Monday, December 5, 2011: Maximum Shelf: A Walk Across the Sun

Silveroak: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Silveroak: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Silveroak: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: A Walk Across the Sun

In this edition of Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on a new title that we love--we present Corban Addison's A Walk Across the Sun, which is a January 3, 2012, publication. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl and Debra Ginsberg. Sterling has helped support the issue.

Silveroak: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Books & Authors

Review: A Walk Across the Sun

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison (SilverOak/Sterling, $24.95 hardcover, 9781402792809, January 3, 2012)

A Walk Across the Sun is a debut novel about the sex-traffic trade in underage children. How can that be a satisfying read? Corban Addison has figured it out by combining a love story, two sisters' devotion and a man discovering his true self in this stunning, moving account of one of our world's great shames.

Boxing Day 2004, the date that a tsunami hit southeast Asia: "The sea was quiet at first light on the morning their world fell apart." Ahalya, 17, is awakened at dawn by the earth shaking. She falls back to sleep and gets up later, after her younger sister, Sita. They breakfast with their parents and the four of them go for a walk on the beach in Chennai, in India. A charming morning, until Ahalya spots the wave. The girls cling to palm trees until the water recedes, and see their world--parents and home--obliterated. Their only hope is to make their way to St. Mary's school. They find a ride but are taken not to St. Mary's, but to a dingy flat in a shady neighborhood and locked up. The next day they depart by train for Mumbai, after being sold for 13,000 rupees ($250). They are threatened--the police won't help because "the Deputy Commissioner is a friend"--and warned if one of them disobeys, the other will be punished.

In Mumbai, they are sold to a brothel in Kamathipura, the red light district, for 40,000 rupees, a high price because they are lovely and are "sealed packs"--virgins. Filled with despair, they are told to accept their karma. After a few days in the brothel, they begin to lose touch with reality, or rather, with their previous reality. Their new world is "malignant, a soundscape of pounding feet, drunken shouts, squeals of seduction and protestation, and incessant moaning." When Ahalya is chosen to make her "debut," her virginity is sold for 90,000 rupees, and Sita is made to sit outside the room to listen: "It will be a good lesson for her." And so Ahalya becomes a beshya, a prostitute. The only way to survive is to sever her heart from her body, and she must survive in order to help Sita, still on the cusp of puberty.

At the same time, on another continent, Thomas Clarke is on the way to Washington, D.C., from South Carolina, due at his parents' house for dinner on Boxing Day, a dinner he's dreading because he hasn't yet told them that his wife, Priya, has left him and gone back to Mumbai. Their marriage had been complicated, with cultural bridges uncrossed, disagreement about his job as a litigator and, most of all, the death of their infant daughter--a gulf their love couldn't close. When he stops at a park, he witnesses a young girl being abducted. He calls 911 and gives chase but loses the car, and learns that this is a not rare occurrence in the area--nearby Ft. Bragg offers pimps a steady client base.

Priya had hated everything about the law firm, but Thomas coveted what his father had, a seat on the federal bench, and his job is the first step. Unfortunately, the firm just lost a big case representing a coal mining company, and he's made the scapegoat for the failure. He feels like he's crawled into a deep hole; he needs a new perspective. That comes in a "suggestion" from his law firm: take a vacation or take a one-year, pro bono scholarship anywhere in the world. A Justice Department friend recommends CASE--the Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation. Thomas wouldn't have considered something like that a week earlier, but the park abduction had an impact on him. Coincidentally, a slot has just opened up in CASE's Mumbai office. He decides to take it--go to India, fight modern slavery, face his wife. And so the lives of Thomas and Ahalya and Sita are about to intersect.

Of the many cities tied to sex trafficking, Mumbai is among the worst, and Thomas enters a world "as astonishing as it was troubling"--pimps, corrupt officials, dishonest police, crusading lawyers and an endless supply of women and children, with "stories of abuse as diverse as human cruelty." He soon participates in a brothel raid, where Ahalya is rescued and taken to an ashram run by the Sisters of Mercy. Before the raid, Sita had been sold for one lakh, 100,000 rupees--but the buyer has something other than sex in mind: Sita is to be a heroin mule, swallowing stuffed condoms and transporting drugs to Paris, where she is then turned over to a couple who own an Indian restaurant, to be their slave. She is sold over and over, each time for more money, and ends up in the U.S., still a sealed pack, still highly valuable.

