What We Owe
Nahid has six months left to live. Or so the doctors say. But Nahid is not the type to trust anyone. She resents the cancer diagnosis she has been given and the doctor who has given it to her. Bubbling inside her is also resentment toward life as it turned out, and the fact that it will go on without her. She feels alone, alone with her illness and alone with her thoughts. She yearns yet fails to connect with her only daughter, Aram. As the rawness of death draws near, Nahid should want to protect Aram from pain. She knows she should. Yet what is a daughter but one born to share in her mother’s pain?
At fifty, Nahid is no stranger to death. As a Marxist revolutionary in eighties Iran, she saw loved ones killed in the street and was forced to flee to Sweden. She and her husband abandoned their roots to build a new life in a new country. They told themselves they did it for their newborn daughter, so she could live free. But now as she stands on the precipice facing death, Nahid understands that what you thought you escaped will never let you go. And without roots, can you ever truly be free?
Nahid tells her story in an unfiltered and completely unsentimental voice that rushes over the reader like a tidal wave. She may not be likeable, but she is instantly captivating. And the forbidden thoughts she voices hit home like a punch to the gut. Vivid flashbacks to revolutionary Iran are interspersed with serene scenes of glittering Swedish summer days. We get to know Nahid as a child, eager and vulnerable, a daughter raised to empowerment in a family with seven sisters. We see her as a teenage idealist, dressed in bellbottoms, her black hair in plaits, with a righteous struggle in her eyes and in her heart. As a mother on foreign soil, who fails over and over again to protect the daughter she loves the most. As a daughter on her deathbed, longing for the mother she betrayed. Then comes the hope of a grandchild, a baby girl who will not only make Nahid immortal, but also serve as payment for what she owes. Now survival becomes a race against time – will Nahid live long enough to meet her grandchild?
Told in a furious exhale, What We Owe is a story as much about uprootal and loss as it is about the powerful yet agonizing bonds between mothers and daughters. Through a style so direct and devastating it is impossible to shield yourself against, Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde asks the difficult questions: What do we pass on to our children? And what do we owe those we love?
“A rare portrayal of one woman’s rancorous pain […] The first sentence is harsh: ‘I’ve always carried my death with me.’ The opening as such, the first page of the novel, is shattering – filled with rage, grief, and guilt. Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde does to the reader what we often claim that novels do, but which they rarely succeed in doing: holds them in a steady grip. […] This is a tale of violence on both an individual as well as a structural level, and a tale of neglect and inability. About loving your child, yet hating your motherhood. And about that tiny, stubborn, flickering hope – the spark of life.”
Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden)
“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 honesty, 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)
“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.”
“While navigating themes like illness and impending death that are rife with the potential of misstep, she 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 give her to us.”
“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 syster Maryam in Iran: ‘beautiful, proud, strong. Everything a woman can’t be, not even in Sweden, without getting shit for it.’. And it’s struggle and achievement against coincidence – or structure, again. What We Owe is a pageturner 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 (SWEDEN)
“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.”
“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.”
“Nahid’s bitterness boils within. I read What We Owe while I, finally, watched the HBO-series Olive Kitteridge, about an equally bristly and tough-to-love person as Nahid. They are both people who do not pose a shiny surface and who dare to openly admit that life is difficult. These sharp-edged characters are difficult for novelists to write, but the pay-off is so much greater when you as a reader make it through their protective shields. Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde is at her best when she depicts the experience of migration. Adjusting to a new society, a new country that needs to be conquered. Nahid and Masood don’t fit into any cliché templates for immigrants. They come off the page as individuals that must conform their new lives after their new circumstances. Fleeing may have saved their lives, their bodies, but fleeing also brings feelings of guilt and alienation.”
“What We Owe is a heartbreaking novel that completely bowled me over. […] I hope this beautiful and important book will be read by many!”
Johanna, och dagarna går, blog (SWEDEN)
“A powerful tale of life and death and relationships and what demands we can place on one another. Nahid isn’t exactly a likable protagonist and that made me, as a reader, constantly think beyond her own observations. I thought a lot about the reasons behind her feelings and actions. It was a fantastic reading experience and I really enjoyed the combination of life in Iran before the revolution and the time in Sweden as a refugee and later on. Hashemzadeh Bonde masters the art of portraying complicated family ties.”
Feministbiblioteket, blog (SWEDEN)