Little Khosrou’s life in Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city, is upended when his mother abruptly and publicly converts to Christianity, prompting his parents’ divorce and sending Khosrou, his older sister, and their mother to Abu Dhabi, then an Italian refugee camp, and, finally, Edmonds, Oklahoma. In Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) (Levine Querido, Aug. 25), 12-year-old Khosrou, now Daniel, becomes a modern-day Scheherazade, weaving Persian legend, his family’s history, and his own imperfect memory into an intricately layered, gorgeous work. It is not author Daniel Nayeri’s memoir, but it is his story, and he talked about crafting it via Zoom from Nashville while on a family vacation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This book started out as a nonfiction essay for adults. How did you tame the story for a kid audience?
I was very worried when I pivoted to make sure I didn’t unduly burden the child [reader]. The adult version was much more violent, but interestingly, it was also a bit removed. I’m not that sort of raw nerve that a 12-year-old is. So the adult version was actually fairly clinical, and yet the content was much more alarming. [When] you put it into the space of the child who is experiencing it [but] isn’t equipped to process it, you’re given two things. One is a whole lot more emotional honesty. The other thing was that the violence and the difficult topics were kept at the level of what [12-year-old Khosrou] was able to handle.
The way Khosrou keeps alluding to the abuse your mother experiences at the hands of your stepfather, Ray, drives it home in a way a graphic scene might not.
I actually thought a lot about that. What I wanted to jump to was the moment that you see in children—they’re trying to address [trauma] in some way over and over again, like, Why did this happen? Do I have to hit him? The constant repetition is Khosrou trying to understand his place [in the] conflict. I actually think the last scene [when Ray breaks Khosrou’s mom’s jaw] is very difficult. I hope the reader is equipped [for it] by then.
And then there’s the aftermath. Your mom, your fabulous, unstoppable heroic mom, just doing what needs to be done, yet again.
I had been wanting to write [this] story since I was 10. It’s the reason I became a writer. It’s very much the thing I always wanted to build for my mom; I always wanted to tell people what I had seen: this extraordinary amount of heroism that you [would] never guess if you look at her.
How did you come to the way that you interleaved the Persian legends with the family legends with your own legend-making?
We went to Oklahoma and I was 8 or 9, [and I’d have to] explain, what [were we] doing there? The arc is really clear. My mother and father have a good life in Isfahan. We go to England, [where] inciting incidents occur in which my mother comes out as a convert. She goes back [and] runs afoul of the secret police. We have to escape. There is a really important second-act drop where my father chooses to stay. And [it becomes an] escape narrative. Boom, you’ve got Abu Dhabi and you have outside of Rome. And then you have a home.
And [Khosrou’s] telling all of that in Oklahoma, right? When I would tell that story, I would always begin with, well, my mom converted to Christianity, right? And people go, OK, so…? And I’d say, let me go back and tell you a little bit about the history of Iran in the seventh century. And also, let me go back and give you a sense of our lives there. I said to myself, in order to fully comprehend this point, what are all the pieces of information you would need to have?
The structural metaphor for me became an accordion. I’m here. And I’m going to stretch the bounds of your interest as far out as I can by saying, OK, in order to understand Isfahan, you have to understand this, and you go back, and back and back, and finally, you’ve got to compress back into this point and take [your audience] forward. At each node, we’re going to go all the way out to the moment of myth, the moment where history dilutes into [what] we don’t actually know. And not only do we not know, but it’s impossible to know. [Khosrou’s] very, very worried when he gets furthest out [that] you’re bored, like he’ll check in with you and say, are you still listening? And so you’re watching him struggle with the structure of the book itself. But he has to do it because he refuses [to let you] say, yeah, just give it to me quickly. He wants to be understood. He’s begging for it. [He says we] have this rare opportunity, I’m going to “sit in the parlor of your mind,” give you all the context. Just don’t get bored. Some of it’s boring, because some context is boring. Look, it just is. But if you have all of it, then you’ll understand the magnitude of my mother.
I expected to be moved, but I did not expect to find myself laughing out loud.
I will tell you the biggest, most chest-wracking laughs I have ever had in my life were in those moments, where something horrible has happened and someone will have the wherewithal to have a bit of gallows humor when you need it desperately. The curative properties of laughter are never more obvious than when you’re all standing there and a great deal of damage has just happened. It’s like a human repair mechanism.
What have I not asked you that you are dying to tell me?
I think a lot about the fact that for a very brief window of time I have been given the opportunity to speak to people who have these big platforms and to say something. I beg anybody who [is] listening to remove, for just the slightest of moments, the geopolitical ramifications of any political stance on refugees and only imagine them as guests, only imagine themselves as hosts, and understand that we are commanded, no matter which religion we are, commanded as hosts and as guests to pay attention to our obligations. It is not in the American scheme of politics to say that: Of the host is demanded a welcome. That implies an extreme left position in the American understanding of it, but that [misunderstands] the second part of this obligation, which is the guest is obligated to retain and to properly bolster that welcome for the people after that. So the guest is not without responsibility, and having been the guest, I think about that responsibility a lot: How [can I] help leave that door open for one more person?
Vicky Smith is a young readers’ editor.