The recent Norwegian court ruling against Asne Seierstad, the author of The Bookseller of Kabul, throws into sharp relief the fine line between journalism and literature, writes Faisal al Yafai The back-streets of Peshawar, the year after American troops first enter Afghanistan. In Hayatabad in the west of the city, Afghan refugees have gathered, anxiously awaiting reports, waiting for their futures to be decided by others. In one crumbling house sits a middle-aged Afghan woman and her daughter, praying for a knock on the door. The thoughts of that woman in that house at that time were last month the subject of a court case in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. For three days, Asne Seierstad, a former war correspondent, was quizzed on her journalistic methods, on whether she could conceivably have written the innermost thoughts of that Afghan woman and her family. What the court decided has raised questions about the very nature of non-fiction writing itself.
Seierstad was facing a case brought by one of her characters - "Sultan" in her book, in real life a man called Shah Muhammed Rais - an Afghan bookseller with whom Seierstad lived for three months in Kabul and whose family life she portrayed in her bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul. Published in 2002 as US and British troops began to move across the whole of Afghanistan, The Bookseller rapidly became the bestselling non-fiction book in Norway's history and was translated into 29 languages. Through the minutiae of one family - its aspirations and fears, marriage, business and bureaucracy - something of the story of Afghanistan began to emerge, a view into a complex society most often glimpsed through sporadic television images.
From the start there was controversy, though readers celebrating an accessible book about an impenetrable country could be forgiven for not hearing it. Rais objected to the way he and his family were portrayed; he came across as an insensitive, oppressive man, forcing his first wife to live away from him in Peshawar. There were also darker episodes linked to his family, of assault and honour killings. Rais went to court to discredit the book.
Finally, after years of litigation, a Norwegian court last month ruled against Seierstad and ordered her to pay 250,000 kroner (Dh148,000) to Rais's second wife Suraia. (Seierstad says she will appeal.) The court found that what Seierstad had written about Suraia Rais's private thoughts was sensitive and concluded neither Seierstad nor her publishers "can be considered to have acted in good faith to ensure they were correct and accurate".
In those few words are the essence of the case's repercussions for journalism and non-fiction writing. What, when writing about foreign cultures, is true, and what can be considered accurate? Here, the idea of accuracy must mean something more than an adherence to the mere facts. It must mean giving, as far as possible, an accurate reflection of the conditions under which the facts appear. Seierstad's book is not the story of Afghanistan, but the story of one family. Rais's chief complaint was that Seierstad revealed things that were private to the family that she did not have permission to write about - in essence that she was free to experience them, but not free to write about them. Seierstad views it differently. She has argued that she was there explicitly as a journalist and that her intentions were clear to the family.
In microcosm, that is the dilemma raised by the case. Rais's criticism brings up a range of issues, from breach of trust and invasion of privacy, to a lack of cultural understanding. The questions are whether Seierstad truthfully reported what Suraia was thinking (whether it was true) and also whether she accurately reflected Suraia's story (whether it was accurate). But how do you accurately reflect a society that isn't your own?
Seierstad has recognised that some of the things she was describing in The Bookseller were intensely private, taboo in a culture like Afghanistan. In the original English version, there was an intimate description of a woman's private parts, as seen by Seierstad in a hammam. She later removed that section and argued: "[The] book went through several editors and we all overlooked that problematic word, genitals. We realised it was a mistake only after Rais focused on it, and I apologised to him and to his mother for it." Can Seierstad really have been so unschooled in the nature of Afghan society, even after living there so long, that she did not grasp that writing about a woman's genitals in one of the most conservative parts of the world would be a problem?
Seierstad's revelations had serious consequences. Rais' claimed that his first wife - that woman in the house in Peshawar - was so humiliated by her portrayal in The Bookseller that she was forced to leave Afghanistan and live with her brother in Canada. As much as journalists need not be over-mindful of the consequences of their reporting - or they would never work - repercussions of that magnitude merit serious consideration.
How far journalists can go in being sensitive to a society without simply reflecting its values is a question I have pondered at length this year. As I research a book on feminism across five very different Arab and Islamic countries, I've had to try and remain authentic to what I see and hear. But equally I am trying to make fine judgements, to report what I see in context, to be sensitive to the subject.
Sensitivity matters because of the responsibility journalists have: not a responsibility to represent their subjects, to become their cheerleaders, but to accurately reflect them. It strikes me that writers who live among their subjects, absorbing their ideas, their friendships and their hardships have a responsibility to reflect accurately that experience, the good and the bad. They do not have to sympathise, but they do have to empathise. The need to do that is born of a very big right that can only be understood in context: the right to speak. Until recently, it was a right afforded to Seierstad but not to her subjects.
