A regular reader of this page will notice that I have spent little, if any, virtual ink on the dry and gritty, nuts and bolts of publishing. I have to admit that if I’m in a room full of writers and the subject turns to editors and agents and contracts and demographics a certain part of me wants to go scurrying for the door.
That is because such talk always carries with it the faint reek of survival. The writer, like every other Joe on the planet, is just trying to get by, albeit in somewhat more rarified air. And so writing is just a job, and the real point of any job, after all, is to put food on the table.
I have nothing against jobs or food on the table, but I was reminded of survival recently when I had the opportunity to interview Somaly Mam. Ms. Mam was born in a remote village in the forests of Cambodia and sold into a brothel when she was twelve. Over the next decade she would be raped repeatedly, tortured, starved, and beaten. That she is still alive today is nothing short of miraculous. And yet alive she is, and since escaping the brothels her humanitarian organization AFESIP has rescued over 4,000 girls from sexual slavery. Her book, The Road of Lost Innocence chronicles this journey.
It is easy when hearing a story like Ms. Mam’s to focus on the suffering and loss, to stare at all that resulting pain as if it were a fresh wreck on the highway. And yet if Ms. Mam herself had done so, I do not believe she would be alive today to tell this story or help thousands of girls. But the point, as Ms. Mam herself was at pains to relate, was not the suffering, or the story, or even the girls being saved—the point was love.
Whether through good intentions or sheer shock, if we focus on the suffering of the moment, on the sudden or violent or depressing impediments to survival, we come to view life as merely that: something that must be survived. Yet ironically it is this very belief—the clenched-jaw, last-one-standing view of life—that leads us quickly into the darkest holes where survival is our least appealing option.
What the girls Somaly rescued need most, she told me, is love. What her always-struggling organization needs most is love. Yes, money and medicine and helping hands are good and always appreciated, but love above all is what sustains AFESIP. She does not want money given out of guilt, she said; she only wants money given out of love. Love is the fuel that turns the engine. It has to be. Love is life itself, not blood or breath—those are just the byproducts of love.
Whether you are rescuing girls from brothels or writing your first mystery, the point is always love. The publishing and the agents and the food on the table will all come as a result of love. Somaly did not begin rescuing girls out of pity or hatred, she rescued them out of love. Love is what moved her, and what moves you, and what moves everyone else, and always to the degree that anyone will let it.
The cover of The Road of Lost Innocence shows a photo of Somaly being mobbed by a cluster of laughing children. The picture is pure joy. It is hard to believe looking at their faces, Somaly’s included, that each was at one time so alone and so close to death. Yet it is the perfect cover for this book. What you choose to focus on is what you get. Somaly Mam, despite everything she has seen and been through, told me she is focused every day on love. On what else should she be?