I realised a few minutes into interviewing Åsne Seierstad how she is able to talk to so many people outside her culture and have them speak to all of us. She listens, and with genuine care. She is not here with all answers. Rather she converses, going back and forth, asking questions, letting me seek clarifications. As she says in the interview, she takes no position or value as granted, and thinks through each of them even while answering the question.
This was for me the most admirable value in the Norwegian journalist, who is known around the world for her compelling portraits of everyday life in war-inflicted Afghanistan, Iraq, and Chechnya, in The Bookseller of Kabul, One Hundred and One Days, and Angel of Grozny respectively. These are only some of the countries she has worked in and written about – her work has also focused on her own country Norway, and gone as far as Serbia, Kosovo, and the USA.
Seierstad is most renowned for her second book, though. The Bookseller of Kabul, written like a novel, is a work of reportage, focusing on a bookseller’s family in Kabul, Afghanistan during Taliban rule. While she writes in detail about his endeavour to sell censored books during the conflict, she also focuses on the patriarchy in the country, and specifically in the bookseller’s house, which, as it happens, led to controversy. Shah Muhammad Rais, the man in question, filed a defamation suit against the journalist, who, after being found guilty by the lower court, was acquitted in her appeal to the higher courts.
Talking to Scroll.in during the Jaipur Literature Festival, Seierstad spoke of her journalistic practice, and the values she brings to her work. But, most important, she talked about radicalisation, and one of her recent books, One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and Its Aftermath. In here are stories of some of the victims of the 2011 Norway attack, and that of the attacker, Anders Breivik, who believed that his country was being Islamicised.
All of Seierstad’s work, including the latest Two Sisters, which explores the lives of the two sisters who flew to Syria to help the ISIS, intensely narrates the personal stories of the people involved. She told us why these personal narratives are as important as the historical processes that lead people there, either to ISIS or to internalised patriarchal standpoints. Excerpts from the interview:
You’ve worked in so many difficult countries and during times of conflict. How easy or difficult was it? My question is two-fold. How easy or difficult was reportage from a different country, in a different country? And also, what sort of freedom or restriction did you face?
Yes, it’s different when you work in countries where you haven’t lived. Generally, the more you know a subject, the better. That’s not always the case when we come from a different country, right? If something that needs to be reported happens, you go there quickly, you’re practically thrown into it. And there may not be enough time for preparation. But you can prepare.
The good thing about coming from a different country is the fresh eyes. Fresh views come from simple observations that people may have become used to. They may be very simple questions: Why are these people here and not there? Why do these people react this way? The best reportage work is when you see, observe, question, analyse. The experience is in doing all this as much as it is in knowing already.
You also asked about freedoms and restrictions. I remember when I worked in Iraq, during Saddam Hussain’s time, we journalists were monitored all the time. The state knew who we would go to meet. There was always a government minder present at interviews. Sneaking out was difficult, as was interviewing people not on the official list without risking them.
But at the same time, I think I had more freedom because I was writing for a Norwegian newspaper, and the Iraqi Intelligence didn’t really read Norwegian. I can’t be sure the Iraqi embassy didn’t read what I wrote. But I would have been deported if they had. And the big languages, English and French, for example, were being read.
How much do you think it matters not being a part of the culture? I don’t want to know just your stance, but also how your work has influenced your response: What are these boundaries of identity to you?
Hmm, that’s a complex question. The boundaries of identity…could you expand on the question?
Well, a German student was asked to leave India for commenting on – and showing solidarity against – the Citizenship Amendment Act. Your position as a journalist and his position as a student cannot be compared, of course, but asking him to return – by the state and all the support that the move garnered from a section of the people – is symptomatic of their disregard to Western journalists writing about India too: “How much of our country do you grasp? There are so many issues and so much complexity you can never know, because you have never experienced what we’ve experienced.” What do you think?
Yes, I get your question. We have different identities, of course. Going out as a young journalist, I thought I was more neutral. You know, I thought the Norwegian position was neutral, in the middle, and objective. Growing older and wiser, I realised that I am very collared to be growing up in a socio-democratic welfare state, and that I take it for granted.
