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This information is one of several contextual resources provided as part of Wheaton College's 2023 Core Book program. This year, we are reading Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad Is Untrue. Learn more about Core Book.

A Discussion Guide for Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue  

by Tiffany Eberle Kriner, Associate Professor of English

How to Use This Guide

Core Book 23 Discussion Guide for Everything Sad Is Untrue CoverYou can use this webpage as you discuss the book, or you can download a printable PDF, which includes the same content as the website.


What Could We Talk About?

Explore all the topics below.


How can you explain why you believe anything? So I just say what my mom says when people ask her. She looks them in the eye with the begging hope that they’ll hear her and she says, “Because it’s true.” (196)

This book is called Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story), but then it opens with the statement, “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.” Given that the author identifies himself as Persian, he’s in a bit of a pickle.

Does it matter to you when a story is true? Which do you like better, true stories or made up ones? In what senses is this a true story? In what senses is it made up? How does MEMORY play into truth and fiction in the book?

Consider when the book talks about its own truthfulness, on page 353 in the author’s note. Read it out--how do you respond to this method?

Consider different standards for truthfulness: “beyond reasonable doubt” (burden of proof for American criminal courts), “reasonably likely” (Britain’s law’s burden of proof for refugee accounts of their lives).

Some parts of Everything Sad is Untrue are made up (like the story of Ellie, pages 122 through 130). To what extent do these made up parts offer truth? What truths do they offer?

The book mentions a common Oklahoma kids game and ice-breaker, “Two Truths and a Lie” (250). Play it for a few minutes: each person shares three statements, two of which are true and one of which is a lie. What does it offer you in understanding of truth/fiction? in understanding what it means to get to know people and believe people when they are talking to you about their own stories?

Christians considering truth have a rich scriptural witness to truth and truthfulness: “Do not bear false witness” is in the Ten Commandments; “ “You desire truth in the inmost parts” says the psalmist; “What is truth?” Pilate equivocates; “I am the truth,” says Jesus; Paul exhorts believers to speak the truth in love in Ephesians; John’s apocalyptic vision declares that liars are those who end up in the lake of fire and brimstone in Revelation 2. How do these scriptural passages about truth affect your understanding of this book’s approach to truth? If Christians believe Jesus’s words that truth is a PERSON, how does that form our understanding of truth telling in stories?

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“A patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee. Did I tell you that already?” (49)

This book insists on memory as its primary source. Daniel starts with a really intense first memory. Share around your first memories with your discussion group as a base and why you think it’s your first memory. Then, talk about what you might say about the memory if it was supposed to tell everyone something really important about your life. (Example: my first memory was me in a sandbox made out of tractor wheels; I am now a farmer and a literary critic (I dig things, professionally :) ).

Everything Sad is Untrue insists that, as central as memory IS, it’s complicated for refugees.

On page 37, Daniel says “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee,” but then on pages 48-49, he lists a bunch of things he has forgotten, and remarks “A patchwork memory is the shame of a refugee. / Did I tell you that already?”

There’s a moment on pages 253-255 when Daniel checks his memory of the Prince of Dubai against his sister’s account and finds that differing details in memories cause tension between them--why? [Try this at home! Or, maybe don’t? :)]

Daniel’s first memory is mentioned again at the end of the book. How does the meaning of his memory change when his mother helps him interpret it? To what extent do we need others to process the meanings that emerge from our memories? (Reflect back on that conversation about your first memory--what role did the group’s response play in how you think about that memory?]

Are memories meant to be shared? On page 349, Daniel posits that maybe all the stories in the world are “distant memories we are passing to each other.” How do you understand those words? What do you think he means? Do you agree?

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Daniel and You

“Trust me, reader. I love you with all my heart, but you just don’t know.” (301)

This book reaches out to the reader personally and deliberately in situation after situation, to make a connection:

Were there moments you felt really close to the narrator? Were there moments that you had parallel experiences to the narrator? Make yourself think of a few and share them with those you’re talking to--take the time to find some.

What moments did you feel very distant from or different from the narrator? Daniel says at several moments things that he expects that you don’t know about his experience:

On page three, he says “That doesn’t mean anything to you, probably, if you even bothered to pronounce it. I could have said, ‘on the road to skip-this-word-you’re-a-dumdum-stan,’ and it’d be the same.”

On page 208, when he says “You probably don’t know this, but Oklahoma is called Tornado Alley, and also the Buckle of the Bible Belt, which means it’s a great place to hide.”

