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In Focus: Dina Nayeri

A reader in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews’ School of English, Dina Nayeri’s work has been published in more than 20 countries and in publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker. She has also published four books, with her 2023 book Who Gets Believed? recently being selected as a Nonfiction finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The book discusses the experiences of refugees and vulnerable people, highlighting how often they are disbelieved and dismissed. It explores biases and how these shape who gets believed. 

The National Book Critics Circle Awards were founded in 1974 and are considered one of the most prestigious awards authors publishing in English can receive. Winners are chosen by a jury of working critics and book review editors. The awards will be presented on Thursday 21, March at The New School in New York City. 

The nominated work, and much of Nayeri’s back catalogue, has been informed by her experiences as an asylum seeker as a child. She told The Saint,  “All of my stories are informed by my own life. And Who Gets Believed? was particularly personal because it rose out of an obsession I’ve had since I was a kid […] I was a refugee when I was 8 years old, when my family fled from Iran, and we were displaced for 16 months and then we arrived in America. When I arrived in America, I became very high achieving and very, very obsessed with being accepted as an American and credible as an American, so this question of ‘How do people behave so that they are believed implicitly?’, that was an obsession for me.”

She continued, “I was just becoming aware of culture and culture cues and the differences in credibility in the two cultures that I knew: Iranian culture and American culture.”

Nayeri credits her previous book, The Ungrateful Refugee, winner of the 2020 Clara Johnson Award and Geschwister-Scholl-Preis and a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as the book’s other central influence. Nayeri said, “I built that arc in that book and as I was gathering stories [for] the third section, which was about storytelling, [it] really captured my interest and I had way more stories than I knew what to do with. And it made me think about how, not just refugees but all vulnerable people, are so systematically disbelieved and so I decided there has to be another book about this that kind of goes beyond refugee storytelling […] The stories people tell when they are seeking medical attention, the stories people tell when they talk to social services, the stories people tell […] in the legal system when they’ve been wrongfully accused…”

The novel has been described by The Observer as “an elegant telling of truth to power,” and Nayeri by The Guardian as a “master storyteller of the refugee experience”. But the one thing she herself wants readers to take away from Who Gets Believed? is that everyone has biases. She said of the work, “I hope that, reading this, people start to see that we listen to stories differently, that we give a lot of credibility — a lot of unearned credibility — to people with great privilege, and that we often look at the stories of people’s mother cultures and vulnerable people with suspicion because we’re afraid that people might need us too much […] I think if I can get people to become a little bit more aware of that, I’ll consider it a success.”

Bias is a central theme of the novel. When asked about how her own biases informed the writing process, Nayeri said, “I think part of the challenge of this book was to try to understand and show that we all approach certain stories with more kindness and more openness because there are some stories that are familiar to us, the kind of stories we’re used to hearing from childhood, and there are certain kinds of people that are credible to us because those are the kinds of people that we’ve learned to be comfortable with […] I just didn’t think that [the] book would be as powerful or true if I didn’t put myself up for that kind of scrutiny because I have biases and that there are people that I have disbelieved too. And what I would like for people to make a practice of doing is to look inwardly at their own biases, and how could I ask people to do that if I don’t do it myself? I think I can model that kind of thinking.”

Free speech is also important to Nayeri and central to her experiences, which is reflected in her recent election to the English PEN board of trustees. English PEN is a literary charity that campaigns for free speech and the promotion of literature in the United Kingdom, emphasising freedom of expression which especially appeals to Nayeri due to her background. She said of the honour, “It’s an organisation whose work I really believe in, a free speech organisation, fighting for the rights of writers, and people really, to write about, speak about, what they believe in all around the world.” She added, “I come from Iran, a place where free speech is heavily curtailed […] it means a lot to me to be part of an organisation that fights for that right.”

Nayeri’s upcoming publications include The Waiting Place, a nonfiction book for children about refugee camps, and Sitting Bird, an adult novel. 

Image by the University of St Andrews Press Office

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