As David pointed out two days ago, “facts are a squirmier subject than many people realize.”
When he was four-years-old, Iqbal Masih was sold to a carpet thekedar (employer or boss) for $12, in Pakistan. Like millions – and millions – of children throughout the world, he worked long hours in a dark, airless, carpet “factory,” sometimes chained to a loom, often beaten, poorly fed. At age twelve, Iqbal was set free with the help of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF), a non governmental agency (NGO) whose focus was liberating slave laborers. Iqbal was a remarkable boy. He became a spokesperson for the reform movement in his country and personally helped save thousands of other enslaved children. For his efforts Iqbal received the Reebok Human Rights Award.
He traveled to The US where he spoke at a black tie gala, was “Person of the Week” on ABC, and made an impression with students his age in elementary schools. Iqbal returned home and was murdered.
Who killed Iqbal Masih?
The BLLF believed that their poster boy was a contract killing paid for by carpet dealers who were afraid that his campaign could put an end to cheap, bonded labor. Another NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an organization that takes on a broad range of human rights abuses, also investigated the crime. They concluded that the killer was a neighbor, high on bhang, who was caught having sex with a donkey. Yes, you read that right. Try finding language to describe donkey-love to an eighth grade audience! As the report describes it, Iqbal, his cousin, and a friend were biking down the isolated road and saw the neighbor mid act. They teased, he shot. The neighbor, in fact, confessed to the crime. Later he recanted his confession.
Both NGOs came to separate conclusions. Who was right? How do we, as writers, determine truth when it is ambiguous, or when there is unsubstantiated evidence?
A breakfast conversation with my husband:
Bailey: There’s a difference between what the truth is and how we know what the truth is. We know, for example, that Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859. There is no reason to doubt this fact.
Susan: But when I wrote Iqbal’s story, there was conflicting evidence, evidence that constantly changed. Also, there were special interest groups who had different stakes in the outcome.
Bailey: That’s the problem. At what point do you decide to go with one version and ignore others?
Well, writers … how do you decide? This is one of those slippery slope issues we often face. When I wrote Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery, I had access to materials from both human rights organizations. I spoke with lawyers, rights activists, and people who knew Iqbal. Still, I was unable to reach a confident conclusion. This was the first time I centered a book about a person I had never met. It was nerve wracking. For me it is far easier, safer, to interview a subjects and then write in their voices. I become the conduit for their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Their facts are the book’s truth. Evidence does not have to be weighed to make “fact” decisions. Sure, there are some issues of truth that need to be addressed – inconsistencies and contradictions – that I may not have picked up during the interview, but I could always go back to my source. After doing interviews for No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, I found a bunch of inconsistencies. But, for the most part, I did have captive subjects. Awful pun, please forget I wrote that. At any rate, my imprisoned subjects and I wrote letters back and forth until we were both certain that what was said was exactly what was meant. Their truth was the truth I was concerned about.
Iqbal was dead and my sources disagreed with one another. What to do? I decided to write both conclusions. Writing both narratives and giving them equal weight turned out to have an unexpected benefit. The readers now had opposing material for debates. And they did. In the classroom and privately. With passion and conviction.
Darwin published his book in 1889. My husband and I had cereal and fruit for breakfast. Two truths! Who murdered Iqbal? Only the killer knows for sure.