Best known, perhaps, for her The Bookseller of Kabul-the book, written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, contextualises the life of the ordinary Afghan within the country’s complex modern history, and was translated into over 40 languages-Asne Seierstad is a woman with a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Seierstad started off as a freelance journalist, and, apart from Afghanistan, has reported from conflict zones in Serbia, Iraq and Chechnya, each of which became the subject of a full-fledged book. Her presence at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, however, was marked by discussions of her more recent works-One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway and Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad, both of which look at radicalisation in the social democratic West. In an interaction with Suvanshkriti Singh, Seierstad speaks of the anatomy of political violence, the foibles of democratic civilisations and the art of narrativising conflict. Edited excerpts:
Both your recent books are a study of the anatomy of extremism. What inspired this shift in focus from traditional conflict-your reportage of Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya-to a study of extremist fundamentalism?
I shifted as the world was shifting. Conflicts are now global in a new way. Earlier, conflicts were more confined to their areas, wars were more local, and happened on the ground. Now, ideas, including ideas of revenge, spread more easily, and thus the growth of extremism. In a way, you might say that war and conflict came to us, in Norway, through extremism. First, from Anders Breivik, who wanted to get rid of all Muslims in Europe by killing those who had let them in-in this case, the Labour Party and its youth wing. Second, the two sisters and the Islamic radicalisation that had spilled over after 9/11, as a consequence of the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and later, Syria. I will still go to war zones and report, but I felt it was timely to show how conflicts spread, both literally, and in people's minds.
What are the crises that threaten us most immediately but aren't being addressed nearly as much as needed?
Wow, there are so many. Climate change, rise of inequality, rise of religious hatred, extremism...
To you, what explains the global rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and right-wing terror-is it a function of an identity crisis, a response to an economic one, or simply the circular arc of history?
There is a lot of misdirected anger. Unfortunately, radicalisation and extremism often come from a feeling of being left out, undeservedly, and some form of victimisation-feeling of being humiliated. As for the far right, the rhetoric is that immigrants come to take our jobs, that the blond and blue-eyed people will soon be extinct, that they need to hit back before Europe is lost to the brown masses of immigrants. This is the world view of political terrorists like Breivik. When it comes to Islamic radicalisation, the mirror is turned-they also see themselves as victims, where they are not allowed, for instance, to wear the full niqab, or live as they like, in the Muslim way of praying five times a day. This was the case of the two sisters in my book; they felt that Norway did not let them live fully as devout Muslims. They see this as suppression, and make it into a bigger picture of Europe suppressing them. Of course, there are also socio-economic factors, and there is racism that might spur radicalisation, but there is always an inner feeling of being victimised, suppressed and humiliated.
One of Us, and Two Sisters are also based, partly or wholly, out of Norway. Is there a qualitative difference between the authorial or journalistic experience of writing about home and writing about a foreign land?
I believe the more you know about a place, the better you can write about it. On the other hand, sometimes an outsider's perspective can bring fresh observations, and focus on what springs into view. But, it is always important to study the country and culture that you are writing about well, to understand the underlying traditions and conflicts in order to analyse them correctly.
How do you navigate the space between telling someone else's story and becoming, simply by virtue of the methods of investigative journalism, a part of it-the line between reporter and non-fiction novelist?
My reporting is often the start. Through my reporting, I find stories, sources, figures, and then later I realise that some of them are worthy of digging deeper into, and maybe write a book about. My voice is often in the background because I do not like it when the narrator casts a shadow on his or her objects. At least, that has been my approach in The Bookseller of Kabul, One of Us and Two Sisters. These are very dramatic tales, and the chronology of events forces the story forward. I want the reader to try to enter the mind of the main character, put themselves in their place, and through that, even understand better what leads to violence, evil and crimes. In that sense, the reader has to be present, creative and observant. I do not give anyone the final answers, because there are no final answers-these are ongoing, global stories where I have chosen a few key characters. In these books, I am more of a storyteller than an analyst, even though there is lot of analysis in the narrative!
How do you choose your stories? What makes one story worth writing a novel on versus another?
I think I have a strong instinct for what is a good story. Sometimes, I just know. Like, with The Bookseller of Kabul, I just knew when I met him: this man is a book. With One of Us, it took time for me to even get close to the subject; it was so painful to write about an ongoing national trauma. There, I worked more methodologically, circled in the people, the events, and the thoughts that were important to tell, to understand-using police reports, psychiatric reports, interview, his diaries, his log and manifesto, the court case, and much else to get the full view. Two Sisters was more like being a detective. Every day, new information came up, and I had to alter the writing, review my impressions, change the storyline. It was almost like writing a detective novel, with lots of drama, but including a psychological portrait of the two 'perpetrators'-the two sisters.
In what does a journalist of conflicts and crises find hope?
Wars can get the worst out of people, and the best. We have to focus on the best not to lose hope-people risking their lives for others, people giving their last bits to someone who has even less, people who sacrifice their life or well-being to help relatives, neighbours, refugees they don't even know. That is a side of the war, too. And, of course, I think it is important to get the stories out, so that inspires. The big message would be that it is so much easier to start a war, than to finish it.