The lives of seventeen-year-old Anaya Ghazi and her younger sister Sita are torn apart when a tsunami hits their costal home in India, leaving them orphaned and homeless. As the girls struggle to make their way to the safety of their convent school in Chennai, many miles away, they fall victims to a trafficking ring and end up imprisoned in a brothel in Mumbai. Their only hope of salvation lies with Thomas Clarke, a disillusioned Washington-based lawyer who has travelled to India in pursuit of his estranged wife and has accepted a position with an NGO dedicated to rescuing trafficked girls. The ensuing tale spans three continents and shines a light into the dark recesses of this most terrible of trades – the selling of innocence and the corruption of children for profit.
A Walk Across the Sun is US lawyer, Corban Addison’s first novel and is a real page turner, beautifully written, compelling but with a hugely important message at its heart. I met with Corban during his short visit to Ireland earlier this month and asked him about his motivation for writing the book, his hopes for what it can achieve and how his passion for writing about issues of social justice is likely to keep him busy long into the future.
You are clearly keen to raise consciousness and prompt activism about trafficking. Why did you decide to go the rout of fiction rather than non-fiction? Did you believe you could reach a wider audience?
“I was drawn towards writing fiction and had been doing so for about seven years before this idea came around, so I’ve been writing fiction for about ten years now. Everything I had done before was without success and I had lots of rejection letters but I had a sense that at some point I would find a story with wings. The idea was my wife’s. We had been aware of the trafficking issue and had been supporting an agency working in the area, particularly in the developing world but I was much less aware of the reality of trafficking in the West, in the US particularly.
I chose fiction as there is something about a story that can actually reach the heart and move a person in a way that the best non-fiction can’t. Even the most credible, excellent non-fiction often struggles to penetrate beyond the mind and really get into the heart and the heart is where action comes from.
My feeling is that if I’m going to write something that I hope leads to activism it needs to be utterly credible. It needs to be as well researched as it possibly can be so that the takeaway is not that it is made-up fantasy but that the story has the power to really involve the reader. You can’t relate to a statistic.
I’ve always been interested in justice. That’s why I went into law. I went to law school as an idealist, I came out as a realist but I didn’t come out as a cynic. I continue to believe that problems have solutions, even great problems like human trafficking. We as a society have defeated things like this in the past.”
You began writing the book in 2008. Your research, as is clear from the detail and authenticity of the story, must have been exhaustive. Can you describe the process?
“The first stage was immersion in the literature, focusing on the stories and not the statistics. I started reading everything from non-fiction to journals written by psychologists who had interviewed the girls involved. I tried to read first-hand research. Then I knew that I had to see as much of it as I could with my own eyes.”
[Corban describes how he met with agencies working on this issue, with individual women who were trafficked and with US justice officials and investigators. He even posed as a customer in an Indian brothel at great personal risk.]
What is perhaps most shocking about many of the incidents in the book is that this activity is carried out in the open. The girls are moved around on commercial flights and public transport and work in restaurants. Yet they are too frightened to seek help & the public appear not to notice their distress. Do people simply turn a blind eye?
“The first layer we have to peel back is the basic Western reaction to this problem. That is if I think about this at all I think of it as something that happens far, far away. I don’t think about girls in hotels in my neighbourhood. The truth is that you can go to just about any city and you can buy a girl like you can buy a pizza. You just go on-line. We don’t want to deal with the fact that the men who are buying these girls are themselves in plain sight. Most of them are husbands and fathers. We as a society struggle with this. We don’t want to believe that someone we know might be involved in this.”
The girls, Ahalya and Sita, are upper middle class, well educated girls. Yet they quickly become vulnerable as we are all so close to catastrophe. Do you believe that this helps the reader relate to the girls and empathise better? Do most people assume that it is “other people” who are trafficked – the poor and the vulnerable?
“Yes. I picked middle-class girls and I also tried to include girls who are trafficked from other backgrounds throughout the book. It is more common for poverty to be the creator of the vulnerability that leads to the exploitation but the truth is that I have come across many cases of middle-class kids who are lured in various ways into positions of vulnerability. In US shopping malls and movie theatres pimps will send in a boy who is older, good-looking, and affable; the sort of guy that every sixteen-year-old girl wants to meet. They are extremely good at finding girls who have fallen out with their parents and are looking for love. They develop a trust and they totally exploit this. They may start with photographs and sex texts and then gradually start exploiting them, perhaps inviting others into a sexual relationship or using violence or drugs. In my book the vulnerability is caused by a catastrophe but it can happen in any context to any type of girl.”
The role of some of the other women in the book is interesting. Sumeera for instance (a woman in the brothel) who counsels them to accept their fate. She is a victim herself yet she does nothing to help others.
One of the little known facts about trafficking is how many women are involved as the abusers and who imprison the girls. Often it is a cyclical process in the brothels. It is a sub-culture and the reaction can be a little like Stockholm syndrome. I’ve read enough case studies. Every girl resists in different ways. Some are strong and will run at the first opportunity, some will resist and have to be broken until they are in a place where they will be submissive.”
What ambitions do you have for your book? What do you hope the publication of A Walk across the Sun can achieve?
“I’d like to see people talking about this issue. I’d like to see people who have never confronted the issue confront it as human beings and say, ‘Can I in good conscience stand by and let this happen? Is there something I can do?’ Talking about trafficking dispels the ignorance and disbelief. Funding is needed too. We need a global fund and an international movement to abolish this form of slavery. We need to turn the millions in to billions.”
You’re clearly busy promoting A Walk across the Sun right now but what comes next?
“I’m actually working on the next book now. I’m getting close to a finished draft. I’ve been doing a lot of publicity from my office. Thankfully technology makes it less of a requirement to travel from city to city. I’m doing this tour and I’m going to be doing a lot of speaking engagements – particularly to college kids. I really want to engage in advocacy. I’m working on another book that addresses different human rights issues in a sub-Saharan African context. My hope over time is to be able to develop a career doing this – addressing social justice issues through stories.”