The dirty little secret for anyone from a rich country is that they - we - get to walk away. That is the secret power bestowed on a few colourful passports. If the war in the Congo burns too hot or the militants in Kabul push too close, the passports provide a portal to another world, a world of rules and clean water and parochial political tussles. The people with the passports get to go home again. That makes it doubly important that we don't harm those left behind.
After the court's verdict, an interviewer asked Seierstad if she thought it was unkind of her to reveal the most intimate secrets of Rais's family. "What's unkind in it?" she replied. "Should I, when I know something is not right, like the way the bookseller treated his wives, say it's not important? Yes, it is important and I have to find out." What Seierstad does not address is the implicit power she has to question. The right, granted by political and economic power, to probe, to set foot in another country and another culture and ask questions. To her answer, one might ask: why? Why does she feel compelled to find out? What business is it of a journalist from northern Europe to try and understand the workings of a family half a planet away?
Seierstad's power sets up an imbalance: when she leaves, she takes her story far away, beyond barriers of immigration and money that her subjects find hard to surmount. Seierstad's passport and skin colour allow her access to parts of Afghan society inaccessible even to Afghan journalists; those same attributes also allow her to be heard in her own society, to offer her version of Afghan society as if she were a neutral observer. An Afghan journalist writing about Norwegian society is seen as a reaction, as testimony that needs to be analysed rather than accepted at face value.
This combination of barriers, of the right to be heard and be understood as neutral, forms something of a fourth wall in front of the narratives that Seierstad and other writers create. In the theatre, the "fourth wall" is a conceptual boundary that separates the audience from the actors on stage. Actors, like citizens of rich countries, can pass through this fourth wall to the audience, but the audience may not cross unless invited. The audience can only watch. Shah Mohammed Rais's case breached this fourth wall. He moved from the pages of the book into a Norwegian court room. No longer a passive character, he gave his own version of what happened in Afghanistan, speaking widely in the media and writing a book called Once Upon a Time There was a Bookseller in Kabul.
Read in that way, the court's decision is a victory for the poor and powerless, more often written about than writers, who can now challenge the narrative imposed on them by outsiders. Yet in that victory is a sting, a celebration of a new flatness of the world that fails to recognise its peaks.
Seierstad is a serious journalist. Before she lived with the bookseller in Kabul, she travelled with the Northern Alliance, the first friends of the Anglo-American armies in Afghanistan. For her latest book, The Angel of Grozny, she entered Chechnya dressed as a Chechen woman to try and find out what was happening. Both were incredibly dangerous actions in regions largely forgotten by the international community. Neither are marks of an opportunist.
Seierstad's story of Afghanistan is not the only story of that country. She can hardly help the fact that hers has proved so popular and has defined that country to so many readers. Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner did something similar. If some passages dwell on lurid issues like honour crimes, that is only because of the context of the country. The real danger of the legal decision against her book is that other journalists and writers will now be afraid to tell the truth as they see it, unless they are sure that truth - told to them in murky conditions, in fragments, in the midst of war and chaos - can stand up in a brightly lit court of law.
If every time writers say something that doesn't tally with how the subject feels, they get sued, it will make them less likely to say anything. Add to this the fact that non-fiction publishers do not generally have sufficiently deep pockets to defend every lawsuit and the chilling effect of the law becomes obvious. What happened in a small courtroom in Oslo may yet have repercussions for writers everywhere.
The second question raised by the Norwegian verdict is far harder to answer, although it appears easier to give a categorical response. How to trace that defining line between fiction and non-fiction, between something that really happened and something that could have happened? In his collection of travel stories, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, Geoff Dyer signals this to his readers early on: "All of these things happened," he writes, "but some only happened in my head."
Seierstad is not the first writer of literary non-fiction to have her standards of truth questioned. Earlier this year Ryzsard Kapuscinski, the man often regarded as Europe's greatest journalist of the last century, had his reputation unpicked by a former disciple. In a voluminous biography of the Polish writer, Artur Domoslawski accused him of blurring the boundaries of what was real: "He wasn't aware he had crossed the line between journalism and literature. I still think his books are wonderful and precious. But ultimately, they belong to fiction."
