid's book at the moment: the vagaries of the publishing world. One writer is picked out for attention for some reason, another of equal or even greater talent is not. So the lucky one gets reviews in the big literary publications, front of house placement in the big book chains right across the world, and the sales just continue to accumulate. Whatever they write in the future has a guaranteed audience - and publishers just love that 'no risk' factor.
I'm repeating myself a little here - we had this discussion recently re Jhumpa Lahiri - who incidentally writes about similar themes. She's one of the lucky ones though. She managed to capture the attention of the publishing world - and as a result she can publish anything she writes - even a book about book covers!


message 47: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Fionnuala, I loved this excellent review when you first published it; however after reading Refuge recently, I am reminded again of how important thoughtful, well-written reviews may be in bringing great novels with small marketing budgets to the attention of readers. Off to buy a copy of this novel.


message 48: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Carol wrote: "...I am reminded again of how important thoughtful, well-written reviews may be in bringing great novels with small marketing budgets to the attention of readers..."

I wish your aspiration could be realised, Carol! I wish our reviews could make a difference to small budget author's book sales in this age of big budget author dominance.
We can at least keep trying!


message 49: by Pradnya (new) - added it

Pradnya K. Never heard of the author or book before but your words are compelling enough. Added. This is my favorite topic. I always wonder immigration as a plant uprooted and planted somewhere else. It's fascinating to know how it grows further or dies in absence of enough warmth. I see there's a theme based reading, Fio. Wonderful concept. Thanks, especially for the author's link.


message 50: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Yes, Pradyna, I chose to read The Namesake and Exit West right after Us & Them in order to get different fictional perspectives on the issue of emigration and exile. Of the three, this was by far the most satisfying investigation of the issues - and the most enjoyable to read from the point of the writing and characterization. A winner all round.


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