It gives me a very different perspective, though. Norway is a gender equal society. I as a woman have never experienced any problems in work because I am a woman. That doesn’t speak for everybody, but personally I haven’t faced discrimination. Going to Afghanistan, where I researched for The Bookseller of Kabul, I have emotions about the gender hierarchy. I don’t think I should shun those, though.
I have opinions: I think the gender inequality in Afghanistan is not fair. And it’s true I comment with a Scandinavian perspective. But do we say that’s wrong? You can say my asking that question too comes from my position. What was ingrained in my very growing up was freedom of speech, or in other words, not being afraid to speak truth. And when we go out in the world too, we aren’t afraid. Because we have no oppressive government in Norway. You will be punished, of course, if you steal something, but that’s all.
So you can call my response to Afghanistan Western outrage. In Egypt – in a completely different context – many Western Germans have been arrested for disrespecting the country in questioning it. And here too this German student was deported, which is what they usually do: They get rid of people who do this.
It’s one thing to acknowledge this. But it’s another to say that these are all Western ideals and they don’t apply here, no? We really need to understand the value of these positions – be it gender equality or freedom of speech, for example.
You’re right. It’s just heightened when foreigners ask the question. The real problem seems to be the act of questioning. Take Turkey as an example: Turkish journalist are repressed by the state. Many are in prisons for years for what they wrote. Lack of freedom of expression is a big problem, and “you’re a foreigner” is only one other argument to restrict this freedom. And we can’t give in. When journalists and writers are afraid, who will tell the stories?
Exactly, right? I myself have been ambivalent about the “you don’t have experience” argument, because it’s just true of anybody and any story. It’s even used to silence protests, for example: Shut up because it doesn’t affect you. Also, this argument about foreigners means that I, as much a foreigner to Partition or the anti-Sikh riots, can write about them simply because I’m Indian by accident of birth, whereas a Western journalist can’t. Seems a little silly to me. To think people can’t think beyond their boundaries. And yet it’s an important topic, yes, among journalists?
I was reading about the two judgements with regard to The Bookseller of Kabul, and the first one stated that the publishers and you hadn’t “acted in good faith to ensure [you] were correct and accurate”, which the higher courts repealed, thankfully. But just that line – accuracy takes on a new meaning with respect to reportage of cultures to which you don’t belong. Because we agree that there shouldn’t be restrictions on who writes about what. My question in the light of all this is: What ethical considerations do we have in representing something from which we can walk away? Amidst these questions, what values will you claim, as a journalist, to have written the books that you have?
Many, but what comes to my mind immediately is fairness. As a journalist, you have the power to turn a phrase – even a report of a conversation you had with someone – towards this or that meaning. You can turn an arrogant statement into something humble. But you shouldn’t. You really need to take consideration of all the context and report your observations in all fairness. Fairness to truth, that is.
In the case that was filed against The Bookseller of Kabul, it’s true that the complainant felt he wasn’t accurately represented. I think it’s his genuine feeling, really, but what he feels maybe was that he was not as respected as he should be, being a man of his position. And he’s used to being respected all the time by his people.
But is my representation unfair? I did not just write what he says, which I report fairly, of course, but I also write what I observed, with the values that I have come to realise as fair. So was I fair to him? Maybe not in the way he thinks about it. But I was fair to what was happening there.
Now, should I have told him that I disagree with the way he treats his daughter? What if he then changes in order to be represented in a certain way? There wouldn’t be truth any longer. He behaves how he usually does when I’m not commenting. I’m not there to reform a family, I’m there to depict. What is family life like in Afghanistan? Typical? Yes, it has some typical traits, but there is also gender inequality and harassment as there is in many other countries in the world. And I need to say that. This is what’s fair, I think.