Kapuscinski has long been held up as the ideal foreign correspondent, a man who took his experiences of wars, revolutions and coups in Africa and Asia - 27 by the time of his death - and wove them into a larger truth. For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Kapuscinski was a reporter for Polish press agencies, hammering out factual but dull copy from forgotten parts of the globe. Yet in his best books - writing about a war over a football match, or the fall of the Soviet Union - he transcends the mere reporting of facts into a larger whole, transmuting the daily staccato lines of information into a bigger truth.
Domoslawski's contention is that, in grasping after a deeper truth, Kapuscinski distorted the facts on the surface. The Scottish writer Neal Ascherson, who wrote the introduction to what is arguably Kapuscinski's most famous work The Emperor, argues that Kapuscinski "made a truth even truer". In his introduction to The Emperor, which charts the last days of Haile Selassie's rule in Ethiopia, Ascherson writes: "The courtiers, in Kapuscinski's account, speak with the lucidity, the melancholy irony, the affection of simplicity, used by intellectual statesmen in Renaissance Italy? But did they really talk quite like this to their Polish visitor?"
Ascherson concludes that it doesn't matter, that Kapuscinski is grasping at something bigger: "It may be that Kapuscinski enhanced his notes in a creative way. It's impossible to know, and it is not important? In the end, Kapuscinski's method, in which the journalist complements the novelist, was the only way to bring the reader with him into a lost world." Kapuscinski's readers, he suggests, find a truth in his work, but it is not a literal one.
Ascherson's defence of Kapuscinski's mixing of disciplines - which could also apply to Seierstad's work - seems on the surface equivocal. On the contrary, it is possible to know what was said, because Kapuscinki would have kept notes. But is it important? Reading The Emperor, with its descriptions of courtiers jostling for position, of the strict roles allocated to individuals and of the chaos that envelops the palace as Selassie's rule crumbles, it is clear that a deeper truth is being revealed. The subject illuminated by the book is not simply the immaculate palaces and lawns of Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa, but the way of thinking of all such palaces, from the historical courts of St Petersburg to modern-day Buckingham Palace.
Is it even possible to speak of something as truth? Seierstad herself once suggested, in a throwaway remark, that since Shah Muhammad Rais had published his own version of what happened during those months in Afghanistan, the matter should rest. She had given her version of events and he had given his; the readers - and history - were free to decide between them. Ascherson, writing of Kapuscinski, said "there is no floodlit wire frontier between literature and reporting" and Seierstad, in her introduction to The Bookseller, highlights what she is doing for the reader: "When I describe thoughts and feelings, the point of departure is what people told me they thought or felt? Internal dialogue and feelings are based entirely on what family members described to me." Thus the words, which later in the book are offered without quotation marks, are understood to refer not to literal words but to states of mind.
How to make sense of this? In his biography, Kapuscinski Non-Fiction, Domoslawski finds witnesses complaining of inaccuracies in the material. This is a serious breach. Telling the world that a particular, named person said one thing when they said something quite different, or didn't say anything at all, is a clear violation of journalistic ethics. But seeking a higher truth through the language of literature must be a legitimate endeavour, as long as that task is highlighted. Kapuscinski, it seems to me, doesn't do that sufficiently with The Emperor - nowhere does he say what is clear to most thoughtful readers, that some editing must have occurred to make the story flow as it does. Seierstad is more explicit in her introduction. Perhaps, though, they both fall foul of a strict demarcation between the real and the imagined; Seierstad's burden was to have to delineate that border in a court of law.
If Seierstad doesn't sufficiently flag up the distinction between speaking as a writer and speaking as a journalist for a court of law, the real issue in The Bookseller is that she doesn't highlight when she is speaking as a person. Ultimately, the clearest omission in The Bookseller of Kabul is that of the author herself. By removing herself from the narrative Seierstad strives for omniscience, when in fact her feelings on the subject enshroud every line. The Bookseller is written like a novel, but it is not a novel; it purports to be her real experience of Afghanistan.
By striving to be objective and masking her own voice, Seierstad doesn't allow the reader to assess her prejudices. She criticises Afghan society from behind a veil, suggesting these are criticisms that apply always and forever, rather than issues she, as a woman from a very different culture, finds most objectionable. The picture she paints of Afghanistan would have been clearer had she painted herself into the frame.
For the truth is not a blank slate, not the mere absence of fabrication. It is, rather, always edited, always selected. We choose what to ask and what to omit, what facts to weave into a narrative, what to leave implied. All of us who try to write about other people in other cultures are also writing about ourselves: our art is a self-portrait, so we are never neutral. In telling other people's stories, we always tell part of our own.
Faisal al Yafai is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010, exploring feminism across the Arab and Islamic worlds. His book about the journey will be published by IB Tauris in 2011.