Ahalya's courage and resolve to protect and then to find her sister is matched by Sita's bravery and compassion for other girls she meets on her journey. But as she holds her statue of Hanuman and tries to pray, "her faith seemed incapable of bearing up the weight of her fear." And we feel the weight, too. "The sights and sounds of human depravity peeled the paint off the walls of the world, leaving it bare and bereft of goodness."

Ahalya charges Thomas with finding Sita, and binds him with a rakhi bracelet, which signifies that Thomas is now Ahalya's brother, and is duty-bound to act in her defense. But he's just a lawyer working for an NGO. What can he do? He has contacts--Interpol, the FBI and the Indian CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation)--and he has determination, fueled by his outrage at the trafficking, and buoyed by Priya's new belief in him.

As the story builds, the excitement increases along with the horror, and chapters that alternate between the sisters and Thomas is the perfect structure for this thriller. The counterpoint of Thomas and Priya's relationship, and the sisters' love for each other, are hopeful antidotes to the darkness, and while the subject of the book is beyond dark, Addison never crosses over into sensationalism.

Corban Addison writes clearly and fervently about underage sex trafficking, and his narrative is grim. One of the characters says, "The demand for commercial sex is extremely high in the U.S. Market forces will prevail in the long run. The traffickers will innovate and meet the demand.... Trafficking will stop when men stop buying women." When will that ever happen? And if one asks what difference rescuing two dozen underage beshyas makes, Addison says: It's what can be done. It's what must be done. As Mother Teresa said, "You do the thing that's in front of you." That's what Thomas Clarke does, that's what Ahalya and Sita do, that's what so many attempt in the war against this particular terror. --Marilyn Dahl


Silveroak: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

Corban Addison: Sharing His Passions

You hold degrees in law and engineering and it is clear from the subject matter of A Walk Across The Sun that you have a deep understanding of the horrors of sex trafficking and are a passionate advocate for human rights. Did the idea for the novel grow out of your work in this area or did your writing lead you to investigate it more deeply?

The idea for the novel was my wife's, actually, but it grew out of our shared passion for international justice issues. In 2008, we happened across a film on the sex trade that had a deep impact on us and, in addition, we had a fairly visceral personal experience that forced us to confront the reality of modern slavery in a new way. These events prepared us for the journey. I've been experimenting with fiction for years, searching for a story with wings. When my wife gave me the idea for the book, I knew it was right. It brought together my three passions in life--storytelling, human rights, and the world and its cultures. I ran with it and never looked back.

The novel presents a fascinating and nuanced view into Indian culture. How would you describe your relationship with India--its people and its culture? On a related note, how did you conduct your research for the novel?

India is an endlessly fascinating place, and Mumbai has to be one the most existentially thrilling cities in the world. That said, before I started work on A Walk Across the Sun I knew very little about the subcontinent, except through the lens of organizations working to combat the forced prostitution of children. I knew that to write a book set largely in India I had to immerse myself in its culture, its traditions, its consciousness. I needed to read its literature--historical and modern. I needed to learn its stories. And, most importantly, I needed to spend time on its soil. So I read everything I could get my hands on (an Indian friend recommended much of my reading list), and I spent over a month in Mumbai and Chennai in early 2009, experiencing the land and its people and at the same time exploring the underworld of human trafficking.

There seems to be an increasing awareness of sex trafficking, especially cases involving underage girls. Yet, as your novel so clearly illustrates, the challenges of combating this labyrinthine network are almost insurmountable.

The trade in human beings thrives because it is extraordinarily profitable. Without a supply of vulnerable women and girls, it would wither. Without a demand for cheap commercial sex, it would cease. To combat the trade effectively, we have to educate poor and vulnerable women about the perils of trafficking and empower them to take control of their lives. We have to make it morally unthinkable (and legally dangerous) for men to pay for sex with underage girls. And we have to drive the cost of doing business for traffickers and pimps past the breaking point by putting large numbers of them in jail for a long time.

Who were your inspirations for Ahalya and Sita Ghai, the sisters at the heart of A Walk Across The Sun?

Ahalya and Sita are a composite of girls I met during my time in India and girls I imagined using the rich palate of materials I compiled during my research. When I was in Mumbai, I met a number of adolescent girls who had been rescued from brothels in the city, and I learned their stories from their rescuers and caretakers. I also interviewed a girl who had been swept away by the waves of the Boxing Day tsunami and had lived to tell about it. Without these conversations, I would never have been able to create the detailed interior and exterior worlds inhabited by Ahalya and Sita. Yet no real life story I came across was uniquely defining. The characters of the Ghai sisters came together with a lot of hard work and imagination.

