The Bookseller of Kabul – The Legal Saga – What Does it Mean?

The biggest appeal of The Bookseller of Kabul for me was that it gave a portrayal of a family living in Kabul and it was a world not too many people (outside that world) know about.

But what is it? Is it non-fiction or fiction?

I have the book The Bookseller of Kabul. I have read it. But I must admit, I have not read all of it. I only managed to get half way.

I really struggled through it. It felt like reading a very very long magazine article. I don’t know why but I had the impression, before reading it, that it was a novel. Perhaps I was meant to guess from the fact that all the characters were real people. My fault. But you can experience something and still fictionalize it. It gives your fictionalization a stronger backbone. Anyway I digress. The Guardian called it non-fiction but the author tried to write it like a novel. It seems the author was also confused.

Having lived with the family for so long and questioned them so closely, she says she felt justified writing from inside the head of each character, attributing thoughts and feelings to them without the filter of her own voice – as if she were writing a novel.

I think that’s why I found it confusing – and gave up.

Even though the author said she was ‘writing from the inside the head of each character’, I just couldn’t get into the book nor did I get into any of the characters. When I felt I might be getting close to one of the characters, she would jump to another character. To really enjoy a book, I need to be emotionally hooked and unfortunately I wasn’t.

I think that’s why I found it frustrating.

Going inside a character’s head is normally something done in the realm of fiction. Isn’t it? If you’re talking from a journalistic point of view, you could only really describe what’s in your head (the journalist) and what you see and hear from those you interact with. As a journalist, you can only imply and assume what’s going on inside someone else’s head.

Am I wrong?

As you know Asne Seierstad has been in the news recently being sued by the main character Shah Muhammad Rais for her portrayal of his family – and she has subsequently lost her first legal battle against him.

Asne Seierstad’s case makes you wonder if she did exploit them. The Guardian points this out:

But was it right to accept Rais’s hospitality for almost half a year and then tear him apart in public? She may have been invited into the family home by Rais, but did the women in the house – one of whom was 16 and had barely left the backyard of her father’s home before marrying the aging Rais – truly understand what would happen to their secrets after they were scribbled down in a writer’s notepad?

The author seems to think that ‘there’s nothing unkind’ in showing the world how Afghanistan and the family unit work. I’m not for censorship. I agree people should know the truth.

It’s important for us to know Afghanistan. It is a country where we waged a war and to understand people you have to dig deeper and there’s nothing unkind in that.

What is surprising is, by digging deep to understand the society she wrote about – to provide the truth, she seems genuinely shocked that she’s being sued and accused of ‘treachery’ by the family that invited her into their house, offered her access to their inner most thoughts and took care of her while she stayed with them.

I’m not condoning the society and its culture but to the bookseller it is how it is. And they probably didn’t realize that their way of life would shock the rest of the world and they’d be condemned for it. They themselves. Not the society and culture that is controlling them. This is how they see it. Of course they’re taking it personal. Who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t you?

They say now that they didn’t say certain things or that they are humiliated by having them written about, but who is really saying that?” Seierstad says. “It is Rais who is leading this campaign against me for reasons of money or of honour, I have no idea, but because these women are dependent on him, they have no choice but to say what he says.

The bookseller is himself a victim of the society that he lives in. And even if they do not like their situation, to not condemn the book is to show that they disrespect their own culture. The family has to live in that culture and deal with the consequences of seeming to be disrespectful.

And it’s understandable that the bookseller feels betrayed. She was invited as a guest. And even though she ‘absented herself’ from the book, what she focused on and how she wrote it implies her opinions, be it hers or the world’s.

Seierstad absented herself from its pages: in the book, the omnipotent storyteller is never present.

As a journalist, I’m surprised she didn’t make sure she had the family’s written consent to publish what they said.

“If I write a book in future, I may decide to take the precaution of going back to every person I interview, reading their quotes back to them and asking them to sign a letter, saying it is accurate,” she says. “Journalism is moving into a different world where we are held to almost impossible standards. In everything I write, ever again, I need to make sure I am 100% accurate. A journalist can get away with this sort of controversy once, but I can’t survive it again.”

In film-making, even extras who appear just for a second have to sign consent forms. Why shouldn’t the main character of your book? I’m surprised she didn’t record them speaking and asked them for permission to include it in the book there and then. Images of journalists saying ‘this is on record’ and flicking on their tape recorders come to mind. Have I watched too many films? Don’t journalists do that in the real world?

But what does all this mean?

It provides a good lesson when writing anything to get your facts verified and before publishing, to get written consent.

The Bookseller of Kabul – I will finish it some day.

Have you read the book? What do you think of all this?

(Quotes taken from Guardian.co.uk)

“Life has, indeed, many ills, but the mind that views every object in its most cheering aspect, and every doubtful dispensation as replete with latent good, bears within itself a powerful and perpetual antidote.”

Lydia H. Sigourney – Poet

CURRENT STATUS: Reminder, Motivator and Review Meeting (Read on if you want to join me in my Corporation of One meeting)

What l have learnt:

  • Jack Higgins aka Harry Patterson earned £4million in a year and was still rejected. Read A Life in Writing: Jack Higgins (via Guardian.co.uk). Inspiring.
  • Seth Godin tells us that the way we are online is how we publicize ourselves. If you have a presence online, you are promoting yourself even if you don’t know it or care for it, you’re still doing it.
  • Chris Brogan’s post We Won’t Come is thought-provoking. Make it easy for people. But if you don’t, you’ll get those who are really interested. Something like that. He explains it better.
  • Top 10 Must Have WordPress Plugins by Kimberly Castleberry. Check it out and see if you’re missing some.

What I have done:

  • Downloaded some WordPress plugins recommended by Kimberly Castleberry.

WORD COUNT: Night Walker 137,000 words in total. Friday 30 July wrote 1,000 words.

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One Response to The Bookseller of Kabul – The Legal Saga – What Does it Mean?

  1. Well, this is a great piece of article. Informal language to the users. Perfect!

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