By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, November 15, 2021 — Award-winning novelist Dina Nayeri will speak about her non-fiction book, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You” (Catapult, 2019) at UCLA on Monday, November 22, 2021 at 9:30 a.m. The book grew out of the author’s celebrated 2017 article in The Guardian.
The virtual event will feature a discussion between Nayeri and UCLA’s Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi, assistant professor of Asian American studies and an expert on Vietnamese refugee resettlement; registration is required. Jointly organized by the International Institute and the Asian American studies department, the discussion is cosponsored by an additional 11 UCLA units.
The lecture is part of the International Institute’s Global Racial Justice Series 2021–22, which builds on last year’s popular Black Lives Matter: Global Perspective Series.
“Last year, we were responding to the urgency of the political moment and trying to connect the conversations happening on campus with what social movements were doing worldwide,” said Jennifer Jihye Chun, a sociologist with a joint appointment in the Asian American studies department and the International Institute.
“One thing we sought to do this year is to feature more crossover speakers in conversation with academics,” she added. “BLM is now facing a sustained backlash and the Institute faculty organizing the series felt it was important to keep alive the conversation about systemic racism in a global context.”
As they did last year, International Institute faculty will be incorporating the webinars into their global studies and international development studies courses.
Critical refugee studies
Author of the forthcoming “Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers and Decolonization across Guam and Israel-Palestine” (UC Press, 2022), Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi joined UCLA in 2019 and has been teaching a “Critical Refugee Studies” course in the Asian American studies department for the last three years.
The course delves into the history of Jewish refugees, which informs many theoretical and philosophical works, then considers the history of refugees from Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laos) and contemporary refugee migrations. This fall, Nayeri’s memoir is part of the course curriculum.
“The field of critical refugee studies is interested in centering refugee voices and refugee stories and their outlook on the world — what we call ‘refugee epistemologies,’” said Gandhi.
“Rather than only think about refugees as objects of humanitarian aid or victims of displacement, the field broadly focuses on refugee agency and what we can learn from refugees. And part of that is to unpack the geopolitical causes of refugee displacement.
“Students are very interested in that longer context. Many of them come to this class because their families have refugee backgrounds. I also have a personal connection to this research and to the class: my mom and grandmother were refugees from Vietnam who left in 1975.
“My students’ personal connections to the topic also serve to connect to them to more contemporary refugee displacements,” adds the Asian American studies professor.
Expecting refugees to be “grateful”: A critique
Gandhi, who is teaching Nayeri’s memoir as part of her Critical Refugee Studies class this fall, was instrumental in arranging the author’s lecture at UCLA.
“There are three things that make the book really interesting and led me to teach it in my class. First, Dina does a good job connecting her own refugee experience in the 1980s to more contemporary refugee migrations. She also interweaves her experiences of coming to the U.S. and studying abroad with her contemporary refugee advocacy, such as her visits to refugee camps in Greece,” said the professor.
“I really appreciate that she focuses on the question of refugee dignity,” continued Gandhi. “That is, she thinks in terms of not only giving refugees basic sustenance, such as food and shelter — which are, of, course necessary — but also of preserving their sense of dignity.
“Second, because Dina is a writer, she is attuned to how the asylum process constructs a state-legitimized refugee narrative. She’s interested in how asylum seekers have to tell a particular narrative about fear of persecution in a particular way for it to be considered legitimate in the nation state in which they are seeking resettlement.
“The third thing that I consider very interesting is the book’s title: ‘The Ungrateful Refugee.’ In the field of critical refugee studies, there’s a lot of discussion about how refugees are asked to ‘perform’ gratitude.
“I think that many refugees are genuinely grateful for resettlement in their nations of asylum. But Dina critiques the forced imperative of gratitude as the only legitimate response that refugees are allowed to express.
“Thinking about ingratitude is a way to open up ongoing critiques of discrimination, such as scarce resources or a continual exclusion of other asylum seekers even after a refugee receives legal asylum or legal citizenship,” said Gandhi.
Join us for a fascinating discussion next Monday, November 22.
Note: The November 22 event with Dina Nayeri was originally scheduled during International Education Week 2021, but was rescheduled in solidarity with the UC-AFT strike on November 17-18. The event organizers strongly support the rights and dignity of lecturers fighting for fair bargaining and a just workplace, and decided together not to cross the picket line.
This article was originally published on November 15, 2021, and updated on November 16.
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