Narratives Passed Up, Narratives Passed Down: An Interview with Dina Nayeri
By Scott BurtonJune 30, 2023
Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn’t Enough by Dina Nayeri
Simultaneously, the book is a memoir that continues to chart the course of Nayeri’s life, covering her childhood experience escaping repression in Iran and coming to the United States as a refugee, her adolescence in an ultra-Christian community in Oklahoma, her young adulthood spent attending an Ivy League university, her time working for a prestigious international management firm, her enrollment in Harvard Business School, and her transition into becoming a full-time writer and starting a family.
The reader experiences a kind of emotional yo-yoing, feeling angry and helpless as Nayeri describes the biases in our institutions and weepy as she details the ups and downs of her own life. Always engaging and informative, the book is another milestone in the career of a thinker and writer whom we will undoubtedly be hearing from for many years to come. I spoke with her by email.
SCOTT BURTON: Dina, the first thing that struck me about Who Gets Believed? is how you intertwined memoir with the nonfiction sections of the book. What led you to adopt this approach?
DINA NAYERI: I started writing this way with my first book of creative nonfiction, The Ungrateful Refugee. I intertwined memory, reportage, and thought. Somehow all three felt necessary because the way I had arrived at that book was the desire to reconcile my own refugee past with the stories that were happening then (in 2017, when I began writing). I was tempted to make it pure narrative (my story and others), but I couldn’t keep my reflections out of it. There was so much wrong with the world that I wanted to say, as me, in my own voice, and I wanted to bring in literature and philosophy and to allow the stories I was finding to alter and shape my thinking on the page. So when I started researching Who Gets Believed? (which was born out of a chapter of The Ungrateful Refugee on asylum storytelling), I knew I’d need all three forms as part of the meditation of writing the book and as part of the learning. Then, of course (as you know), something huge happened in my own life during the drafting of this book that forced me to turn inward, or I’d be a hypocrite. Now, I think, this is probably how I’m going to write nonfiction for a long time.
What findings surprised you most as you conducted research for this book?
First, that our systems are even more unjust and broken than I ever imagined, often hanging vulnerable people’s fates on the judgments and prejudices of a single (or a few) flawed humans. And second, that I am prone to all the same biases and hypocrisies as everyone I’ve always criticized.
You describe the United States as a performance or a game. Could you talk more about this observation?
Did I say the United States is a performance? I think I said that being American is a performance, just as every label or credential is, in a way. You have to perform according to what people expect from that job. To be American, you are expected to behave a certain way. To be a “successful” American, perhaps another way. I learned as a teen that, to get into an elite college and fit in there, I’d have to remake many of my habits, and I’d have to present differently. And I learned that lesson again and again in the business world and beyond. Asylum seekers, of course, realize this the day they have to perform their life’s most brutal story in a way that pleases their Western interlocutors. And if you’ve ever been a POC in a waiting room, you’ll understand that even pain has a proper performance.
The book is damning of certain institutions in the United States and United Kingdom: the criminal justice system, the legal system, the healthcare system, the asylum and refugee systems. You speak of the inherent biases in these institutions in heartbreaking detail. To a prospective reader, what biases do these institutions have in common?
They rely too much on individual judgment, and yet they don’t invest in giving these individuals cultural training—training in trauma, shame, memory, and human motivation. They create checklists and bad incentives and put everything in the hands of people who have forgotten their humanitarian duty.
Much of your life story is laid out in the book: coming to the United States from Iran as a young refugee, living in Oklahoma in a hyper-Christian environment, going to Princeton, working at McKinsey, going to Harvard Business School, and eventually becoming a writer and starting a family. What were the prevailing emotions for you while recording all of this in a book?
Wow, nobody has asked me this yet. Thank you. I felt a lot of grief. A lot of pain. Grief for myself and my choices. For my family and how it’s broken apart. For the world and the processes I once believed in. For my own foolish belief that there was such a thing as a meritocracy, or that justice worked the same for everyone. I felt tired too, and sick of myself. And then, when Josh died, I felt like a hypocrite and a monster. I think you’re coming to this in the next question …
A key autobiographical element of the book is your relationship with your partner, Sam, and the story of his brother, Josh, who struggles with mental illness and eventually dies by suicide. What do you now know about the relationship between suffering, “believability,” and empathy?
Now I know how much I don’t know. This was one of my favorite lines from the doctors I interviewed. You need enough education to eradicate your confidence. You need enough education (in everything, even life) to understand that you don’t know how much you don’t know. That’s a weird sentence, but I get it now. As for suffering and empathy, I learned (from experience and from writers like Elaine Scarry and Susan Sontag) that other people’s pain is unfathomable to us, and that we are primed to disbelieve.
What is the relationship between who gets believed in Western society and how Western society believes?
Familiar stories, familiar heroes. We believe the stories that follow the narrative rules we know and love, the ones that soothed us in childhood. As an Iranian, I am soothed by long, winding Iranian stories. I enjoy otherworldly interference and adore a dose of melodrama (melodramatic declarations of pain, love, and anger don’t make me roll my eyes as they would a sophisticated New Yorker—they convince me, or the kid inside me). We crave familiar story arcs: in the West, a hero with agency and a journey and strengths and a single crucial weakness. And we judge people by their adherence to that familiar formula. We turn away strangers because they seem like liars. We turn away people who look or sound like villains or jesters. We give all our trust to those who seem like the storybook or movie heroes that we’ve always known. Charlatans like George Santos or Elizabeth Holmes fool us by creating likenesses of people we’ve trusted before (with their voices, their clothes, their words and promises). And all of this continues and worsens from generation to generation because we use our familiar stories to create codes that we pass to the most privileged children: This is how to be trusted, we teach them, instead of This is how to understand or learn or improve.
What are the starkest examples of belief working differently in different societies that you can think of?
The most egregious examples come from the richest countries. In the United States, a con artist like Elizabeth Holmes raised astronomical sums with no product or proof of concept, with no university degree, just the word of a few prestigious investors that she fooled first. Meanwhile, the same country that allows that to happen has created an asylum system that puts doctors and engineers and artists and scientists (not to mention those far more vulnerable) in front of politically motivated, badly incentivized, untrained border guards, only to be told they’re lying because a tiny stupid detail of their story doesn’t match another tiny stupid detail.
Your book is telling a story about telling stories. What does this undertaking generate for you as a writer?
A headache, guilt, pain. I’m ready to go back to fiction where all this is nicely subtextualized. It’s all still there … just shoved down deep, below the beautiful similes.
What is one thing you believe in that you wish you didn’t?
Wow, that’s a terrific (and frightening) question. I still believe in credentials, a stamp from a big, fancy university. I guess because I can’t run away from my refugee days, watching my mother lose her credentials. Plus, I can see how much respect and trust certain university degrees get for the mediocre people who’ve bought their way in. I understand that a stamp isn’t expertise, and that it’s only enough for the unthinking. But I still want my daughter to get a degree. (Though, frankly, I don’t care where she gets it, as long as she’s studying with someone who cares about the state of her mind.)
Why is it important to bring the idea of belief into the realm of the state?
That’s already there, through bias and human judgment—the state and systematic belief/disbelief are already so mixed up and connected. Asylum officers, judges, doctors, insurance agents, charity workers, housing bureaucrats, and social workers all decide whom they believe and whom they think is lying—and they decide based on snap judgments and stereotypes and misinformation. It’s time they got some education in all the ways that honest people can seem like liars.
Scott Burton is a librarian and literary interviewer based in San Diego. Feel free to email him at [email protected].
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