Dina Nayeri examines society’s personal relationship to truth: NPR
Anna Guide/Katapult Books
The author and former refugee examines her own relationship to faith; and to believe others.
who is she? Dina Nayeri is an award-winning author and essayist. She was born during the revolution in Iran 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 fugitiveand has focused on issues 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 is believed? When the truth isn’t enough focuses on the narratives and expectations we expect and judge from people whose lives depend on it: 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 she found was a continuous line of pain and innocence that had 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 examining it also became deeply personal. Nayeri describes to NPR the sudden loss of her partner’s brother to suicide as a moment of personal reckoning that prompted her to completely rewrite the book:
I realized that I had made this incredible, huge mistake by not believing someone who was vulnerable. I was collecting all my stories and I had all this research and I was thinking. And then my partner’s brother, who had struggled with mental health issues his entire life, suddenly took his own life.
And I hadn’t believed him at all. I was like, ‘Gosh, that’s a privileged boy, he’s white, he’s privileged, he’s got a college education, he’s got passports. What is wrong here? I don’t have time for this.” And when he died, everything I knew was turned upside down. What did I do to examine faith when I made such a mistake? And so I had to rewrite the book. I had to write it differently.
Nayeri also tells NPR how she sees the relationship between credibility in systems and structures versus interpersonal relationships:
Who we believe and what we believe, what we put our faith and trust in, is just very much dependent on who we are. What moments of comfort and serenity and calm we are used to. They are our shortcuts, so to speak. If a story gives us a sense of truth, a sense of credibility, or if it fits into a narrative we’re familiar with, then we go along with it. And I think when telling a story within these bureaucratic systems, say asylum, it’s about telling it in a certain cultural way so that it can be familiar to the officer who’s listening to you and so that it can somehow attract the right ones Triggers, the triggers they have embedded within them and to release their emotions. And that’s what strikes me as absurd, the fact that in our bureaucratic systems, in order to get resources, you have to unlock someone’s emotional triggers. It’s a person’s judgment.
This has a lot to do with when we socialize across someone’s table or when someone asks us for a favor in everyday life, whether we want to do it or not. We surround ourselves with familiar people, so we think we’re being kind because we often say yes to people who ask us for things. Or when someone asks us to believe them, tells us a harrowing story, we believe them. But the fact of the matter is that these people are already in our community, so we are familiar with them. So they tell the story the way we are used to having it told to us.
If someone comes along and tells you a story, imagine they are a complete stranger and you don’t know them and you don’t know a backstory. It’s like they have a photo or a photo negative. And you have a photo of a believable story that you already have in mind and they put their story on top of yours, this photo negative. And if the contours fit, it makes sense. It’s something that somehow gets fuller and richer. But if the contours don’t match, it’s just going to be one big, ugly mess, isn’t it? And then you reject it and move on and don’t think you’ve been unkind and you don’t think you’ve neglected any kind of humanitarian duty.
You just think that person lied. 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 we mentioned where you rely on someone’s judgment of you.
Interested in more author interviews? listen to this consider it Follow how Pamela Anderson took control of her life story.
so what now?
- Nayeri hopes that readers will recognize that their own instincts are not infallible, and that she wants to encourage a process of self-examination into the kinds of stories we tend to believe in and how we can expand on them.
- “How can I add different types of stories to my repertoire of stories that move me, and that can result in a shift in our instinctive response to strangers? Asylum seekers and patients and all kinds of vulnerable people.”