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Wednesday, October 09, 2019, 11:16
Author opens new chapter
By Cheng Yuezhu
Wednesday, October 09, 2019, 11:16 By Cheng Yuezhu

Award-winning Norwegian writer returns to China with publication on two sisters who went to Syria, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

Norwegian journalist and writer Asne Seierstad meets readers and talks about her book, Two Sisters, at a recent event in Beijing, where she also signs copies for readers. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Award-winning Norwegian journalist and writer Asne Seierstad is no stranger to China. Now on her third trip, she meets Chinese book lovers with the Chinese version of her latest work, Two Sisters. Her first trip in 1997 introduced her to a country undergoing sweeping changes.

"It's a country that is on such a fast track to modernize," Seierstad says. "Chinese people are very industrious and hardworking, and it seems like Chinese people are building stuff around the world now."

Before 1997 she spent three years working for the Norwegian newspaper Arbeiderbladet, now called Dagsavisen, in Russia, and then completed her studies from the University of Oslo majoring in Russian, history of philosophy and Spanish.

Her journey in China started in 1997 with a one-month work trip for the newspaper, traveling around the country and writing about various issues including the economy, culture and education. Enamored, she decided to return for a six-month language learning course at Peking University.

"I found it so fascinating, so I wanted to come back and study Chinese. I actually came back and lived here for six months and then I gave it up," says the writer, who speaks five languages fluently.

She then went on to write about wars and related hard-hitting social issues, a trend she is continuing. Her latest book, a work of nonfiction originally published in 2016 in Norwegian, won the country's major literature award for recently published books, the Brage Prize.

She arrived last month with the newly published Chinese version of Two Sisters, giving speeches and answering readers' questions in Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou, of Jiangsu province.

The book tells the harrowing story of a Norwegian-Somali father looking for his two daughters who went to Syria to join the Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS.

Norwegian journalist and writer Asne Seierstad meets readers and talks about her book, Two Sisters, at a recent event in Beijing, where she also signs copies for readers. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The two sisters, known in the book by the pseudonyms Ayan and Leila, were 16 and 19 respectively in 2013. They left home in October and never came back, leaving only an email to their family that explained their motive.

Their father Sadiq Juma, which is his real name under his own request, immediately decided to embark on the arduous quest to bring them back.

Following his failed attempt, the father approached Seierstad's publishing house, expressing his wish to publish the story in a book as a warning to other families. The writer then spent two and a half years on research and writing the book.

The father gave her access to the two sisters' room, where she found evidence of their gradual radicalization and their preparations to leave for Syria.

Seierstad contacted the daughters' classmates, teachers and also their friends on social networking sites and the online organization they had joined - practically anyone who had any connection to them, however tenuous, either online or in real life. The two sisters themselves, however, never replied to her inquiries.

"Two Sisters allows us to see the charm of nonfiction," writer Qian Jianan says in her recommendation for the book. "The writer and journalist rejects any subjective assumptions and recounts the true life of the two sisters. They are just a pair of ordinary siblings, similar to you and me, and for this precise reason, their journey to radicalization can prove cautionary and thought-provoking for us."

More than two years after the book was finished, in the autumn of 2016, there was still no word or news of the sisters. However, according to Seierstad, in May or June, they were identified at a refugee camp in Syria called al-Hol. They fled Baghouz, the last stronghold of ISIS, right before the Syrian Democratic Forces announced liberating it.

"They met a Norwegian journalist there, and they said very briefly, that they wanted to return home to Norway. They said their husbands were killed. They have now three daughters between them," Seierstad says. "They wanted to go to Norway because of the children, but then I've heard from the family that they kind of changed their mind, and now they want to go to Somalia."

The cover of the Chinese version of Two Sisters, by Asne Seierstad. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

As an objective writer, Seierstad does not reveal her own opinions in the book, but as a woman who has witnessed the brutality and torture of war zones, she says that the sisters were in a way defending their own rights, but only in order to go back and become submissive wives.

"My mother was a fierce feminist, so I kind of have feminism in my veins. It's just a part of me and I don't need to think so much about it," says Seierstad. "Sometimes traveling around the Islamic world, it very much annoys me to see all those lives and all those talents wasted because they're women."

The deeply entrenched feminist belief is a reason for her being able to work under extreme circumstances. "I have a lot of energy when I go for something," she explains. "When I go for a story, I like to do it 100 percent."

The Chinese version is translated from English, which the writer says is more comprehensible for non-Norwegian readers, as she has made a few changes and added new details into the English version.

She also says that although the book does not relate to China's social context directly, it deals with social issues and personal dilemmas that are universal.

"I tried to write in a way that you can really get into the dilemmas and the characters, so from anywhere you are in the world, you may relate to them," she says. "It doesn't matter what your background, religion or social class, all people can relate to some of the dilemmas.

"Because it's also a book about belonging, about raising a family, about multiculturalism, about how to deal with immigration ... I'm sure the topics can relate to the Chinese society indirectly."

Contact the writer at chengyuezhu@chinadaily.com.cn

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