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In Conversation With Corban Addison

Judi (Simi) Silva

Corban Addison holds degrees in law and engineering from the University of Virginia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He began to experiment with writing at the age of fifteen, about the same time he developed an interest in international travel. His early works were mostly essays, reflections and travelogues, but his true love was fiction. For eight years he searched for a story with wings. In the end, the story found him.

Where did you get the idea for A Walk Across the Sun? Why did you choose to write about human trafficking?

I am an attorney by training, and I have always had an interest in international human rights. I became familiar with the issue of human trafficking in law school, and it disturbed me deeply to learn that slavery, which I thought had died in the 19th century, was not only alive and well but the fastest growing criminal industry on the globe, an industry that no only involved exploitative labor but also (and quite voluminously) the forced prostitution of women and children in almost every country. The idea for the book itself was my wife's. Three and a half years ago, she came to me and said that I should write a novel on human trafficking. I gave it some thought and realized the project was a perfect fit for me. So I ran with it.

Much of the novel is set in India. How did you go about learning about the land and its culture?

I've told people before that the hardest part of writing A Walk Across the Sun was getting India and its people right. Before I wrote the first word, I immersed myself in the literature of the subcontinent. An Indian-American friend gave me an excellent reading list. At his suggestion, I read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Upanishads. I also read more modern Indian literature such as Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and Suketu Mehta's masterful biopic of Mumbai Maximum City. My friend also shared with me a great deal of his personal experience in the desi community of the United States. After that, I went to India and spent over a month on the ground, first in Chennai and the Coromandel Coast, learning about the 2004 tsunami, and then in Mumbai, learning about the city and the sex trade. In that time, I listened to people, took extensive notes, and absorbed the sounds, smells and feel of the place. When I started writing, I had 250 pages of notes, more than half the length of a book. But taking note and bringing a place and its people alive in a story are two different things. I worked very hard to make India real for the reader, to show its great beauty as well as its regrettable undersides, and to honor the real-life experiences of Indians in my characters. It has been a great joy to hear Indian readers say that they identify with my characters and that I did justice to their remarkable land.

 You traveled to India to conduct research for the novel. What were your impressions of the country?

India is a fascinating place. It is a land of profound contrasts and contradictions. It is a land in which the ancient and the modern collide every day and struggle to live side by side. It is a place of extraordinary beauty and riches, and a place of abject squalor. Two experiences highlight this: The first was visiting the hanging garden atop Malabar Hill in Mumbai. At the overlook, you can see across the blue expanse of Back Bay to the fabled stretch of seafront property called the Queen's Necklace. On the day I was there, the sky was clear and a soft wind rustled the branches of the trees in the garden. It was one of the most idyllic places I've seen anywhere in the world. But just a few miles away on the streets of the Fort, I met a woman wearing rags and keeping watch over three dirt-covered children. They weren't even begging. They were just sitting there, occupying a small patch of land in a city that had no other place for them. There are scenes like this in many parts of the world, but the sheer human density of Mumbai made it unforgettable. It was hard to know what to do, but I gave them a little money and said a prayer for them. I don't know what will happen to the children, but I'd like to think they will someday find a place in the India rising on the tide of innovation and economic freedom.

While in India, you visited brothels undercover. How would you describe that experience?

Visiting a brothel in Kamathipura, the oldest red light area in Mumbai, was a nerve-wracking and eye-opening experience. I had a guide, an Indian man who had the trust of the pimps and brothel owners. He knew the area very well and showed me around. One night after dark, we went to M.R. Road, the main thoroughfare in Kamathipura, and my guide struck up a conversation with a brothel owner. The street was crowded with pimps, taxis, and customers, and I was the only white face in sight. The brothel owner was suspicious of me, but my guide convinced him that I was just looking for a little fun, and the owner let me in. He led us up two flights of steps to the brothel lobby, locked the door, closed the blinds, and brought out eight girls. They stood under the lights and waited for me to make my selection. Some of them looked at me, some of them looked at the floor. All of them were young, and all of them looked scared. I declined to make a purchase, but my guide asked the brothel owner to show me the sex rooms. He led me back into a hallway of rooms, all of which had a small bed with a pillow and a sink and toilet. The brothel almost certainly had an attic room with much younger girls, but I didn't get to see them. My guide told me that brothel owners only show the minor girls to their most trusted customers.

In researching modern day slavery, were you surprised by what you learned? Is human trafficking a “third-world” problem?

I think I was most surprised by how pervasive trafficking is in every region of the globe. A lot of people, particularly in the West, think of trafficking in Cambodia, Thailand and India. Sometimes people think of Eastern Europe. When I tell them that it's happening in Israel, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Canada and the United States, I get strange looks. When I get more specific and start naming cities in our own country (Atlanta, Toledo, Portland, Las Vegas, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, San Diego, take your pick), people have a hard time believing me. But it's true. Even now as I write, there are American kids, thousands of them, being sold for sex by pimps on the streets and in sex clubs and underground brothels in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Trafficking is all around us. We may not see it with our eyes, but it is quite real. Law enforcement from the FBI and ICE down to local cops are rescuing girls and taking down pimps and trafficking rings all the time. A simple Google search will confirm this.

 Why did you choose to tackle this issue through fiction instead of writing a journalistic or true-life account?

There are many great non-fiction exposes out there on human trafficking. I cite many of them in the Afterward of my book. There is also a substantial volume of reportage available in government, academic, and journalistic channels on the subject. All of this was critical to my researching, but the more I read and talked to people, the more I realized that non-fiction, particularly high-brow academic research, has a limited audience. Most people won't read a non-fiction book on human trafficking unless they have a prior interest in the subject. But a novel that stands on its own as a compelling human story can reach readers across the spectrum, from people interested in the subject matter to people who have never heard it before. No less an authority than Moises Naim of Foreign Policy Magazine recognized this in his groundbreaking book, Illicit. He said that while journalists like him do a great deal to shed light on subjects like human trafficking, it may well be that fiction in film and books stands the best chance of educating the public about illicit trade. I read that book early in my research and it gave me great inspiration for the task at hand.

Were the central characters—teenaged sisters Ahalya and Sita—based on anyone? How did you get into their minds ?

I developed Ahalya and Sita Ghai through much research and through the imaginative projection that happens when you sit down to write a story. I met girls in India who had survived the tsunami and other girls who had been trafficked for sex and rescued from the brothels. All of these interactions deeply influenced my characterization of Ahalya and Sita. However, my characters are not doppelgängers of children I met. The sisters are composites of teenagers, real and imagined, who have a bond powerful enough to sustain them through the horrors of exploitation and to give them a hope of a future.

 What do you hope the reader will take away from A Walk Across the Sun?

Two things: First, as my novel makes clear, the trade in human beings is not only happening in the developing world, it is happening here, in the West, in our own cities and on our own streets at an alarming (and growing) rate. Second, the horror is not without hope. We have seen slavery before, and we have defeated it. But as history attests, vanquishing such an economically lucrative trade ($32 billion in annual profits from sex trafficking alone) cannot happen on a shoestring budget. We need a massive, society-wide mobilization that adds a monetary imperative to our moral imperative. We need to turn millions into billions, as we have done with AIDS in Africa. We need to put pimps, traffickers, and--critically--customers, in jail and provide exploited women support, rehabilitation, and a path into the future. Only then will we begin to turn the tide.

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