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A Word of Difference: Dina Nayeri on Writing, Editing, and Empathy

Kicking off the first-ever Lincoln School Future is Feminist Conference, a student-run day dedicated to exploring intersectional feminism with community leaders and activists, came a clear call to action: Write better. Read always. Think originally. Find your voice. Listen deeply to the voices of others.

The rally came from award-winning author Dina Nayeri whose essay “The Ungrateful Refugee,” and novels “Refuge” and “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” are works that examine the refugee experience. She began her keynote address by reading an original piece to Middle and Upper School students about the human experience, the importance of empathy in writing and life, and both the promise and potential failures of language.

Nayeri’s works are a testament to her philosophy. When reviewing “Refuge,” her most recent book, Borish Fishman said, “Dina Nayeri’s prose has something all too rare in books these days: a wild, beating heart. Read this book to feel your own heart expand.”

And what else is empathy but the process of expanding your own heart to be filled with the life of another? The question then becomes not what—but how.

“Put each word on trial for its life,” Nayeri said, and then repeated it. Delete filler language, she encouraged. Eschew tired aphorisms. Retire canned transitional phrases like “as a result of,” “all things considered,” and “as a matter of fact.”

Instead, she posited, fill that space with ideas, preferably ones that have never been thought of before. Listen to your mind to find your voice, and then choose the words that feel true to it and delete the rest.  

“This may seem like a lofty statement but learning to write freshly and precisely can make you smarter, better people. Learning to read closely, word by word, can strengthen your ability to empathize. Then you can speak to someone with an entirely different experience and understand and be understood, and that is empowering,” said Nayeri.

But writers can very easily miss that mark, especially when they are taught to rely on writing tropes instead of their own reflections.

“When you use words to avoid taking a stance, when you refuse to say what you actually mean, then you become unreliable, entitled, and lazy. You learn to hedge and obfuscate, instead of being bold, showing weakness, trusting your own authentic voice,” said Nayeri. “The most urgent, powerful words, are often the simplest. Every time you put two words together, an image together, or even a single word on a page, ask: is this mine?... Challenge yourself to cut words without cutting actual meaning. You’ll become better. It’s a muscle. You’ll develop an ear for yourself. And then someone will come to you and say, why don’t you insert this phrase? And you can confidently reply: because that phrase doesn’t mean anything.”

The best tool to wield when honing that skill, she offered, is to read.

“Read good fiction. Read a lot of different voices. When I decided to become a writer, I ordered every single book that had been a finalist for the Booker Prize in the past 50 years and I spent a year reading them,” said Nayeri. “Read the best kind of writing you’re trying to do, and you will pick up what is good and authentic and be able to apply it to your own work.”

Nayeri’s writing career thus far has focused on narratives that resemble her own: refugees, their families, dreams, conflicts, and peripatetic sense of home. But, she argues, that doesn’t always have to be the case. Though there is great debate in the writing community about an author’s ability to attempt to inhabit someone else’s identity for the sake of narrative, Nayeri argues that it can be done. But it must be done responsibly.

“When you take on someone else’s voice, the bar is higher. You have to do so much more work to do to be believed and authentic. If you spent the last 30 years living a story, it will flow out of you, and flow out true. But be prepared: if you don’t do the work, you will get called out for it, because you have taken someone else’s story and haven’t given it the work that it deserves,” said Nayeri.

The work, of course, is to listen. Listen to their voice, the nuances of their language, the ellipses in their thought process, what fuels their own wild, beating heart. 

“If you don’t do the work, you will fail,” said Nayeri. “But if you succeed, congratulations, because you will have created art. You will have listened long enough and deep enough to create something empathetic and therefore beautiful, powerful, and true.”


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