In journalism, fairness is the most important value. How can we arrive there? One, by trying to convey people the way they meant things, of course, without twisting it to paint a certain picture. But at the same time, to not take that for all the truth. We need to trace more than the surface. I’m trying to see several sides, always. I’m speaking to you now, and what I learn about you in the course of the interview is not the full story about you. I should talk to people around you, read what you’ve written, see your childhood house and where you live now, talk, observe, analyse.
Now you do all that, but most of your books do not have you as a character in them. As you say in your latest book, Two Sisters: “I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings. It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”
This is true of your works; but is this kind of neutrality – what other word can I use – just “relating” possible? I don’t mean it negatively. Doesn’t the story itself offer a specific narrative? The choice of words, the structure of our reportage…Given that as journalists, we are constantly analysing, not taking the word of the interviewee for granted, can we claim neutrality? What is it, then, you mean in the lines I quoted? And do you think it’s important to make our stances clear whether or not we insert ourselves in the narrative?
Well, I think, as I’ve done with my two last books – and The Bookseller of Kabul – I like to write myself out of the story. As for the other books, which are set in Iraq and Serbia, I’m there and not here. But I do have a short note explaining I did this work, and that I’m writing myself out, that what I write comes from interviews, documents, testimonies.
At the back of the book is a longer explanation. I realise people can ask, reading the first few pages, and not seeing me inside the book: how does she know all this? For this I say: go to the end, I’ve told you how. I don’t put this in the beginning because I want people to be more blank when they start reading, and maybe just read the story.
As for making my stances too clear, I think…well, readers need to build their stances too. With One of Us, I give them all the different perspectives, and books should do that. Book should give everything. So the best approach for me too is to take nothing for granted. No idea, no value, no narrative. Everything I research and explain. After I do that, should I give my stance – in the sense, is Breveik right or wrong – by writing myself out, I haven’t done that. I think there’s no point to that.
I mean, where should I state that ISIS is an evil organisation? It’s there, like you said, in the text, it’s in the way the words are arranged, and it’s true. I don’t think it’s my role to pass judgement, although I do judge of course. Even in One of Us, I just depict Breveik’s life, and that’s not to say it’s all neutral. I write what I find out. The technique is also that if I’m too opinionated the reader can be dismissive of my opinion. I want the reader to infer what they think about the events I’m describing – the unfairness of Breveik’s action should be their inference rather than my statement.
So we are thinking of fairness again, and not neutrality? Fascinating. Because we’re discussing your methods, I just want to go back to the case. Did the court case and everything that happened during the proceedings have any bearing on how you wrote it later? How did it influence, in a sense, you?
It did, definitely. It took years, those trials. I felt I came out of it okay. I am now more careful than most journalists. I give the people I interview their transcripts. I ask them to read it and tell me if there’s something wrong. Probably, if I’d done that with The Bookseller of Kabul, there would have been no book.
But I ask them not to fit in what they think. It’s just…there might genuinely be some mistakes, you know? I’ve worked with parents and families, and maybe now I think they need to know what I’m writing about them before it goes out there. Even those who seem to have negative roles, I send transcripts to their lawyers. Not to say I will change what I have written to suit them – I won’t – but I’m fulfilling a responsibility.
Because we’re in India, and we’re seeing a rampant rise in right-wing populism and the ideas it generates, I want to talk about One of Us, which tells us the story of such ideas taken to their extreme. I think I have a sense of why you delve so deep into Anders Breivik. But I do want to ask you: There’s a growing desire to assert an identity free from the “other” – radicalisation of this sort is happening here, with the fear of Islamicisation, which the present government is banking on.
And this is not one young man, unfortunately. Lakhs of people, some soft in their views, some out on the streets with rods. How much does it help to locate this radicalisation in the personal? The efforts have proven fruitful; your book was compelling. But is it just the personal? I’m a little wary. Is there something about right-wing populism itself that’s very romantic? That doesn’t really need failures in the personal to lure us?
I think that this growth of the far-right and an identification with it comes out of different things. Personal lives too. Think of the anger of not succeeding in your life in the way you thought you would. You feel, “I’m terrible, I’m left behind,” and you see this in the structures you live in too.