Was the narrator right about your knowledge or about what is meaningful or meaningless to you?

The book is narrated as if to the middle school class of the narrator--a class full of young Oklahomans. Not everyone who reads this book will come from that position--in fact, there are a limited number of 12-year-old, Oklahoman readers, for sure. Does the making of that audience so limited allow you to separate yourself from the audience? Where did you feel DIFFERENT from the audience?

Daniel shares his feelings of guilt or shame at several moments: about the bull (8-9), about the baby owl (118-119), about Ali Shekari from the camp in Italy (295-296). How do you respond to those moments of confession? What did you want to say to Daniel then?

Now, with your group, maybe only when you feel really comfortable or courageous, or when things are in a lull and you can’t get anything going, conversation-wise, read the section that goes pages 60-62, that begins “Imagine you’re evil” and ends “And you can feel good and go to the mall and go back to being evil.” How did you respond to that section after and in the midst of the care for the reader that the narrator has offered? DID you imagine that you are evil when you read it? If you did, did anything come of that imagining? If you didn’t, can you, right now, with your group? What comes out for you? Are these things that you feel inclined to share about?

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It’s So Confusing!

“Mrs. Miller says I have “lost the plot,” and am now just making lists of things that happened to fill the space.” (300)

This book isn’t divided up into chapters. The narrative brings together mythic Persian lore, multiple versions of folk tales and tales from 1,001 Nights (“every possible version exists somewhere,” the text claims, on page 58), family history, small bits of distant memory, and slightly altered stories from middle school. Is it deliberately made like that? Is the writing just bad?*

One friend of mine, an exceptionally fine reader and scholar, read the book in small bits and so kept getting lost, kept asking, “What? Who? Where? Are these real people? Or is this a story?” He told me he kept having to reread to figure it out.

In your group, try and reconstruct the bare-bones plot of the story of Daniel and his family. Help each other fill in the bits you’ve forgotten/missed. Now, talk about this as a group: how does your reconstruction differ from the story’s shape in the book? How would the book be different if it WAS told that way? Would it appeal more or less? Would it be more or less true?

Say you consider that the form might be intentional--what does the arrangement of those materials in just that way make you feel about the story being told here? Compare that to your feelings about the book.

(If this is confusing, this set of questions, it might help to focus on a particular part of the book to help you focus the conversation. That is, if you spent some time talking about Ellie’s story, on pages 122-130, you might consider in particular the little interjection of the 5th grade classroom’s opinion on fruit leather on pages 126-127. What does that particular going back and forth between Ellie’s story and the classroom do to the meaning of the story? What does it change/add?)

There’s a moment on page 300 where Mrs. Miller, Daniel’s teacher, says that he has “lost the plot” (on pages 300-301), but he responds that “she is beholden to a Western mode of storytelling that [he does] not accept.” What’s “a Western mode of storytelling”? How does this story differ from it?

The story that Daniel’s dad tells in Daniel’s class 326-327 takes a long time to explain--about Rostam in real life and Rostam in storyland. How does Daniel’s comment “Yeah, it does [take a long time to explain]” offer something to the conversation?

*Consider two conversations. In one conversation, the group declares that a book is BADLY MADE/WRITTEN and everyone mostly just enumerates what they don’t like. In another conversation, the group considers that the way of its making is a FEATURE, NOT A BUG, and everyone describes the IMPACT of the style/content/arrangement/form on the reader’s feelings/experiences. What’s the value of each conversation? What are the valueS behind each type of conversation? Is one better than another? Why?”

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Story Telling

“Every story is the sound of a storyteller trying to stay alive.” (59)

One review of this book calls it a love-letter to storytelling--and it has lots of references to myths, legends, and histories within its own narrative--not to mention the extolling of Persian poetry.

The central example of this story-telling love is the book’s reliance on the conceit of the 1,001 Nights and to the mythic figure of Scheherazade, who is telling stories all night every night, to save her life and the lives of the women of her country.

Why do you think Daniel identifies with Scheherazade? What are the risks of his story telling? How is he telling stories to save his life? To save the lives of others?

On page 300, the narrator says, “The point of the Nights is that if you spend time with each other--if we really listen in the parlors of our minds and look at each other as we were meant to be seen--then we would fall in love. We would marvel at how beautifully we were made. We would never think to be villain kings and we would never kill each other. Just the opposite. The stories aren’t the thing. The thing is the story of the story. The spending of the time. The falling in love.”

