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The biggest conceptual weakness of Seierstad’s book is that she does not seem to have understood the absolute centrality of the concepts of “hospitality” and “namos” (literally the “status, chastity, purity, virtuousness, and nobleness of the female members of the family”) to Afghan society. The idea that you could accept someone’s hospitality and then spy on them to violate their namos is completely shocking and makes a mockery of all her other claims of insight into the society in which she was living.
But is it necessarily a writer’s duty to cover all the complexities of every story?
Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.
Plus: you can hear Asne Seierstad and Shah Muhammad Rais disuss the case on the Today Programme here
English PEN director Jonathan Heawood has an excellent piece in the Independent today on the libel case against Bookseller of Kabul author Åsne Seierstad.
Jonathan wonders if this sets a worrying precedent on the use of real people in literature:
What would it mean for literature if all characters based on real people were removed from the record? No Buck Mulligan in Ulysses; no Sarah in The End of the Affair; no Casaubon in Middlemarch; no Zelda in Tender is the Night; no Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House; no Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Ottoline Morrell was cruelly satirised in both Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. Christopher Robin Milne hated living with the memory of his father’s classic books about a little boy and his teddy bear. Real people are scooped up by writers all the time. Literature does not respect the boundary between public and private; in fact, it is all about overstepping that mark.
There’s also the question of whether an author should be held responsible for the reaction, or potential reaction, of an audience (or potential audience).
That’s not to say that Seierstad has not broken an unwritten code of hospitality, or that the Rais family has not faced problems as a result of the book’s publication. Although Rais himself continues to operate a successful business out of Kabul, his first wife has sought asylum in Canada and other members of the family are now living in Pakistan. But is this discrepancy in the fates of the male and female members of the family the fault of a Norwegian journalist – or Afghan society? Is it appropriate for a Norwegian court to punish the messenger? Is a court of law the place to determine how a book treats the “honour” of an entire society?
An Oslo court found that Seierstad’s book misrepresented the lives of the Rais family, whom she had stayed with as a guest in 2002.
What’s interesting here is that while the Rais’s have no assets or life in Norway, they were allowed to sue in a Norwegian court. But as Seierstad is Norway-based, and the book was published in Norway (and elsewhere) this doesn’t count as libel tourism, does it?