Anna Leader/Catapult Books
The author and former refugee explores his own relationship with being believed; and believe 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 only 10 years old.
- He has written various books including, A spoonful of earth and sea and The ungrateful refugeeand focused on themes related to his own experience with immigration, diaspora, and the modern refugee experience.
- He is also a fellow at Columbia University’s Institute for Ideas and Imagination.
What’s the big deal? Nayeri’s latest title, Who do you believe? When the Truth is not enough it focuses on the narratives and expectations we come to expect and judge from people whose lives depend on exactly that: being believed.
- Nayeri has spent years studying the stories of vulnerable people throughout society, be it the legal system, the medical system, or the asylum system. What he found was a consistent line of pain and innocence that needed to conform to certain structures and beliefs to be taken seriously by others.
What does Nayeri say about his work?
The process of writing the novel and its examination also became very personal. Nayeri describes to NPR the sudden loss of her partner’s brother to suicide as a moment of personal closure that led her to rewrite the book entirely:
I realized that I made this incredible giant mistake in not believing someone vulnerable. I put all my stories together, and I had all this research, and I did all my thinking. And then suddenly my partner’s brother, who had struggled with mental health issues his whole life, suddenly took his own life.
And he didn’t believe it at all. I thought, “God, here’s a privileged kid, he’s white, he’s privileged, he’s got a college education, he’s got passports. What’s wrong here? I don’t have time for this. And when he died, it was like everything what I had known was turned upside down. What was I doing to examine the belief when I made such a mistake? And so I had to rewrite the book. I had to write in a different way.
Nayeri also tells NPR how he sees the relationship between credibility in systems and structures versus in interpersonal relationships:
Who we believe and what we believe, what we put our faith and trust in is simply very much related to who we are. What moments of comfort and serenity and calm we are used to. They are sort of our shortcuts. If a story gives us a sense of truth, a sense of credibility, or fits into a narrative we know, then we go with it. And I think that a lot of telling a story in these bureaucratic systems, for example, the asylum, is to tell it in a particular cultural way so that it can be familiar to the officer who is listening to you, and so he can draw. the right triggers, the triggers that have embedded in them, and to unlock their emotions. And that’s what I find absurd, the fact that in order to be given resources, in our bureaucratic systems, you have to unlock someone’s emotional triggers. It is a person’s judgment.
This is very related to when we sit across from someone at the table socially or if someone asks us for a favor in everyday life, whether or not we want to give it to them. We surround ourselves with people we know, so we think we are kind, because we often say yes to people who ask us things. Or if someone asks us to believe them, tells us a heartbreaking story, we believe them. But the fact is, that those people are already in our community, so they are familiar with us. So they tell the story in the way we are used to having it told to us.
If someone comes and tells you a story, imagine if it’s a complete stranger and you don’t know them and you don’t know a story. It’s like they have a photograph or a negative photo. And you have a photograph of a credible story that you already have in your head, and they superimpose their story on top of yours, that negative picture. And if the contours match, well, it makes sense. It is something that 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 move on and don’t think that you were cruel, and don’t think that you neglected any kind of humanitarian obligation.
Just think that person was lying. And there’s so much that comes from things like trauma and fear and shame and culture that sounds like lies, and that’s one of the fundamental problems of the asylum system. And all the other systems that we have mentioned where you are relying on the judgment of a person about you.
Want more author interviews? Listen to the Consider this episode about how Pamela Anderson took control of her life story.
So, what now?
- Nayeri says that she hopes that readers will understand that their instincts are not infallible, and that she wants to encourage a process of self-examination in the types of stories that we tend to believe, and how we can expand them.
- “How can I add different kinds of stories to my repertoire of stories that move me, and that can start to change the way I instinctively react to strangers? That’s what I hope people take away, and I hope that bleeds into how they deal with. asylum seekers, and patients, and all kinds of different vulnerable people.”