The Book That Made Me a Reader

The Book That Made Me a Reader

Dina Nayeri on Behrangi, Golding, and Ishiguro

The author of the new novel Refuge reflects on three books that inspired her to become a reader and a writer. 

I’ve become a reader three times. The first time, I was barely six and lived in Iran, under the Islamic Republic. My mother had a book called The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi with illustrations by Farshid Mesghali, a children’s story with a political subtext that I didn’t understand at the time. The book was banned in pre-revolutionary Iran because of that underlying message, and I think that’s part of the reason my mother had it. It was a book for brave people, for people with dreams and a voice. But all I knew was that it was the tale of the adventurous fish that refused to stay in one place, and I loved it. After that, for years I read voraciously, devouring storybooks and textbooks and picture books on history and animals and the solar system. But then school took over and we escaped the country and I had a new language to learn. Recreational reading got pushed aside in favor of more practical pastimes.


In my high school in Oklahoma, I read all the usual things. The canon. I was a budding feminist (though I didn’t know it), and so I read famous works by women, but I was never overcome by a story until I picked up Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I see now that it wasn’t the message or the prose or characters that got me. It was the anarchy, the slow abandon to evil, the breadth of human depravity. People could get so ugly and my teenage mind was fascinated. I was discovering symbolism for the first time. I read somewhere that “lord of the flies” was a translation of the word Beelzebub and that the pig’s head on a stick represented that. It blew my mind. The second time Jack said, “sharpen a stick at both ends,” I jumped out of my bed. “HOLY CRAP!” I said aloud to the empty room. “He’s gonna do it to Ralph!” My heart was pounding so hard, I had to get a glass of water before I could read on. My copy of that book has a dozen notes on every page. Its spine is broken and pages folded. It was the dirtiest, wickedest thing I had ever read and I couldn’t get enough. But, over the years, college applications and finals and sports dulled the delight I had found, and again books got pushed to the wayside. I studied economics. I joined a swanky corporation in New York City.


The third time I became a reader was in business school. I was twenty-six and thinking about moral dilemmas. I took a class called The Moral Leader in which we read literature as a way into the ethical questions we’d face in our careers. Our discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day centered on whether the butler of a Nazi sympathizer was in any way culpable. I don’t remember how I came down on that question. What I remember is this: I finally noticed the poetry of the words, the subtle voice, the way Ishiguro was changing my mind without ever expressing his own opinion. That semester I decided I didn’t want to be a businesswoman after all, but a writer. I wanted to get into people’s psyches. I wanted to have a voice, to whisper coded rebellion to children, like Behrangi had done, and to quicken the breath, like Golding had done. After that, there were no more sidetracks. I became a writer. I never stopped reading again.







Dina Nayeri was born in the middle of a revolution in Iran and moved to America at ten-years-old. Winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (2015), the O. Henry Prize (2015) and fellowships from the McDowell Colony, Bogliasco Foundation, Yaddo, and several other artist residencies, her work is published in over 20 countries and has been recognized by Granta New Voices, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, and The Center for Fiction (Flaherty Dunnan prize long list). Her stories and essays have been published by New York Times Magazine,  Granta, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vice, LA Review of Books, The Daily Beast, Guernica, Electric Literature, The Southern Review, Marie Claire, Glamour, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, was released in 2013 by Riverhead Books (Penguin) and translated to 14 foreign languages. She holds a BA from Princeton, an M.Ed. and MBA from Harvard, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow and Teaching Writing Fellow. Dina’s second novel, Refuge, was released on July 11, 2017.