Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In the Persian classic One Thousand and One Nights, the doomed bride Scheherezade tells story after story each night to hold the interest of her husband the king, and prevent him from killing her at dawn. If she can make it until dawn alive, she lives another day. Her stories keep her alive, and every morning, there is hope.
Persian-American author Daniel Nayeri has been a storyteller for a long time—long before he wrote his now acclaimed memoir Everything Sad Is Untrue—and when he was a child, he told stories, like Scheherezade, to his class in Oklahoma. In a way, his stories also kept him alive through long darkness to the hope of dawn, and you can read them if you pick up a copy of his book.
I hope you do. Everything Sad is Untrue will be unlike anything you’ve ever read, but it will also be very much like all the best things you’ve ever read, and that’s part of what makes it so good. Familiar and unfamiliar, as most true stories are: familiar because they tell the truth, and unfamiliar because each storyteller is unique. Everyone has a story to tell—Daniel Nayeri might say that everyone has a thousand and one stories to tell—but not all stories are beautiful or true. Not all stories are good.
This is, however, a good story. Everything Sad Is Untrue is the autobiography of Daniel—born Khosrou—Nayeri. In it, he tells us of his youth, alternating between scenes in Iran, Oklahoma, and several other places he lived. I’ve called it a single story, but really it is like a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights; it is a thousand and one stories woven together in a tapestry, a Persian rug, of beauty. There are demons and heroes, sacrifices and daring escapes, true love and love lost. Young Daniel struggles to see his stories as a beautiful rug, though, speaking them as a refugee to a classroom filled with people both like and unlike himself. “The shame of a refugee is that we have to constantly explain ourselves,” he writes. In contrast, “Scheherezade was telling her stories to a king in the language they both spoke as babies.”
But the truth is always one language.
Because Nayeri speaks in the narrative voice of his younger self, you’ll find Everything Sad Is Untrue in the Middle Grade or Young Reader section of your bookstore. This doesn’t mean, however, that it is a children’s book, and I don’t think Nayeri intends it to be read as such. Or at least not exclusively so.
I read it as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which no one would consider only a children’s book. But To Kill a Mockingbird is more powerful because the narrator is young. For example, the heroism of Atticus Finch is made more pure because we see Atticus through the eyes of Scout, his young daughter. In the same way, in Everything Sad Is Untrue, Daniel presents his mother, Sima, as an unstoppable, heroic force. Sometimes people are more able to accept truth as truth, beauty as beauty, and goodness as goodness when these things are distilled through the eyes and ears—through the experiences—of a child.
Likewise, horror is more horrifying when a child recalls it. And many of the experiences Daniel and his family undergo are horrifying. Children lack artifice; they are honest about such things where adults often stay silent. A child who is a narrator doesn’t know when they should hold back. And we also forgive young Daniel Nayeri for telling us what might otherwise be an unforgivably high number of poop stories. We digest the humor with the horror with the beauty with the truth. We accept that he sat on his roof and ate a tornado.
There is an element of the fantastic in Daniel’s stories, and it doesn’t matter; this is the nature of narrative, creative nonfiction—it doesn’t make his story any less true. And, of course, we should remember that Everything Sad Is Untrue is indeed creative nonfiction. Nayeri is not actually a child narrator; he’s an adult, writing as if he were his young self, pouring his memories out onto the page. Nayeri crafts his tale with great care to show what his memories are, and sometimes also what they could have been. With the wisdom of age, looking back on his past, he weaves his memories—both reliable and unreliable—together to show the reader that there is a true story that runs through his story. In many ways, his story just crosses over it again and again. He invites us to wrestle with it, and to come to the conclusion that maybe, in the end, everything sad about his story will come untrue because his truth isn’t the ultimate truth he wants us to see.
He points us to this ultimate true story with rivers of blood. That seems pretty intense for a book written for young people, doesn’t it? But I wouldn’t let that deter you from giving this book to your young reader. There are rivers of blood that run through Nayeri’s memoir—blood that he has to step over time and again to understand that one day, he’ll be whole again. And not just whole, but filled with joy. The blood runs into a drain in the ground of his Baba Haji’s courtyard, into a grate in the floor of a room used to torture his mother, through the unforgiving earth of Oklahoma, out of the throat of the innocent Mr. Sheep Sheep, out of a Savior who changed the course of his entire life. Nayeri invites us, the readers, to step over this river with him. It’s a free invitation, but also a costly one. It’s a river that confronts us with a question as it also confronted him: What is true?
Nayeri tells us that Scheherezade understood the only way, ultimately, to save her life was to make the king “human again. She made him love life by showing him all of it, the funny parts about poop, the dangerous parts with demons, even the boring parts about what makes marriages last.” When he told stories to his classmates, in many ways young Daniel was doing the same thing: restoring humanity, and offering life itself, to a room full of kids unwilling to see him as someone worthy of love or of life with them. He survived to tell a much larger audience his thousand and one stories, and if you read Everything Sad Is Untrue, I hope you ponder the ways in which this modern “Scheherezade” is trying to convince you to live again too.