What inspired you to write a book that explores sex trafficking?
Stories find me. I don’t seek them out. Each story takes hold of my head and heart and compels me to sit down to what turns out to be three to six years’ work.
I had never contemplated writing a book about sex trafficking. In 2015, after attending a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” I was curious about Tevye’s other daughters. I knew that in the original writing of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, Tevye had seven daughters, so I ordered the book of short stories. That’s when I stumbled upon another story by the author, “The Man from Buenos Aires” (now in my own translation on my website). In this tale, the author reports about his encounter on the train with a shady, sleek character who brags about his entrepreneurial success but never reveals the nature of his business. I suspected what the venture that brought this fellow his riches might be: sex trafficking. I put aside this 1909 story and turned to modern-day Google. That’s where I learned of Zwi Migdal, and was appalled to discover that it had been a legal trafficking union—and that it had operated with impunity for seventy years. It was shocking to realize how much information about it was hiding in plain sight. Most appalling to me was that the estimated over 150,000 Jewish girls and women, who had been exploited by members of this organization, had been forgotten, lost in the goo of history.
Since these “Railroad Stories” collection was bundled together, it was a natural creative process to continue where “Fiddler on the Roof” left off—or where Sholem Aleichem neglected to tell us the rest (reporting the stories of only five of the seven daughters.) However, moving forward, two sisters were enough to give the protagonist the motivation to get on the road with this mysterious stranger, thus THE THIRD DAUGHTER.
What challenges did you have in researching and writing your book?
My struggle between telling the stories of subjugated women who’ve been forgotten, and reporting anything bad about Jews.
How did you get into a sex slave’s mind and heart in order to accurately depict her?
When I write fresh material, I close my eyes and enter into a trance that is like a dream, where I hear the sounds, see the sights, smell the aromas, and feel the weather on my skin. I type the scene in real time, as it happens. Later I clean it up, but at the moment of trance, I crawl under the skin of the protagonist and feel her emotions and experience whatever befalls her—or what makes her rise over the forces that may break anyone else….
Your novel was recently named a finalist in the National Jewish Book Council. Are you surprised at the attention it has received?
Not quite. During the writing of the novel I was concerned that the story—including the explicit scenes and raw emotions—might not have the universal appeal that my publisher, HarperCollins, seeks for its works of fiction, and therefore perhaps THE THIRD DAUGHTER would be more suitable for a university publisher. But when my editor read the book and thought it was “stupendous,” I relaxed.
Each of my novels deals with a social issue hardly ever covered in fiction, and as such it gets attention—assisted by incredible opportunities that literally drop on my path to help carry the message further. (For example, for THE THIRD DAUGHTER I was invited to present the topic of sex trafficking at the UN Commission on the Status of Women on March 20th, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 virus.) Needless to say, the attention grows with each novel as the circle of my readers grows, reviewers feel more sure-footed in praising it, more prestigious award committees bestow their honors, event organizers put me in front of larger crowds, and the media has yet another great non-fiction hook to work with.
Your book takes place two centuries ago. How does it parallel today’s society?
Unfortunately, the methods traffickers used 120 years ago to lure girls and women from abroad are the same as the ones used today—false promises of jobs and even marriage (mail-order brides,) followed by physical and psychological coercion. And while in the late 1800s it took three-four weeks to transport the victims from Eastern Europe to the New World by sea and it now takes just several hours of flight, the victims eagerness to escape poverty, war or squalor makes them just as vulnerable to fall for the false promises. In some cases the victims are outright kidnapped and transported under threats of harm caused to their loved ones left behind.
How bad is the problem and what should be done about it?
Two-thirds of sex slaves in the USA today are US-born, and one-third have arrived from outside the USA. It is estimated that roughly 50,000 new victims are lured or recruited each year. The US-born are often teenagers, with the entry age ranging from twelve to fourteen years old. They come from underserved, vulnerable pockets of our society marked by poverty, drug-use, families in crisis—and are often already victims of sexual traumas, including incest.
Since these US-born kids are still in school, they are under our care. We must put a lot more education to help them avoid traps such as the internet, and marshal resources to help them deal with the crisis in their lives, including overhauling our foster-care system that is, tragically, a direct line to prostitution.
The most crucial way of confronting the problem is to focus our attention on the demand side of the equation—men who pay for sexual services. The demand side fuels the entire industry, and the billions of dollars that benefit traffickers only come from men raping girls and women who are enslaved. Working with the victims of today to help them out is important, but to minimize the victims of tomorrow we must educate men to respect women and their humanity and to stop viewing them as merchandize to do with as they please. As a society we must send a clear message that buying another human being is not a normative acceptable behavior.
How do women recover from essentially being raped multiple times a day for many weeks, months, or even years?
The way out of life of prostitution is long and hard, and the barriers are extremely high. Low self-esteem, drug use to numb the pain of the onslaught, and poor health as a result of neglect and violence are combined with the lack of marketable employment skills and a support network that will even give these women a safe place to sleep the first three nights out, let alone in the months and years of rehabilitation and psychological recovery. Luckily, besides official social services, there are hundreds of local organizations of volunteers in every town and village across the USA. My website lists such organizations’ links, and the readers of this blog can search where they can help by inserting their zip code.
What do you hope the reader will take away from the novel?
The humanity of Batya, the protagonist, who keeps her core untouched, her faith in God, and her devotion to her family in spite of everything. In a more mundane way, I hope that the reader will enjoy the historical aspects of the growth of Buenos Aires, the development of tango in the brothels of that city, and the redemptive satisfaction that many readers feel after the words, THE END.
For more information, please check out: www.TaliaCarner.com
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