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Dina Nayeri's relationship with belief changed while writing 'Who Gets Believed?'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

"Who Gets Believed?" That's the title and central premise of Dina Nayeri's new book. She told me, for her, belief used to mean searching for the truth.

DINA NAYERI: But I guess I'm realizing that actually, when we listen to believe or not believe - to assess another person's story - we're actually looking for a familiar performance so much more than the truth. So, you know, what does it mean to believe? I think it means to relate to someone's familiar performance of their truth.

SUMMERS: In her search for an answer to who is afforded belief, Nayeri charts the stories of vulnerable populations - asylum-seekers, traumatized people, criminal suspects - and she does all this through the lens of her own refugee experience. See, Nayeri was born in Iran in 1979. After her mother converted to Christianity, it became unsafe for them to live there. So when Nayeri was 8 years old, she, her mother and her younger brother fled from Iran and began the long process of applying for asylum in the U.S.

NAYERI: The biggest preoccupation of my life during that time was with this asylum interview. I knew, I guess, even at that young age, that this one person's judgment of us would decide everything - our entire fate going forward. And of course, you know, in Iran, my mother had been this incredibly respected person. She was a doctor, and then, you know, here, she was going to be judged by this American bureaucrat.

Well, we got through it. We went to America. And for me, that was the promised land. It was, you know, this kind of paradise we'd been promised. But when we arrived in Oklahoma, my mother never really got that credibility and respect back. You know, I was just a child, but I felt very much that I didn't have it either. And I became kind of obsessed, I guess, with this question of - how do I become this kind of American woman that gets believed - who's not routinely doubted or questioned, who's not always - like, people don't look at her skeptically when she speaks? That's who I wanted to become.

So I went chasing that. I went into the business world, and I went to Harvard Business School. And there, you know, there's another set of codes...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

NAYERI: ...For how to get people to trust you. And then I came back around, I suppose, to my roots as a refugee. And the last couple of years, I've been writing about them and working with them and just realizing, gosh, credibility and belief are not the same for everyone.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about a part of your story that is in your childhood that I related to, certainly, as someone who grew up in the church in the Midwest. You write incredibly movingly about your desire to speak in tongues, like many people did in the church your family attended in Oklahoma.

NAYERI: Yeah.

SUMMERS: And in that part of the book, you also tell this story that I'd love to ask you about. It's when you hear the tape of herself that your mother plays you and how it alters, or seems to alter, what you believed to be true about her. Can you tell us about that?

NAYERI: I think it was a little bit of a heartbreak in that moment because I knew this was a disconnect between us because I know my mother believes in it, truly, with all honesty. So I think that's a logical struggle. It's a struggle of love and care for someone when you think, I don't really believe this as you do, but I respect you. I respect faith. I even think, perhaps, I have a little room in my belief system for expressions of religious ecstasy. I want to read more about it, but I'm not there yet, I guess, in really knowing what I think of this. I just know it's very, very hard for me, I guess, to believe certain kinds of performances.

SUMMERS: One thing that strikes me, having read your book, is that, in some places, you write about believability that is denied in some ways inside of systems and structures...

NAYERI: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...And then, in other places of the book, were talking about believability in interpersonal relationships as a matter of faith, and I wonder, do you see those two as the same kinds of beliefs, and - or do you see them as completely different?

NAYERI: I mean, I think they're very related. I mean, if a story gives us a sense of truth, a sense of believability, or that it fits into a narrative that we know, we go with it. We experience it in a very, very different way than we would if it's completely unfamiliar. I think so much of telling a story within these bureaucratic systems is about telling it in a particular cultural way so that it can be familiar to the officer who's listening to you - so that it can kind of pull the right triggers - the triggers that they have embedded in them. And so that is very much related to when we're sitting across, like, someone at a table socially, or if someone asks us a favor in everyday life, whether or not we want to give it to them. You know, we surround ourselves by 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. But the fact is that those people are already in our community, so they are familiar to us, and this is one of the fundamental problems of systems where you're relying on one person's judgment of you.

SUMMERS: And what do you hope that people take away after reading?

NAYERI: I guess one of the most painful parts of writing this book was the fact that, halfway through writing it, I realized that I had made this incredible giant mistake in disbelieving someone vulnerable, you know? 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, you know - he just suddenly - he took his own life, and I had not believed him at all. You know, I thought, gosh, 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, I just - it was like everything that I had known got turned upside down. I - what was I doing, you know, examining belief when I had made such a mistake? And so, I mean, I had to rewrite the book. I had to write it in a different way.

But you ask, what do I hope people take away? I hope they realize that our instincts - they're not infallible, you know? When we look at someone and are absolutely sure we have it right, we're looking at them with all kinds of, you know, stories and shortcuts and things that we're looking for just embedded in us that we're not aware of. But in the long run, I think we can start the process of thinking, you know, like, what kind of people do I tend to believe? What kind of stories do I tend to believe? And, like, how can I remake that? How can I expand that? And then maybe that can start to shift, I guess, how we react instinctively to strangers.

SUMMERS: How did that experience of going through that traumatic loss of Josh - of your partner's brother - of it challenging at your core how you thought about and whom you believe - how has that changed how you approach these topics in the future? How does it - changed what you believe about yourself?

NAYERI: Well, it was tremendously humbling. I spent so many years, I guess, saying, well, you know what? Stories are all determined by culture, so I need to go and learn different kinds of stories so that I can inoculate myself against this kind of bias. But I had this whole other kind of bias, which is this notion that a good person is a person who follows these rules and who strives and who does the best with the gifts that they've been given and who doesn't waste their privilege. And, you know, it was very humbling to see that I had done that to someone who was struggling inside a whole different kind of story - one that I wasn't at all familiar with. So I guess it taught me, gosh, Dina, you were not only wrong but maybe even a hypocrite. And that - it was really shattering. It was really shattering for a long time. And I think I would go looking, I guess, more - with more questions rather than just kind of looking to confirm what I already know. I hope I'll do that. But, you know, I guess we always have to really know that the next time we have a pitfall, it'll be a completely different kind of pitfall. You can't stop asking the questions, though.

SUMMERS: Dina Nayeri is the author of "Who Gets Believed? When The Truth Isn't Enough." Dina, thank you so much for talking with us.

NAYERI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Elena Burnett