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Today on the Quercus Couch is with the wonderful Corban Addison, author of the fantastically moving A Walk Across the Sun.
A novel which examines the appalling sex slave trade in India, A Walk Across the Sun is stunning, thought-provoking and possesses the power to stay with the reader long after the book has been closed.
Daniel Fraser: What was the genesis of A Walk Across the Sun? How did you come to write it?
Corban Addison: 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 been vanquished in the 19th century, was not only alive and well but the fastest growing criminal industry on Earth, an industry that not 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.
Daniel Fraser: Why did you want to tell that particular story? How did your firsthand experience affect your desire to tell this story?
Corban Addison: As the father of two young children, a son and a daughter, and as the husband of a lovely woman, I took the issue of forced prostitution (really, the serial rape of women and children for profit) quite personally.
The more I read the stories of girls from around the world, the more horrified I was at what was happening to them, and the more I wanted to do something, anything, to make a difference.
As an attorney and a writer, I felt the best contribution I could make was to write a vivid, compelling human story about trafficking that would bring the subject alive for readers around the world.
Daniel Fraser: The central characters Ahalya and Sita are wonderful, I was wondering how you created such realistic and vibrant characters especially ones who have to suffer so much hardship at such a young age.
Corban Addison: 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 hope of a future.
Daniel Fraser: With your background in Law, did you find the transition in terms of writing style particularly difficult? What tips would you offer someone in a similar position who feels strongly about an issue they are involved with and wants to use fiction as a medium?
Corban Addison: Where legal writing is all about telling and argumentation, good fiction is about showing, about creating a believable world and allowing the reader to experience the truth through the experiences of the characters.
There were many times in the drafting of the manuscript that I struggled with the desire to tell more than show, to give the reader information the lawyer in me regarded as critical for understanding the issue.
But I resisted that as much as I could, and then I went back months after the first draft was written and heavily edited the book to submerge the message as much as possible into the story, so that the characters, not the author, would live on the page.
Daniel Fraser: What made you decide to write a novel rather than reportage or other form of non-fiction?
Corban Addison: There are many great non-fiction exposes out there on human trafficking. I cite many of them in my Author’s Note. 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 research, 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 of it before.
Daniel Fraser: What do you think are the key advantages which fiction has when attempting to shed light on such an important issue as human trafficking?
Corban Addison: I like to say that story is the universal language. People have told stories to one another for as long as people have existed. Everyone loves a good story because all of us are living a story, and, quite understandably, we all regard our own story as important. Fiction, or better put, the telling of story, resonates with the human heart in a special way because it involves the whole person—intellect, emotions, and imagination.
The greatest barrier I have found to educating people about human trafficking is disbelief. We want to believe that it’s happening somewhere else, anywhere but on our own streets. Disbelief is dispelled by empathy, and empathy is created most readily by story. Suddenly, it isn’t about the developed world versus the developing world. It’s about a universal human problem that requires a universal human effort to find a solution.
Corban Addison: I have been trying my hand at writing fiction for ten years, searching for a story with wings. With A Walk Across the Sun, I believe I have found a style that not only works for me and resonates with readers, but that I can reproduce in future stories.
I am working on a new book right now that combines the pacing, international flavor, and character development of A Walk Across the Sun with a very different region of the world (Southern Africa) and a different set of human rights issues. Beyond the current project, I have ideas for future books. If I have my way, I would like to spend my life bringing global issues alive for readers through storytelling.
Daniel Fraser: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel and how did you get over it??
Corban Addison: 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 place, I spent time with an Indian-American friend who shared his own experience and gave me a reading list, and I went to the subcontinent and spent a month on the ground, listening to people, taking extensive notes, and absorbing 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 notes 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, 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.
Daniel Fraser: Did you have an idea in your mind of an “ideal” reader? Did you write with a specific audience/reader in mind??
Corban Addison: When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun, I was aiming to reach the broadest possible audience. I wanted the book to have the skeleton of the thriller (to reach readers who need a page-turning story to keep them interested), and the soul of a multi-cultural novel with literary flourishes (to reach readers who don’t typically read thrillers). I did this by combining an international search and rescue story centered on the issue of human trafficking, with a multi-cultural love story between an American lawyer and his estranged Indian wife and a story of family devotion between the two Indian sisters. My goal was to write a book that people with all manner of literary backgrounds would enjoy and learn from.
Daniel Fraser: Who is your favourite writer?
Corban Addison: I don’t have a single favorite writer, nor do I tend to like everything that any particular writer produces. My favorite book of all time is The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, followed by Michael D. O’Brien’s Island of the World and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I love books that immerse me in a foreign world, that season the harsh realities of life with sensitivity to beauty, and that take me on a journey through place and time and into the multi-dimensional hearts of human beings I can understand and identify with.
Daniel Fraser: Do you have a favourite quote?
Corban Addison: I love so many quotes, but perhaps my all-time favorite is Kierkegaard’s maxim: “It is not where we breathe but where we love that we live.”
Daniel Fraser: Do you see the internet as a force for good in spreading awareness about issues such as human trafficking?
Corban Addison: The Internet is an extremely powerful force for spreading awareness and for spreading misconceptions about trafficking and any other subject. The medium is neutral. It is people that make it helpful and harmful. Overall, however, I would say that the Web has democratized the cause of freedom and given ordinary people a voice to advocate for the poor and the exploited around the world. In that sense, I love the Internet.
Daniel Fraser: Anything else you would like to say?
Corban Addison: Two things: First, as my book makes clear, the trade in human beings is not only happening in places like India and Cambodia; it is happening here, in the West, in our own cities and on our own streets. It may not be visible to the naked eye, but it is all around us. 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 a path into the future. Only then will we turn the tide.
Below is a fabulous video of Corban discussing the book and his motives for writing it: