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)

“Wow, take pause: what a book. I almost don’t know how to describe it. On the one hand there’s the plot, and on the other hand there’s the atmosphere, seeping out between the sentences. […] This novel brings us close to what it means and what it feels like to, as a refugee, be ripped apart from your life, and the novel stands so plain and clear and full of nerve. Luckily it also holds a promise of a brighter future, and I think I will begin it over again straight away.”
FEMINA, 6/6 STARS (DENMARK)

“Bonde’s psychological insight is sharp as a knife, and her character portrayals are touchingly striking. This intense and captivating novel is one to devour in a single sitting. It holds an incomparable courage that strikes the reader like a punch to the face – in the best of ways.”
Ilta-Sanomat (Finland)

“In this short yet remarkable novel, Nahid learns she has cancer, and just six months to live. […] Rather than a gentle meditation on a life lived to the full, What We Owe is filled with the rage of a woman who has been through trauma and loss, who has been left haunted by violence, and who wants more from those that love her.”
Stylist (UK)

“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 (SWEDEN)

“Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde has written a powerful and moving novel about existential matters.”
LITTERATURSIDEN (DENMARK)

“The opening sentence is prophetic: ‘I’ve always carried my death with me’, says the protagonist, the fifty year old Nahid in Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde’s novel What We Owe. […] What We Owe is a novel about mothers and daughters, and at the same time it is a portrayal of immigrants, of those who haven’t given up.[…] Bonde has written a novel about a captivating human fate, and its candor is touching. If you can call a novel honest, this one is.”
Kainuun SANOMAT (FINLAND)

“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.”
Expressen (Sweden)

“When [Nahid] finds out that she is terminally ill, she realizes her own will to live. This may sound like a cliché, but it’s quite the opposite. […] The emotions of motherhood are scrutinized with great sensitivity, and the ending causes you to cry violently.”
Kodin Kuhalehti (FINLAND)

“Painfully and clear-sightedly enriching: What We Owe is novel that should not be ignored and that grabs hold of your heart from the very beginning. On the other hand it holds so tightly that the pain throughout the book, and afterwards, cannot be denied. This tale is about being forced to face the truth when time is running out, even as it shows itself from its most brutal angle. About great loss, about being traumatized – by those closes to you, by fate, by circumstance, and yes, maybe also by yourself. To stand like a brightly shining star, and yet have things turn out as the complete opposite. Likewise, it is the story about the courage that it takes to to demand the best from life in the very moment it is coming to an end. About loving deeply, yet prohibiting yourself from showing it… The book is harsh, moving, and hits existential themes head on. Not least on that of mothers and daughters. But hope lives.”
BogfriiseN (DENMARK)

“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.”
GÖTEBORGS-POSTEN (SWEDEN)

“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 (SWEDEN)

“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.”
Ljusnan (Sweden)

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)

“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, 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 Garcia, 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

Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde is a writer and business leader. Her novel What We Owe was published in August, 2017.

Learn more about Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde