NEA Literature Fellowships

Dina Nayeri

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(2016 - Prose)

from "A Ride out of Phrao"

On the morning she begins her job at the local school, a hot rain soaks the village and she glimpses her neighbors eating a wordless morning meal on the floor. Their window is barely three feet from hers, so that she can examine their food, hear some of their whispers, breathe in the sharp scent of their incense. The rain blurs the lines of their faces and bodies, and their movements become dreamlike. They remind her of her parents, the way they broke fast quietly, always on the floor, and as a teenager she often gave them fifteen minutes before she joined with her cup of tea.

She eats breakfast alone, black tea and purple sticky rice with mango and banana. She adds some coconut milk and mung beans, thinking, how authentic it seems. She has allotted too much time for breakfast, so she peels rambutan and mangoustine, not because she’s hungry, but for the pleasure of peeling. She is enthralled by the strange, sensuous fruits of this country. When you peel a mangoustine, for example, it is impossible to stay clean because there are inner membranes to remove. If you cut it sloppily, you will get a mouthful of the foul along with the sweet. In almost all her favorite fruits, a sticky seam divides the best from the worst. It reminds her of the persimmons of Iran, with their four watery petals tucked inside a bitter stinging jelly, the thin skin between them the difference between an exquisite flavor and a repellant one. Separating the two parts is an art, requiring a steady hand and a tiny spoon.

In early mornings when she misses Iran and the knowledge of a long impending loneliness hits, like a brick suddenly falling into both arms, she forces herself to think of her early years in Cedar Rapids. She was married then—to this man who gifted her with Anderson—for only six months when she was a new immigrant, thirty and lonely and clueless about how to relate to an American husband. Why did he marry me, she wonders, thinking of herself in those days, how hopeless she seemed with her five-year-old daughter and her damaged hair and her ragged tote full of dried fruit and extra underwear in case at any moment she should need to flee the country again. What did he want with such a mess of a woman? After a while, she always dismisses this question and gathers her backpack of Peace Corps essentials. She was very beautiful then—of course.

Dina Nayeri was born in the middle of a revolution in Iran and moved to America at ten years old. Winner of the O. Henry Prize (2015) and fellowships from the McDowell Colony, Bogliasco Foundation, Yaddo, and several other artistic organizations, her work is published in over 20 countries and has been recognized by Granta New Voices, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and The Center for Fiction (Flaherty Dunnan Prize long list)Her stories and essays have been published by Granta, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vice, LA Review of Books, Guernica, Electric Literature, The Southern Review and elsewhere. Her debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead Books, 2013) was translated to 14 languages. She holds a BA from Princeton, an M.Ed. and MBA from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Dina is at work on her second novel.

Photo by Henri Blommers

Author's Statement

In late November, I was sitting in one of the British Library reading rooms, nine months pregnant, when I received an email from the NEA asking for an updated phone number. “Oh my god,” I said to my partner, a fellow writer. “Could this mean…? No, no, I can’t get my hopes up.”

“You’re right, Dina,” he said. “Probably the NEA is calling every applicant to personally reject them. You know, just for laughs…” Then he broke into a big grin and said, “Congratulations!”

Of course, I refused to believe and so we ran downstairs and made the call, jumping up and down (with four security guards staring, probably worried I’d go into labor on their watch) as I gave my details and said thank you a dozen times.

For two days I thought it was a hoax, or some kind of prenatal hallucination.

And so, as I write this, my first instinct is to say that I’m "humbled." But that feels like the wrong word, because I’m so hugely, elatedly, fist-pumpingly proud of this one! And I’m grateful to the NEA and to the judges for their belief in me and for their generosity and support. By granting me this honor, they offer some much needed time to write, but more importantly they make me feel that my voice matters. For that renewed confidence, I’ll always be thankful—not just as a writer, but as a naturalized American, an identity that I’ve been learning to claim with pride (and humility too) since I received it at fifteen. Mostly though, I’m thrilled (and swelling with pride) to be among such an excellent group of grantees, and I’m itching to live up to the judges’ belief in me.