Share an experience where you heard some stories or told some stories. To what extent did it work like the above description? Do you want it to? What would need to happen to make it so?

The library is a help and haven for Daniel in the book--as is the librarian!-- but also the contents of libraries receive attention: “When I tell people my stories, about the hero Rostam or the size of pomegranates from the orchards on my Baba Haji’s land, the villages in stone pillars, Orich candy bars, or anything that happened to me, they never believe me. There is no evidence in their libraries” (131). Discuss.

On page 76, the narrator says, “To explain love, I have to tell you three stories: The first is the myth of Khosrou and Shirin. The second is the legend of Aziz and her husbands. The third is the history of how I broke my thumb at my mom’s church.”

Throughout the ensuing section, the narrator retells stories and then experiments with ascribing lessons to the stories: “The lesson here is that you can fall in love with a story you have in your head” (79) or “The lesson here is that your happiest memories can become your saddest all of a sudden” (83) or the big long section about love on pages 85-86, which includes the gem “there’s a lot more to love than smooching.” But when the stories get closer to home--family stories and then personal ones, it’s harder to find the lesson: “Maybe the lesson is that you never know the damage you might do, when you’re trying to help. Or that a feud is a profoundly stupid thing. // There is no lesson maybe” (96).

Think about the whole book. Is there a lesson? Are there lessonS?

Think about stories in general: DO stories have morals? How do they work in us? What are stories FOR? Give some other kinds of examples from your reading about how certain stories have impacted your life.

NB: Want some further reading on this subject? Consider the following:

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Food! (And Culture)

“So I tarof, which is good manners, pick up the sloppy sandwich, and smile and go, “Mmm, that’s good. Really tasty.” Looks a little like fesenjoon too, which is a positive trait . . .fesenjoon. The dish we had at my house with the chicken and walnuts and pomegranates. They look similar’s all I’,m saying. Of course they taste different.” (191)

Tracing the mentions of food in the book is definitely a way to get SERIOUSLY hungry. It might also be a way to consider the question of how the narrator presents cultural differences and builds cultural bridges. Consider some of the following food passages and use them to help you think about what in particular is offered to the reader about the cultures represented:

All the Pages

Side references to creampuffs (and their American counterpart, Twinkies), chickpea cookies, buttery saffron rice, a parsley bunch the size of a basketball, Pringles, Orich bars/Mounds bars, kebab, dates dipped in yogurt, cardamom cake, rosewater, saffron, roasted tomatoes, etc. etc.*

*Everyone will understand if you need to cook and eat excellent recipes during your conversation about this book! Need one for Fesenjoon? Here’s Samin Nosrat’s recipe! 

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Immigration and Refugee Experience

“The greatest American hero is Logan Wolverine, who is also an immigrant (from Canada) and who can heal from anything.” (153)

Up front, the book says, “If you give me your attention--I know it’s valuable--I promise I won’t waste it with some “poor me” tale of immigrant woe. I don’t want your pity. If we can just rise to the challenge of communication--here in the parlor of your mind--we can maybe reach across time and space and every ordinary thing to see so deep into the heart of each other that you might agree that I am like you” (16).

How does this book tell the tale of refugee experience and immigration? Would you agree that it’s not “some ‘poor me’ tale of immigrant woe”? What sort of tale is it, then, about refugee experience and immigration?

How does the literary form of the work inflect or color the portrayal of refugee experience?

Daniel and his sister are A+ students at everything, and the book makes this abundantly clear. And their (and their mother’s!) commitment to schooling in the refugee camp is especially powerful (309-311). How do you respond to their achievement? To Sima’s heroism, unstoppable perseverance, and excellence?

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“To know the truth about yourself, you have to know if you can eat tornadoes for food and shovel a mountain of poop.” (241)

There are a lot of poop stories in this book.

What’s THAT all about?

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“This is the kind of thing you live your whole life thinking about probably.” (217)

Daniel Nayeri’s books for young people are acclaimed for their artful engagement of big picture, ultimate, enduring questions in accessible stories. There are a lot of theological questions to choose from in this book: the character of God; theology of sin (hamartiology) ;the nature of Christianity; the theology of the church (ecclesiology); theology of hope (eschatology) among them. You can use these sub-topics to talk through particular enduring questions, or you can just start with what stood out to you. What does this book have to say about the life of faith, especially in the context of this family’s experiences? What does it say TO YOU about the life of faith?

