Ahead of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Seierstad talks about the fine line between journalism and fiction
Interview with author and journalist Asne Seierstad
The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad - you know her as the author of 2003's The Bookseller of Kabul - has just got home from Cairo.
"I was there during the uprisings, just before Mubarak left," she says. "It was amazing. I've spent so much time in Egypt with my family: my husband has worked there as a musician. Then, suddenly, everything changes."
A kind of magnetic attraction operates when it comes to Seierstad and countries on the cusp of historic - and often violent - change: across a journalistic career spanning almost 20 years and encompassing newspapers, television, and, finally, books, she has reported from Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.
But it's Seierstad's second book, written from Afghanistan, for which she is internationally recognised. The Bookseller of Kabul - which tells the real story of an Afghan bookshop owner and his family - stands alongside Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner as one of the key texts via which western readers discovered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US-led 2001 invasion. The book's international success made Seierstad's name, and her fortune; but all that has come alongside a difficult postscript. Following publication, The Bookseller's subject, Shah Muhammad Rais, claimed that he had been misrepresented. Seierstad found herself being sued by the very man whose story she had brought to the world; the case is still passing through the Norwegian courts.
Today, Seierstad is preparing for her imminent appearance at the Abu Dhabi Book Festival. She is thoughtful and cheerful in equal measure - necessary virtues, it might be supposed, in a war correspondent - and full of excitement at having rediscovered her work.
"Cairo was my comeback after having children," - her second child was born in August - "I got a call from a Norwegian newspaper about Egypt and I was thinking, 'what can I write from home?' They said, 'but don't you want to go?' So I did, and I knew exactly the kind of people I wanted to see. I wanted a different perspective from the one you get on the daily news."
Seierstad started as a foreign correspondent - first from Moscow, and then from Chechnya during the 1994 Russian invasion - for Norwegian newspapers. In 1998 she reported on the Balkan war for national television network NRK. Frustrated with the limitations imposed on her by that medium, she decided to write a book: it became With Their Backs to the Wall: Portraits of Serbia, published in 2000. Next, of course, came Bookseller, then One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal in 2005, and Angel of Grozny in 2007. It has been a career ranging across remarkable places, and no small amount of danger. So what motivates her to pitch up in war zones?
"Across the last two decades, these have been the important stories," she says. "The Balkan war was the first time war came to Europe after World War II. And then, of course, with the invasion of Afghanistan, for a journalist it was impossible not to go.
"For me it's not about action or adrenalin. It's about witnessing history; it's about curiosity. If I know something huge is happening and I'm not there, I get depressed."
The first book on Serbia was well received and sold 3,000 copies in Norway. Nothing prepared Seierstad, then, for the global phenomenon that Bookseller became. That book presents the story of book shop owner and family patriarch Shah Muhammad Rais, who is quoted in the book as saying: "First the Communists burned my books, then the Mujahadeen looted and pillaged, finally the Taliban burned them all over again."
Rais was well-known to the western journalists who arrived in Kabul in the aftermath of the invasion: one of his bookshops was at the Intercontinental Hotel, where most journalists stayed. Here was a true, human story that embodied the arc of recent Afghan history; furthermore, Rais was something of a local hero, known for helping to keep the country's literary culture alive.
"I remember how he invited a few of us journalists to his house for dinner," says Seierstad. "Afterwards I thought: I have to write a book about this man." Seierstad went to live with Rais and his family:
"Recently I was looking at my notes from my first month staying in his house. [One] said: 'I don't understand anything. Who will ever be interested in this?'"
The first print run was 3,000 copies; in three months the book sold 100,000, and today, says Seierstad, international sales stand at over two million.
Across the past few years, though, Seierstad has dealt with one less welcome consequence of the book. Despite Rais's uncontested commitment to Afghan literature, many readers closed Bookseller having concluded that he was a tyrant who mistreated his wife and children. Rais flew to Norway and began a vocal campaign in which he claimed Seierstad had ruined his reputation. That culminated in legal action brought by his second wife, and last year Seierstad was ordered to pay 250,000 Norwegian kroner (Dh164,000) to her for invasion of privacy.
Seierstad says she disagrees with the ruling and will appeal. But given all this trouble - and the hurt expressed by Rais and his family - does she regret any aspects of the book?
"We can't live our lives backwards. I think that Rais is disappointed because he expected to be depicted as 100 per cent hero, but he has good and bad sides. He ran his family, and I described what I saw. If I just write what he tells me, that isn't a book. That's nothing."
Bookseller is notable for its novelistic style; like a novel it is told in the third person by an unnamed narrator, who enters in the minds of the book's subjects to reproduce their innermost thoughts. Is there a danger, here, of blurring the lines between journalism and fiction?
"Yes, there is that danger," says Seierstad. "When I am inside the minds of people in the book, it is not simply my imagining, it is based entirely on what they told me they were thinking.
"I did the same in my Grozny book. I do it because I want to present the whole person, and I want readers to relate to them. The goal with Bookseller was to get the Afghan perspective. But it's hard, and I'm sure not everyone would agree I achieved that."
And in presenting such a blunt appraisal of Rais - who is, after all, only one Afghan man among millions - did she run the risk of only confirming the worst western prejudices about Afghan and Islamic culture? Can those in the West, living such different lives, really judge Rais?
"Well, when it comes to suffering, I'm not a cultural relativist. If a woman in Afghanistan can't run her own life, does that hurt her less than it would a western woman? I don't think so. I believe in the universal declaration of human rights, and that every person has the same value.
"I think my book is very open. I am a journalist; I'm not there to judge. Different people seem to use the book to confirm their own views. Some people on the political right said: 'this book proves the military campaign must go on', though of course I never say that. Others see it as a feminist book. One of the most important aspects of this for me is that many Afghan women have sent me letters thanking me, and saying they recognise their own experience in the book."
The case will roll on: Seierstad's appeal will be heard in November, and she says she is positive she will win.
In the meantime, though, history continues to be made, and she has caught the journalism bug again.
"Right now, I'm interested in the Arab world. I went to university and studied Arabic for a semester.
"I'd like to go to a handful of countries: perhaps Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. That will be my next project."
- Asne Seierstad will appear at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Friday. For more information, visit www.adbookfair.com.