You can divert that anger to political movement. You can demand justice, more equality. Or you can divert that anger to radicalised groups that is to my mind – and here’s my opinion – simply wrong. It doesn’t solve anything. It leads to more violence. These movements, they exude power and force and strength and masculinity: “We know the answer.”
It gives a sense of power.
Yes, if you feel weak, you want to be part of something strong, and the far-right has that. ISIS has that.
I just want to ask if this weakness – in Breivik it was personal – is personal always? Can it be…imposed on you? “Hey, you’re weak.” And say it again and again, until you do feel very weak even if you’re not.
Yes, that can happen. I do think your sense of having failed can fuel it. Except you wouldn’t call yourself weak. Breivik didn’t. But he did project himself as strong. But there’s a sense of victimisation that you talk about, yes. And it’s happening in the United States too. Suddenly, the victims are white, middle-aged, heterosexual men because everyone else gets help, university education, and affirmative action.
Breivik definitely feels that way: “The blue-eyed people are disappearing; they’re taking our women.” Victimisation is a very important issue in the far-right. Only look at Hitler: “The Jews are stealing from us. The Jews are taking all the money, and we Germans are not getting any.” All far-right narratives have resonances in this aspect.
The title of the book is One of Us. Why? I understand he could have been anyone of us. These people are all a part of us, and one of them can turn this way. But there must be something stopping people from moving beyond the narrative of victimisation. So, who are the “us”? How does it include the people who will never support radicalisation of any sort? What’s the politics of the title?
That’s a very important question. I don’t think I defined who “us” is in the Afterword, also because it’s…supposed to be both positive and negative. I wanted to try to find a title that implied both him and his victims – so one of us could become Breivik but one of us could also become the victim.
Simon, one of the victims, was a typical Norwegian boy. And as I say in the Afterword, Bano’s aspiration was to be one of us. Then there’s Brevik – he’s one of us in a sense, but how much is he one of us? Is us Norwegians? Is us humanity?
Yes, what about the us that constantly resist radicalisation of any sort…
It’s negative in that it asks: if we have all gone through failures, and Breivik decided to kill people, is he one of us? Where do we draw the lines?
He’s so much like us but also not really…
Yes. And it’s also negative, in using the very word, “us”.
You mean the violent destruction of any kind of difference? To not understand differences and nominate everyone as “us”.
Yes, yes, you got it. In such a formulation of “us”, which is Breivik’s ideology, if you’re not one of us, then we don’t want you. And all those who approved of Breivik’s “revolutionary” act of killing people called him “one of us”. And all those who don’t think like us and agree with us, you’re never one of us. So the title of this book – you can draw it as far as you like.
That was a special insight into the title of your book, thank you. Now, following from one of my earlier questions, I want to ask you about the corpus of your work: By focusing so much on the personal, though that is necessary, are we paying less attention to the larger narratives, ideas, and functionaries that contribute to wars, radicalisation, extremism – Islamic or nationalist, invasions etc?
Well, as a writer, at some point, you decide what kind of book you’re going to write. It would be easy for me: I could have added three chapters on the history of the far-right in Norway, but in the context of this book, it would have been out of place. I have to follow my argument and mention everything. A bit of the context only, because so many others have written about the context. It’s out there for all of us to read and research.
I don’t mean to say the method I employ is the right method. It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s just telling a story in a different method. The larger narratives do not belong in the universe of this book: It has a particular tone of tracing personal stories. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what goes in, what’s important. And with this one, especially, I had to think of both Breivik and the people whose lives he took.
Finally, a personal question, if I may? Having stared at violence in the face, having written and seen all this, has the feeling that everything is falling apart ever consumed you? Have you lost hope?
NO. No. It’s a no because there is a counterforce too. In inclusion in the non-violent way. It’s happening, and it will happen in India too. We are all afraid that India too is being turned into a more monolithic society. But there are counter-movements. There is anger. Anger on the streets that does not resort to violence. Sometimes anger may not be constructive but there are other kinds of discourses too. Here you are, a student reading One of Us from another part of the world. How can I lose hope when this is the case?