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Who gets believed? Dina Nayeri examines society's personal relationship with truth

Anna Leader/Catapult Books
Dina Nayeri has spent years studying the stories of vulnerable people.

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The author and former refugee explores her own relationship with being believed; and believing others.

Who is she? Dina Nayeri is an award winning author and essayist. She was born in Iran during the revolution and came to the United States when she was just 10 years old.

  • She has written various books, including, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea and The Ungrateful Refugee, and has focused on themes related to her own experiences with immigration, diaspora, and the modern refugee experience. 
  • She is also a fellow at Columbia University's Institute for Ideas and Imagination. 
  • What's the big deal? Nayeri's latest title, Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn't Enough focuses on the narratives and expectations we come to expect and judge from people whose lives depend on exactly that: being believed.

    • Nayeri spent years studying the stories of vulnerable people all throughout society, be it the legal system, the medical system, or the asylum system. What she found was a consistent through line of pain and innocence needing to conform to certain structures and beliefs in order to be taken seriously by others. 
    • What does Nayeri say about her work?

      The process of writing the novel and her examination became deeply personal as well. Nayeri describes to NPR the sudden loss of her partner's brother to suicide as a moment of personal reckoning that caused her to rewrite the book entirely:

      I realized that I had made this incredible giant mistake in disbelieving someone vulnerable. I was gathering up all of my stories, and I had all of this research, and I was doing all my thinking. And then suddenly my partner's brother, who had struggled with mental health issues all of his life, just suddenly took his own life. And I had not believed him at all. I thought, 'Gosh, here's a privileged boy, he's white, he's privileged, he has a college education, he has passports. What is wrong here? I don't have time for this.' And when he died, it was like just everything that I had known got turned upside down. What was I doing examining belief when I had made such a mistake? And so I had to rewrite the book. I had to write it in a different way. 

      Nayeri also tells NPR how she views the relationship between believability in systems and structures versus in interpersonal relationships:

      Who we believe and what we believe, what we put our faith and trust in is just very much tied to who we are. What moments of comfort and serenity and calm that we're used to. They're kind of our shortcuts. If a story gives us a sense of truth, a sense of believability, or it fits into a narrative that we know, then we go with it. And I think so much of telling a story within these bureaucratic systems, for example, asylum, is about telling it in a particular cultural way so that it can be familiar to the officer who's listening to you, and so that it can kind of pull the right triggers, the triggers that they have embedded in them, and to unlock their emotions. And this is the thing that seems absurd to me, the fact that in order to be given resources, within our bureaucratic systems, you have to unlock someone's emotional triggers. It's one person's judgment.

      That is very much related to when we're sitting across from someone at the table socially or if someone asks us a favor in everyday life, whether or not we want to give it to them. We surround ourselves with familiar people, so we think we're kind, because we often say yes to people who ask us for things. Or if someone asks us to believe them, tells us a harrowing story, we believe them. But the fact is, that those people are already in our community, so they are familiar to us. So they're telling the story in the way that we're used to having it told to us.

      If someone comes and tells you a story, imagine if they're a complete stranger and you don't know them and you don't know any back story. It's kind of like they have a photograph or a photo negative. And you have a photograph of a believable story that you already have in your head, and they overlay their story onto yours, that photo negative. And if the contours match, well, it makes sense. It's something that kind of becomes fuller and richer. But if the contours don't match, it just becomes a big, ugly mess, doesn't it? And then you dismiss it and you move on and you don't think you've been unkind, and you don't think that you've neglected any kind of humanitarian duty.

      You just think that person was lying. And there is so much that comes from things like trauma and fear and shame and culture that sounds like lying, and this is one of the fundamental problems of the asylum system. And all of the other systems that we mentioned where you're relying on one person's judgment of you.

      Want more author interviews? Listen to the Consider This episode on how Pamela Anderson took control of her life story.

      So, what now?

      • Nayeri says that she hopes readers will realize that their own instincts are not infallible, and that she wants to encourage a process of self examination in the types of stories we tend to believe, and how we can expand it.   
      • "How can I add different kinds of stories to my repertoire of the stories that move me, and that can start to shift how we react instinctively to strangers? That's what I hope people take away, and I hope that that bleeds into how they treat asylum seekers, and patients, and all kinds of different vulnerable people." 
      • Read more:

        • 'Olivia' creator and stage designer Ian Falconer dies at 63
        • 'The Angel Maker' is a thrilling question mark all the way to the end
        • In her new stories, Atwood has characters modeled after herself and her partner
        • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.