A lyrical French novel shows that the pain of exile is akin to bereavement

Image: AP images/Muhammed Muheisen
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In a scene from the 1962 film James Bond film Dr. No, Sean Connery sits and pretends to drive an unmoving car. Using the money-saving cinematic technique known as “rear projection,” the screen behind him makes it look as if he’s in the midst of a dangerous car chase. The trickery in the scene takes on new meaning in Negar Djavadi’s breakout novel Disoriental, in which the immobile car chase serves as an unusual, but apt metaphor for the experiences of refugees.

Once refugees reach a safe country, they are forced to finally reckon with their exile. Most cannot return to their homeland; either they are political exiles, or their homes and neighborhoods have been obliterated. Yet they cannot truly leave their native countries behind. Memories of their homeland flicker through their minds, making it hard to stay in the present. Thinking about and reliving the memories of the past “makes her think she’s moving, even though she’s not,” Djavadi writes of one character.

The novel, first published in French in 2016, was translated into English by Tina Kover and will be released this month by the American publisher Europa Editions. The novel is narrated by a young girl called Kimiâ Sadr. Kimiâ fled Iran in the middle of the night at the age of 10 with her family to seek asylum in France in 1981. Now 25, Kimiâ is forced to piece together what she remembers of her home, the events that led to her family’s expulsion from Iran, and her family’s struggle to find a new normal in France.

Disoriental pinpoints an often-unacknowledged aspect of the refugee experience: The particular form of bereavement experienced by refugees. The Sadrs, a family of intellectuals who opposed to the regimes both of the Shah, then of Khomeini, grieve for their lost love ones. But they also grieve for the political debates they had in cafes, the bonds they built with their neighbors, and the courtyard that their children played in. They long for a time and place to which they will never be able to return. “That’s the tragedy of exile. Things, as well as people, still exist, but you have to pretend to think of them as dead,” Djavadi writes.

Image for article titled A lyrical French novel shows that the pain of exile is akin to bereavement
Image: Europa Editions

Djavadi isn’t the first to make the connection between bereavement and exile. Researchers use the term “cultural bereavement” to describe the psychological distress that refugees experience from the sudden loss of their home countries’ social structure and culture. In his 1991 paper on the topic, Maurice Eisenbruch, a psychology professor at Monash University in Australia, defines cultural bereavement as “the experience of the uprooted person—or group—resulting from loss of social structures, cultural values and self-identity: the person—or group—continues to live in the past.”

For some refugees, research suggests that this sense of displacement and loss can be just as debilitating as the experience of war and persecution. One 2016 paper, written by psychologists Ken Miller and Andrew Rasmussen, advocates for a new model of understanding refugees’ mental health issues. In contrast to previous research, which focused on pre-war trauma to understand refugees’ distress, Miller and Rasmussen propose a model that incorporates the psychological impact of displacement—from social isolation in a new country to inadequate housing, poverty, discrimination, and uncertainty regarding asylum status.

Indeed, in a 2007 paper on mental health issues among Somali immigrants in the US, one woman says that she found dodging bullets and bombs in her war-torn country less stressful, and more predictable, than American life. In the US, she says, she must deal with a range of stressors including a barrage of letters from social services, living in unfit housing under the threat of eviction, learning English, and trying to understand how the school system worked.

The Sadrs are better off than many refugee families. They already spoke French when they fled Iran, and were familiar with the French political system and culture. Still, the family of five is crammed into a woefully overcrowded apartment in Paris, and suffers from deep social isolation. The father walks alone for five or six hours every day in the middle of the day. The mother rarely travels beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood, while their children are gripped by anxiety and depression.

Through the Sadrs, Disoriental contests the myth that refugees’ trauma ends when they find safety for themselves and their family. Kimiâ’s mother “would stop right in the middle of the street, lost, her brain teeming with disturbing questions,” the novel explains. “Was she really in Paris? Why didn’t she go home? Where was her home?” For this character, like so many refugees, it is impossible to be present in her new life without first coming to terms with her past. Djavadi’s important, moving tale spans generations and thousands of miles in order to put that struggle front and center.