The novel delves not only into the intricacies of the international sex trade, but also provides a deep view into family relationships and the clash and merge of several different cultures, all while maintaining the pace and tension of a thriller. What were the challenges of harnessing so many disparate elements and how did you meet those challenges?

When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun, I sought quite intentionally to combine thriller and literary elements into a fast-paced, yet multilayered, human drama. I wanted the pages to turn themselves, yet I wanted to give my readers more substance than they typically get in a suspense novel. I wanted to take them to India, to show them the horrors of a Mumbai brothel (without turning them away with graphic detail), to feel the pain of a crumbling multicultural marriage and, ultimately, to leave them with the sense that all is not lost, that as long as the heart beats there is hope. I wish I could describe my process. The best I can say is that I love multi-dimensional puzzles, I love getting into the hearts of characters, and I love sitting down to write. There were times when working on the book was a labor of will. But far more often it was a labor of delight. In addition, I had some extraordinary editors and advisors. I couldn't have done it without them.

What are you working on now?

I just started writing my next novel, which will follow the mold of A Walk Across the Sun but will address different issues in a very different cultural context--Southern Africa. I spent six weeks in Zambia and South Africa between the end of summer and early fall, conducting research. I expect to deliver a draft of the book to my editors by the spring. I don't expect that I will revisit the characters in A Walk Across the Sun in a future novel. I believe their story has been told. However, in writing the book, I stumbled upon a literary style that works quite well for me, and I hope to revisit it in many future stories. --Debra Ginsberg


Editor Nathaniel Marunas: Finding a Rare Thing

Executive editor Nathaniel Muranas tells us about editing A Walk Across the Sun.

When the manuscript for A Walk Across the Sun arrived on my desk, it already had considerable support in-house. But I had doubts: the book was about two orphaned middle-class Indian girls engulfed by the international sex trade and the American lawyer determined to save them, written by a young first-time author. How likely was it that he could capture the voices of children from a foreign culture? That the whole set-up wouldn't be a calculated play for the reader's sympathy? Once I started reading, though, I was struck by the authenticity of the sisters' relationship and gripped by the terrifying events they experience. Corban turns out to be a careful researcher and a sensitive observer of humanity, as well as a damn good storyteller.

Because the action in the book shifts to various cities around the world, the editing and fact-checking processes posed certain challenges. We wanted to get even the most quotidian details right so there would be no distraction from the overarching lesson of the book: that despite our enlightened and modernist notions of ourselves, slavery thrives right here in the United States and just about anywhere else you can think of across the globe. And it's a growth business.

A Walk Across the Sun turned out to be the kind of novel that permanently changes the way you look at the world, and that's a rare thing. Now that I know what Corban's capable of, I can't wait to dig in to his next book.


Book Brahmin: Corban Addison

Corban Addison holds degrees in law and engineering from the University of Virginia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He has an abiding interest in international human rights, and is a supporter of numerous causes, including the abolition of modern slavery. In researching A Walk Across the Sun, Addison traveled to India and spent a month with a team of investigators, attorneys and social workers from the International Justice Mission. During his visit, he went undercover into the brothels of Mumbai and met trafficking victims face to face. In addition, he spent time with activists in Paris and with a senior official from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Addison lives with his wife and two children in Virginia. A Walk Across the Sun is his first novel.

On your nightstand now: 

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, Eclipse by Richard North Patterson, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr.

Favorite book when you were a child: 

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.

Your top five authors: 

A difficult question. I can think of no author whose work I always like, and some of my favorite books were written by people I wouldn't consider my favorite authors. However, the following are authors whose work I have consistently enjoyed: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Wilbur Smith, Michael D. O'Brien, Pat Conroy and Elizabeth Kostova.

Book you've faked reading: 

I can't recall a book I faked reading, but I'm not proud of the fact that I only read The Brothers Karamazov through the scene with the Grand Inquisitor. I've never been a fan of 19th-century Russian literature, but I owed it to Dostoyevsky to finish the book. Someday, perhaps, I'll come back to it.

Book you're an evangelist for: 

I tell everyone that The Shadow of the Wind by Zafón is one of the most gripping books I've ever read. I usually follow that up by mentioning that my all-time favorite books are The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas and Island of the World by Michael O'Brien.

Book you've bought for the cover: 

I bought Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts in hardcover before it became a bestseller. I loved the U.S. cover and I was sold by Pat Conroy's endorsement and the first paragraph of the book.

Book that changed your life: 

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.

Favorite line from a book:

"It is not where we breathe, but where we love, that we live." --Søren Kierkegaard, from the anthology Provocations


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