Writing Lives, Telling Stories

One of the highlights of last week for me was the Radio National Book Show program (12 August) that discussed Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul. Ramona Koval discussed writing about life in fragile territories with Christina Asquith and Christina Lamb.

The discussion raised very important issues about journalism, new fiction and ethical behaviour. Asne Seierstad has been sued in a Norwegian Court over breaches of privacy by one of the women portrayed in the book. According to one account of the case it was stated that “Seierstad had used inaccurate information in her accounts” and did not act in good faith. In another article, Asne Seierstad is quoted as asserting that “I have acted in good faith, and have done my best to verify the statements and quotations so that they will be as accurate as possible. I have done that by asking questions on different occasions when there was any confusion, by asking someone other than the main characters in the situation.”

Christina Patterson suggests that “this was never going to be a story with a happy outcome. Extensive hospitality of the what’s-mine-is-yours Muslim variety and the warts-and-all Western memoir were never a combination likely to leave ‘honour’ intact. The bookseller probably wasn’t overly familiar with the genre. Seierstad should have known better.”
What I found particularly informative about the Radio National discussion was the expertise of Christina Asquith and Christina Lamb. In the podcast of the discussion they take different approaches to writing lives. Both have remarkable backgrounds in working in fragile territories. Anyone interested in ethnographic research will find the discussion a great resource to contemplate:
  • Overt and covert research
  • The responsibilities of a researcher
  • The ownership of intimate details and disclosures
  • The legitimacy of observing a culture from a different cultural perspective
In ethnographic study ‘being around’ is an essential characteristic of understanding cultural forms and practices. The Book Show discussion highlighted the ethical dimensions of research particularly when the researcher is a guest in the home of those about whom she will write.

The Bookseller of Kabul, Sisters in War (Christina Asquith) and Small Wars Permitting (Christina Lamb) are fascinating examples of a genre that encapsulate important issues around thick description, writing lives and telling stories.

Photo Credits

The Shop of Books

Notebook Collection

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