A compressed, visceral novel about exile, dislocation, and the emotional minefields between mothers and daughters.
A gut punch of a novel that asks us to consider: what do we pass on to our children? What do we owe those we love? And without roots, can you ever truly be free?
Nahid has six months left to live. Or so the doctors say. At fifty, she is no stranger to loss. But now, as she stands on the precipice of her own death—just as she has learned that her daughter Aram is pregnant with her first child—Nahid is filled with both new fury and long dormant rage. Her life back home in Iran, and living as a refugee in Sweden, has been about survival at any cost. How to actually live, she doesn’t know; she has never had the ability or opportunity to learn.
Here is an extraordinary story of exile, dislocation, and the emotional minefields between mothers and daughters; a story of love, guilt and dreams for a better future, vibrating with both sorrow and an unquenchable joie de vivre. With its startling honesty, dark wit, and irresistible momentum, What We Owe introduces a fierce and necessary new voice in international fiction.
I’ve always carried my death with me. perhaps saying so is trite, an observation the dying always make. But I’m not like other people, in this as in everything else, or so I like to believe. And I do believe it, truly. I said as much when Masood died. Our time was always borrowed. We weren’t supposed to be alive. We should have died in the revolution. In its aftermath. In the war. But I was given thirty more years. More than half my life. It’s a considerable length of time, something to be grateful for. The same length as my daughter’s life. Yes, that’s one way to see it. I was allowed to create her. But she didn’t need me this long. No one did. You think because you’re a parent, you’re needed. It’s not true. People find a way to get by. Who says I was worth more than the trouble I caused? I don’t believe it. I’m not the type who gives more than I take. I should be. I’m a mother after all. It’s my job to bear the weight, bear it for others. But I never have, not for anyone.
“You have at most six months left to live,” the fucking witch says to me. She says it like she’s delivering some trivial, but unfortunate news. In the same tone of voice the daycare teacher used to tell me that someone hit Aram. A little bit sad. A little bit guilty. And the witch doesn’t even look at me while she says it, just stares into her computer screen. As if that contains the truth. As if the screen were the one being harmed. Then the tears start running down her cheeks, and she stares down at her lap. Now she’s the victim. She needs comfort.
Shut up! I want to scream. Who are you to tell me I’m going to die. Who are you to weep, as if my life has anything to do with you. But I don’t scream. Not this time. I surprise myself.
“I want to speak to your supervisor,” I say instead.
She seems taken aback. Probably thinks that was the wrong reaction. Thinks I should be weeping, too.
“I know this is hard . . . hard to hear. But it doesn’t matter who you talk to,” she says. “The CT scan, the test results. They’re indisputable. You have cancer. And it’s . . . it’s quite advanced.”
She falls silent and looks at me. Waiting for my face to confirm that I understand. But it doesn’t, so she continues.
“It’s stage four. Cancer. That means you don’t have much time.”
“Shut up!” Now I do say it. “I’m a nurse. I’ve worked in health care for twenty-five years. I know you’re not allowed to say that to me. You have no idea how long I have left. You’re not God!”
She backs up in her chair, upset. She must be in her thirties, with her hair held high in two childish pigtails. A photo of a baby stands on her desktop. I shake my head. She has no clue what she knows or doesn’t know.
We sit in silence, until she wipes her tears onto her sleeve and leaves. I sit frozen for a moment then reach for my purse and take out my phone. I should call someone. I should call my daughter. Say: Hello, my cursed little crow. Now your mother is going to die, too.
Damn. I try to write a text message to Zahra instead. But I erase it. What do you say? Hello friend, so much struggle, and now it’s over. I can’t.
I hear two voices approaching, the doctor and her supervisor. They stop outside the door. Whispering. It’s obvious they don’t face death often here at this GP clinic. They’re discussing who should go inside and talk to me. I understand. They want to get on with their day. Move on to the next patient. Not fall behind. The last thing they want to do is take shit from some dying woman. I consider my options. Should I just pack up and go? Spare them. Spare myself. I grab my coat. It’s red. I reach for my purse. Also red. I look down at my boots. Red. All the banalities I care about. Cared. My hands start to shake, then my shoulders. I drop my purse onto the floor. Trying to hold back the sob rising in my body. At that very moment, they open the door. Step inside. Look at me. I see how they’d like to turn and go. I don’t want to scare them. I try to smile. But it washes over me.
