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Seierstad to pay punitive damages

23 August 2010

Åsne Seierstad, the author of The Bookseller of Kabul, has been ordered to pay more than £26,000 in punitive damages. As Conor Foley in the Guardian put it, this news will be greeted 'as either a blow to artistic freedom of expression or a victory for the world's misrepresented and powerless poor.

The facts of the case are clear. Seierstad set out to write a book about Afghan society and in particular about one family's experience. She was offered hospitality by the family of a Kabul bookseller and lived with them for five months whilst researching her book.'

Foley, who has lived in Afghanistan and written about his time there, comments that:

'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.'

The Bookseller of Kabul quickly became the bestselling nonfiction book in Norwegian history. It was translated into 29 languages and topped the international bestseller charts, as well as selling on strongly ever since. The author has made a great deal of money out of it and claims that the issues which relate to it are to do with journalistic freedom and integrity.

But the fact is that she chose to give her book fictional elements, whilst at the same time drawing very explicity on material she had gathered during her sojourn in Shah Muhammad Rais's house. She defended herself thus:

'It is hard as a journalist to be judged like this. I can insist to everyone that it is just three small, concrete points that the judge has found against me, but it will always be written about me now that I have been judged for breaking privacy and had my accuracy questioned, and that's not a good thing as a journalist.'

Amelia Hill, also writing in the Guardian has put her finger on it: 'Her outrage at the way women are treated in the book crackles on every page, but because she has written herself out of the narrative, her highly subjective account could be accused as masquerading as an objective report.'

But should any writer be free to use any material, however private, in any way they like? Beyond the arguments about Afghan culture and foreign interference and misrepresentation, there is the question of whether the book is libellous. It appears that the judge thought it was and his verdict has opened the way for other members of the Bookseller's family to sue Seierstad. But the author also wrote about their thoughts, going 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. This seems to move the book into a different area altogether, fatally confusing fact and fiction.