Who Gets Believed?

  • By Dina Nayeri
  • Catapult
  • 304 pp.

Why so much hinges on “selling” our stories.

Who Gets Believed?

The title of the film “4.1 Miles” refers to the tiny stretch of water between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey. From 2015 to 2016, more than 60,000 people crossed it while fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. I recently showed it to college students in my composition class and was struck — watching the Coast Guard pluck as many refugees as they could from the monster waves — by the power of human generosity.

Still, the fact that the film is only 20 minutes long was a mercy. The horror of seeing people packed on top of each other on flimsy, sinking rafts was hard to stomach; the sound of panicked men and women screaming for family members humanized the migrant crisis far more effectively than any statistic ever could.

I’d finished Dina Nayeri’s Who Gets Believed? right before showing my students the film. The Kafkaesque bureaucracy faced by the asylum-seekers she chronicles hummed beneath my viewing experience. The author herself was once a refugee. Born during the Iranian Revolution, she escaped with her mother from Iran after her mother converted to Christianity. The two were granted asylum by the U.S. and settled in Oklahoma. In the book, Nayeri recounts her experience as a child fleeing her homeland, spending time in a refugee camp, and then trying desperately — for years — to fit in after arriving in America.

There’s an adage that the mark of a good memoir is its narrator’s substantial flaws. “I loved the book, but I don’t think we would be friends in real life,” my literary buddies and I often say to each other after reading certain authors’ personal writing. Yet Nayeri reveals her own flaws beautifully, portraying herself as far from a perfect woman. She is high-strung and distant, seeking influence and credibility from a young age. She attends Princeton, gets hired by the prestigious McKinsey & Company consulting firm, and earns an MBA from Harvard, among other notable achievements. And yet.

“As a foreign kid, I knew that American was a performance. So is refugee, good mother, top manager,” she admits candidly, adding further on, “A CEO is all theater, aped and perfected in private, and then trotted out publicly to varying degrees of success. There are some excellent fakers out there.”

Perhaps it’s this razor-sharp understanding of the reality that plausibility often hinges on performance that makes Nayeri the perfect guide on her book’s exploration of truth and believability. Much like the documentarians in “4.1 Miles,” she graphically depicts in Who Gets Believed? the duress endured by her subjects, showing that their ability to sell their true stories to those in authority — to convince them that what they’re hearing is fact — is a fundamental part of determining which victims find succor, and which have doors slammed in their faces.

One such figure is a man named K, a Tamil national who fled Sri Lanka after being tortured and sought refuge in the U.K. Nayeri describes his agonizing experiences in nail-biting clarity. When we learn the British Home Office decides K made it all up (right down to his “self-inflicted” scars), the rage and disgust we feel at the racism and utter lack of compassion is as visceral and shocking as the violence itself. K, we come to understand, didn’t “perform” his story well enough.

As the chapters progress, the very concept of what constitutes “well enough” becomes murkier and murkier. However, this book isn’t just about refugees. It dissects the concept of believability on multiple levels and via multiple individuals, including Nayeri herself, who reflects on her own efforts to convince her doctor that she truly did wish to give birth via C-section. Here and elsewhere, with nuance and precision, she examines those with power and those without it, those whose mental-health issues unfairly make them hard to believe, and even those whose astonishing grift — made possible by their Oscar-worthy performances — make us question the concept of “truth” entirely.

Though ambitious, Who Gets Believed? will be hard to categorize in a bookshop. Is it memoir? Criticism? Journalism? How about current affairs or social science? Regardless, it’s a juggernaut of a work that forces readers to rethink on whom we bestow credibility, and why. It’s an important book, and the best thing may be to shelve a copy in every section of the store.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer to Horse Network and the Independent and is working on her first book. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.

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