“The arrival, in translation, of a Swedish-Iranian novelist is a welcome chance to cross the bridge into another version of Scandinavia…’What We Owe’, the second novel by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, an economist and social entrepreneur, is above all a family story. It knots the experiences of three generations of women into a taut and moving account of grief, a legacy handed down from mother to daughter…[and] refuses sentimental consolations…Terse, urgent prose—ably channelled by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, the translator—gives pace and heft to a novel of contagious trauma.”—The Economist
“Life is juxtaposed with death, resistance and revolution and rebirth are woven throughout the pages, and what it means to be a wife, daughter, sister, mother, and woman are unflinchingly examined in this book. This book is a powerhouse.” —Book Riot
“A haunting and emotional tale of survival, of what it means to be a refugee.” —The Literary Review
"Spare and devastating...Translated—gorgeously and simply—by Wessel, Nahid's sentences are short and thrillingly brutal, and the result is exhilarating. Hashemzadeh Bonde, unafraid of ugliness and seemingly unconcerned with likability, has produced a startling meditation on death, national identity, and motherhood. Always arresting, never sentimental; gut-wrenching, though not without hope."
—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED
"I read this ferocious novel in one sitting, enthralled by the rage of its narrator. Nahid confronts her own suffering with dark humor and noisy honesty, while taking aim at a patriarchal tradition that expects her to be silent."
—Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
"What We Owe is not only a riveting chronicle of immigration and loss but an unsparing interrogation of history itself, both personal and political. For the dying 50-year-old Nahid, her past in revolutionary Iran and her exiled present in Sweden collide into an ongoing, at times unendurable battle for now. By turns brutal, regretful, heartbreaking, and cautiously hopeful, this novel is an instant classic."
—Cristina García, author of Here in Berlin
"The unusually distilled voice of this potent novel is urgently, unforgettably true. It hit me right in the gut and left me bereft in the most beautiful way."
—Elisa Albert, author of After Birth
Swedish Praise for WHAT WE OWE:
“Crystal clear storytelling…Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde’s style may be economical with short staccato sentences—often no longer than five or six words—but it contains both an eye for details and, in a remarkable way, beautiful song. This song, in both Nahid’s story and in Hashemzadeh Bonde’s way of writing it, is central. What We Owe is something very unusual: both emotional and precise, and Nahid’s painful honestly, grief, joy, love, and fury, so evocative. The kind of novel that becomes a primer for life, one that is important to read before it is too late.”—Dagens Nyheter (Sweden)
“While navigating themes like illness and impending death that are rife with the potential of misstep, [Hashemzadeh Bonde] succeeds in creating a completely unsentimental story and is faithful to Nahid’s voice to such a degree that I forgot that there was a writer behind it. I got to know a person so deeply, in a way I have not before, and catch myself wanting to agree with Nahid. To say the world ought to have treated her better, that life ought to have been better. But I have gotten to know her so well that I also know that she would push my embrace away with a sneer. No matter, Nahid is indispensable to Swedish literature’s cast of characters, and I am deeply grateful that Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde has given her to us.”—Expressen
“What’s most impressive about this novel is Hashemzadeh Bonde’s ability to portray tensions on different levels, and how they are all connected to each other. It is the complicated relationship between Nahid and her daughter—of the same blood but with so very different social experiences. It is the individual against structure—illustrated by Nahid’s memory of her sister Maryam in Iran: ‘beautiful, proud, strong. Everything a woman can’t be, not even in Sweden, without getting shit for it.’ And it’s a struggle and achievement against coincidence—or structure, again. What We Owe is a page-turner that raises existentially universal issues while at the same time contributing additional vital pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that is the world and Sweden of today.”—Kulturnytt, Sveriges Radio
“The style is effortless and matter-of-fact, and the author has a way of giving each sentence heat and weight…Literature has a habit of simplifying lives to ‘stories’. In many such stories I’ve read, dying people are full of gratitude over the years and experiences they’ve been given here on earth. Nahid is not grateful. She is full of bitterness and rage. Justified rage, I think, against Khomeini and the Islamic dictatorship in Iran, against her father’s illness and her own, against the husband she loved but who hit and kicked her when she wasn’t being submissive enough. Rage and bitterness are often considered harmful and consuming, especially to women. Nahid draws her strength from her rage. She burns. Until the very last breath.”—Aftonbladet
“Hashemzadeh Bonde succeeds extremely well in capturing the nuances in the emotional mixture of anger, clarity, darkness, and grief that is implacability, and a large part of the telling lies in the style. Short, explosive sentences reveal a character who neither has time nor can afford anything but telling the truth.”—Göteborgs-Posten
“A breathtaking journey through Iran of the past and Sweden of today. With characters that aren’t always easy to like but who are impossible to let go of, [Hashemzadeh Bonde] asks relevant, difficult questions and leaves the reader rattled. Worthy of big applause.”—Fönstret
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