What We Owe, Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde’s second novel, but her first to be published in the United States, is a short, devastating novel, that, in its slim 200 pages, covers pretty much everything. “It’s about the closest relationships you have, and about facing death, and about birth,” she says, by phone from a café in Stockholm. “The basics.”
And who can’t relate to that? “Even if I didn’t have a personal relationship to the themes, they’re very close to anyone’s emotions,” says Bonde. But she does have a personal relationship. With What We Owe, Bonde is trying understand her own parents.
The story is simple, on the surface: At 50, Nahid, who fled the Iranian revolution for Sweden, is dying. Late-stage ovarian cancer. According to the doctors, she has six months left. Her adult daughter will be an orphan then: Nahid’s ex-husband, Masood, also died recently, although for him it was sudden. “Our time was always borrowed,” she thinks. “We weren’t supposed to be alive. We should have died in the revolution. In its aftermath. In the war.” The decades since then have been a bonus, something to be grateful for. “Yes, that’s one way to see it.”
The story is not so different from Bonde’s parents’ own lives. They also were revolutionaries in Iran; when Bonde was little, they also relocated the family to Sweden. And like Nahid and Masood, they also died young. Before her first book—a coming-of-age story—was published, her father died suddenly. “And then just a few weeks after, we found out my mother had Stage 4 cancer and was dying as well.” Right after that, a close friend’s father with a similar background also died in his 50s, without warning. “It made me think a lot about that generation,” Bonde says. “I’m very interested in how trauma affects you physically, how these political hardships end up stuck in your body.”
A mentor of hers had mentioned that immigrants die in their 50s, “almost as if it was something everyone knew,” Bonde recalls. “He’d just seen this happen so many times,” And she was interested, too, in how trauma travels between generations. “How much of it can we save ourselves from, and how much do we have to endure?” It was a pressing question: Months before her mother died, she’d become a mother herself.
But if What We Owe started as a tangle of ideas, it became a novel the moment Bonde heard Nahid’s voice. “People don’t leave because they’ve given up,” it said. “People leave to create something better.” Bonde saw her clearly: “This person who tries so hard and wanted so much, and eventually felt that she didn’t get any of the things she had aspired for. And she wasn’t really sad about it as much as she was angry.” She is ruthlessly honest and often cruel, and this cruelty makes her all the more human. It could be a sentimental book, this novel about a dying woman refugee. It isn’t.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Is this a book about your mother?’ And it’s not really,” Bonde says. “It’s not a portrait of her, but it’s a way of trying to understand her.” It is not a coincidence that Nahid’s daughter, in the book, is exactly the age Bonde was, when her mother fell ill.
“I think my parents’ deaths really just made me feel very thankful for the life that they had given me at such a high cost,” Bond says. Writing the book only deepened that gratitude. “When we were editing, every time I read it, I would just cry,” she recalls. “It took me like 10 readings before I could do it without crying. It wasn’t crying in a bad way. It was crying in a reconciling way.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.