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What We Owe




If our first loves are our mothers and our first homes our countries, What We Owe interrogates what it means to lose them both, to move about the world unanchored. 50-year-old Nahid, an Iranian woman living in Sweden, receives an unwelcome diagnosis: she has cancer and six months to live. What follows is a sustained howl of a novel, a tale of fury and love and guilt, a reckoning of revolution and motherhood, that demands our empathy with complex characters and a singularly rendered narrator.

There is an immigrant narrative we are all familiar with: immigrant flees persecution from “third world”. Immigrant succeeds in new “first world” home. Immigrant is unconditionally grateful — always grateful. Bonde complicates this narrative with reality. Choices made in desperation and fear rarely produce whole satisfaction and for every gain there are losses, some so deeply felt that no achievement can mitigate them.

In a recollection of the past, the narrator and her sisters wear brow-raising short skirts and turn a pejorative aimed their way — “witches and whores” — into a song they dance to. It is a time of hope and laughter, a contemporary Iran yet untouched by the Islamic Revolution and the novel softens enough to let the characters breathe, bringing them to full life. A constriction soon follows, a narrowing as lives are taken, options are few and some must flee. The protagonist is often harsh, speaking to her adult daughter with cruel directness, failing or refusing to temper her annoyance, even when tender situations call for it. The novel is a reflection of this refusing to look away, refusing to flinch.

This short powerful book puts “refugee” in context; it texturizes the experience. Gone are the layers of distance created by disassociating headlines, the clinical analyses of “yet another” crisis unfolding across the world. But it is more than that, so much more. It is a novel of mothers and daughters, of what they give and take from each other and how this relationship can be a loving bond or bondage. What Bonde has accomplished in this slim work is nothing short of extraordinary.

— Lesley Arimah
2019 finalist judge


Book Excerpt

My mother still doesn’t know I’m dying. I haven’t told her and I’ve forbidden anyone else to do so either. Why should she have to be tormented by that thought. Why should she have to lose another daughter. Loss. Sometimes I want to say to those who accuse us of coming here to rip them off. To take something that isn’t ours. I want to say to them, Do you think I’ve won? Do you think I’ve gained more than I’ve lost? And you. Do you think you’ve lost more than I’ve gained? Do you think your loss is greater than my gain?

2019 Fiction Winner

Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde, photo credit Carl von Arbin
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(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
What We Owe

“My father tended to explain the unknown through stories. Not from his own imagination, but from telling whatever tales he could find—the kind of tales that dug deep into the human soul, and brought understanding. My first pet in Iran was a chicken named Papillon, and the movie Papillon is the first I remember watching. This was my father’s way of telling me about freedom—about how he, who does not have it, cannot stop fighting until he does. War and the fight for freedom eventually made us flee Iran for Sweden. How do you make sense of a new country? Well, I was only three years old but this was done through stories. Through the work of Astrid Lindgren, author of children’s literature and the creator of several universes that helped me understand the beauty and pains of Swedishness. I am forever grateful for these tales, for how reading them made me feel as if I were part of them. The strength of the written world, in creating empathy and reflection, is the most powerful thing I know. But I wish there had been tales that could tell my new country about me. Who I was, the refugee child. Why I had come, what I had brought, what my contribution would be. There were none of these stories when I grew up. I am honored to now be taking part in creating them, and thus help humanize the displaced.”

— Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde                        


Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde was born in Iran in 1983 and fled with her parents to Sweden as a three year old. She graduated from the Stockholm School of Economics and was named one of 50 Goldman Sachs Global Leaders. She has studied at Columbia Business School, and worked at McKinsey & Co for a brief period before turning to the literary and social sector.

Golnaz is the founder and director of Inkludera, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting marginalization in society by backing social entrepreneurs who have developed pragmatic new solutions to social challenges. A central part of Inkluderas work is helping their entrepreneurs to sell their services to the public sector. Inkludera supports 10 Swedish organizations, who together work with 35,000 individuals and sell to 90 municipalities.

Golnaz is a public speaker and has contributed as an independent columnist for Sweden’s main daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter.

She debuted as an author in 2012 with the novel, She Is Not Me (Hon är inte jag) and her second novel, What We Owe (Det varvi) is being published in 26 languages.

Golnaz lives in Stockholm together with her husband, daughter and son.


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