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“At their worst, the people who want a god who listens are self-centered. They just want to live in the land of do-as-you-please. And the ones who want a god who speaks are cruel. They just want laws and justice to crush everything.” (217)

Everything Sad Is Untrue does not hesitate to take up theological conundra, such as the old saw, “Could God make a rock so big He couldn’t lift it?” on pages 74-75. Did you ever have that conversation before? Have it now! Then, analyze your conversation: what were you really talking about? What did your conversation reveal about yourself and your conversation partners?

In your group, discuss the central passage in which the theology of God is raised, the “god who speaks” / “god who listens” section on pages 216-217 and at the bottom of 223. Talk about your experiences of God, growing up, or your training. Which was more emphasized? Got any good stories on this point? Which vision of God dominates your consciousness now? Which vision of God would others see in you?

Consider the passage on page 329, when Mrs. Miller is the one who speaks or listens. What does it mean that Daniel applies these words to HER, not just God?

Consider the passage on page 333, when the reader is the one who speaks and listens. To that point, is reading a way of being like God? How so?

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Christianity and Islam

“In Iran, if you convert from Islam to Christianity or Judaism, it’s a capital crime. . . Probably because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are sister religions, and you always have the worst fights with your sister.” (195)

On pages 195-199, Daniel describes his mother’s conversion to Christianity. How does he represent Christianity there and what it is as a religion? Which key passages/parts from the rest of the book develop your sense of what Christianity is and what it means to the narrator or to the characters?

The description of Christianity in this book takes its place in the context of Sima’s background in Islam, and in particular the religious and cultural category, “sayyed” on pages 179-185. How does the work’s choice of particular details to mention about the history of Islam affect the portrayal of Islam and the portrayal of Sima’s conversion and its consequences?

How does the book handle religious difference in the story, overall? What are some key passages that emerge for you?

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Church and Discipleship

“She has all that wealth, the love of all those people she helped in her clinic. They treated her like a queen. She was a sayyed.
And she’s poor now.

People spit on her on buses. She’s a refugee in places people hate refugees . . .And she’ll tell you--it’s worth it. Jesus is better.” (197)

Consider the representations of churches and congregations in the book--underground churches (Pastor Pike and the congregation in Jolfa, pages 202ff), missionary churches in Dubai (259), Italian churches (291), Oklahoman churches (the church picnics (96-103), the love of miracles in Sima’s story (220), the baptism of Daniel’s father(331-336).

There are a few passages where people’s discipleship--that is, how they follow Christ--is described. For example, the underground church (pages 202-206, 217-218), Jim and Jean Dawson (329-330), “who were so Christian that they let a family of refugees come live with them until they could find a home, and who made them sandwiches with Pringles chips, which is the best chip any place has to offer and means you’re welcome,” Sima during that one church service (333). How do you understand discipleship? How does this book’s portrayal of discipleship help develop your understanding of what it means to follow Christ?

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“Why would I make up miracles about paperwork?” (220)

Daniel’s mom describes their escape from Iran as a time of three miracles--pages 220-231. When Daniel retells the story, he presents it as possibly difficult to believe, bringing up his Dad’s questions, his classmates’ questions, and so forth. How does THAT particular choice--to tell about the miracles through conversations with skeptics (and even to assume the reader might be skeptical)--affect the book’s take on miracles? Do you have experience with miracles? Tell some stories! Then, reflect on how you described them--what did the storytelling bring up for you? What was it all about, that time of miracles?

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“Imagine you’re evil.” (60)

This book has a nuanced theology of sin--what theologians sometimes call hamartiology. It mentions sin right at the beginning, on page 1 in a standard Christian way as what Daniel’s mom says, “everyone has sinned and needs God to save them.” Very Romans 3:23.

But it adds a little more to this idea RIGHT AWAY, building on how sin seems to be more than what you meant to do.

How often do you personally think about these sorts of situations as sin? How often do you think your communities, congregations, places of engagement think of these sorts of situations as sin?

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“What you believe about the future will change how you live in the present.” (347)

The book has several passages that deal with last things. There are circumstantial last things that involve a great deal of loss: counting of the last and lost memories, the last Orich bar Daniel eats, or the last time Daniel sees Ali Shekari, the realization that Daniel will never see some family members again. But, not only THAT sort of last thing shows up, but also what some people call eschatology, or the theology of hope: those last, ultimate things. Here are some examples:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

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