We aim to create a fictional or nonfictional narrative and populate it with people either imaginary or drawn from real life, using language that bends to our wishes as it projects perception and beauty.
Now the term “narrative” has been co-opted by those who observe politics and seek to make sense of the real world. Hence the question “What’s the narrative?” whenever a major political event unfolds.
As John Lanchester wrote in The London Review of Books:
“Everybody in politics now seems to talk about narratives all the time; even political spin-doctors describe their job as being ‘to craft narratives.’ We no longer have debates, we have conflicting narratives.”
I once read that there is an important difference between “the facts” and “the truth.” The difference between “narrative” and “the truth” is even more important. “Narrative” does not refer to twisting facts to suit our stories; it refers to the act of choosing which facts to use in order to create a story that fits a certain agenda. This is more dangerous than merely falsifying facts (an offense easy to detect) because a fact-based “narrative” can be taken seriously and influence events to come.
Take, for example, the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 16, in which Taliban gunmen killed about 150 people, most of them children and teachers, before the military killed the attackers. In the aftermath, Pakistan was united in grief and anger against the Taliban. Civilian and military leaders alike expressed resolve that domestic terrorism had to be defeated before it claimed more innocent lives.
The Pakistani Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, calling the attack revenge for a six-month-long military operation that has targeted militants in North Waziristan. But very quickly, two competing narratives developed, disrupting the country’s unity.
The first: that the attack was conducted by members of the Pakistani Taliban who have been strategic assets of Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment but have now turned on it, trying to destroy the Pakistani state itself. The second: that the attackers were actually agents of Indian intelligence, or perhaps the C.I.A., masquerading as Taliban. In this version, the attack was part of a decades-old conspiracy by Pakistan’s fiercest enemies to destroy the country.
The first narrative is popular with progressive and secular Pakistanis — those in the intelligentsia and the military who have a nuanced understanding of local and regional politics and who recognize that the strategic landscape changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Conservative citizens, analysts and old-school military brass espouse the second — which fits the traditional assumption that India is Pakistan’s No. 1 enemy and that our foreign policy must focus on restraining any aggression from it. That well-worn view hasn’t changed much over decades, thanks to three wars and to innumerable border skirmishes, which continue today.
Believers in the first narrative understand that Pakistan needs to transform its security policy so that it deals with the internal threat from the Pakistani Taliban and other militants; they fear that Pakistani society will become “Talibanized” as militants gain supporters. Adherents of the second narrative see only external threats, concluding that no policy change is needed, and that Pakistan must dig in its heels and continue to treat India as hostile. They also think that America’s claims to be our ally are false, and that Washington wants to help India break up our country.
It is painfully clear today — in the wake of a bombing at a Shiite mosque in Shikarpur that killed at least 50 people on Friday — that the narratives we choose today will have profound sway over where we go as a country tomorrow.
I believe firmly in the first narrative — that Pakistan must face its inner demons if it’s to survive as a country. But when I write, my beliefs and preferences cannot stand in the way of inconvenient truths. Should new events contradict that narrative — human conduct being prone to delivering surprises — I would be conscience-bound to document the story as it really has played out.
Writers cannot control the meaning that other people see in an event. Still, readers depend on us to crystallize those events, giving them weight and nuance, when we make a story out of them. And our narratives about real-life events have real-life consequences, sometimes for generations.
So how do we devise the narrative? In the name of delivering honest information, we must do all we can to record what has happened, pushing aside the question of whose narrative the facts support or undermine. The critical need is for our narratives to rely only on truths that can be documented or defended — whichever story line they seem to illustrate. If we do this, we improve the chances not only to see the situation as it really is and make our choices in good conscience, but we also leave a door open for a different narrative, offering a wiser interpretation of reality, when new facts unfold.
Christopher Merrill, a poet and journalist who reported on the Balkan wars in the 1990s, said in a recent interview with the filmmaker Kalpna Singh-Chitnis that “wars are brought to an end by military means and diplomacy, not journalism, which has a much different responsibility: to record the truth.” In Bosnia, he said, “I was under no illusions writing about this that my role was anything other than getting the facts straight, teasing out their meaning, and composing a lively narrative true to the events that I witnessed.”
In Pakistan, where we have been living for some time with a seemingly endless war, that advice has never been more important.
Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs.”
© 2015 The New York Times Company.