This review was originally published in Wales Arts Review. It’s worth republishing here not just because it’s about an interesting book in translation but also because the story of the book’s translation is intriguing in and of itself!
Town of Love
by Anne Ch. Ostby
278 pp., Victoria, Australia: Spinifex, 2013.
translation by Marie Ostby
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein
Town of Love by Anne Ostby tells a story that arguably has not previously been discussed quite so openly, beautifully, and sorrowfully in literature before. It is a depressing read, yes, but it also has a welcome aura of hope, and belief in the human spirit. Human trafficking and prostitution are issues that must get more attention; while this novel is set in India, this is not just an Indian tale. Early on, the narrator notes, “Principles were a luxury that no one in Prem Nagar could afford.” (p. 23) Again, this could apply to many other locales around the world.
This is Ostby’s description of the women principles in Prem Nagar who are unable to afford: “Girls sitting on chairs in doorways, on covered wooden platforms, or on benches under the thatched roof, in the semi-dark entrance to what they called home. Dressed in dazzling, sequined saris, tight blouses in feisty red or elegant peacock blue, with their shining hair oiled and newly combed. Heavily made-up eyes fixed in a distant gaze, long earrings gleaming in the afternoon sun, aggressive, pink lipstick. Slouching shoulders over small, pointy breasts. The workforce of the Town of Love.” (p. 7)
If that doesn’t both break a reader’s heart and draw a reader in, it’s hard to know what would.
Norwegian novelist Anne Ostby became engaged in this topic by chance. As she wrote to me by email, “I lived in Iran at the time [in 2007], and my husband had an Indian colleague. I knew he was married, but his wife was not there, and I had heard something about her running an NGO back home in India. But she visited Tehran now and then, and during one of those visits I met her: Ruchira Gupta, founder and President of the anti-trafficking NGO Apne Aap, which has helped thousands of women get out of a life of prostitution and violence. She has received all sort of international honours for her work, the UK Abolitionist Award and the Clinton Global Citizen Award among them. Ruchira is an incredibly brave and inspiring woman, and I am honoured that she has written an afterword to the book. But back to Tehran: at our very first meeting, I asked Ruchira about her work. The more I listened to her, the more I wanted to know, and when all of a sudden she said, ”Why don’t you come visit me in India and see what we’re doing?”, I immediately thought, ”Yes, I want to do that.””
Anne did go visit Ruchira in India. She ended up making multiple trips, meeting women, seeing the work Apne Aap carried out, doing research, and, eventually, writing the novel. Anne notes that she was especially touched by the situation of Nat women in India; their families often had multiple generations of prostitutes, and Ostby, as the mother to three daughters, thought, “How it must be, how it must feel, to give birth to a baby daughter, and know, holding that tiny body in your arms, that this is going to be her future?”
That concern for the women (and even a concern for the men who pimp them out and live off them) comes through clearly in the novel. “Something had been shattered forever. All she could do now, all anyone could do, was to wrap gentle arms around what was left. Cradling, rocking, softly kissing the wound.” (p. 117) These women have a very hard life, but some of the do finally find a way forward.
A reader can sense the research that has gone into this book, but that doesn’t mean that Ostby is showing off, the way some writers do. Her novel feels authentic, and not as though she is simply cramming as many facts and details as she can into it. “The first puri halwa-vendor wheeled in and parked his cart, the aroma of deep-fried bread and coconut-sprinkled sweets drew in a breakfast-hungry crowd around him. Smells and sounds coloured the morning…” (p. 255) Such sentences set the scene and bring the story alive, serving as a vibrant backdrop to this sad tale of prostitution.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the production of this book, besides the research, is the translation. The translator is one of the novelist’s daughters, Marie Ostby. Anne told me by email that Marie is a PhD student in English at the University of Virginia in the US and is fully bilingual. Anne wrote me, “I knew she would "get" the book, and my language, down to the slightest nuance and detail. ..I knew no one could do it better. She has an extremely fine-tuned ear for both Norwegian and English language, and she was touched by the story and wanted to convey the exact sentiments that she felt were present in the Norwegian ms. Additionally, I wouldn't have been able to cooperate as closely with any other translator as I did with Marie. During the process, which took months, we were in touch over every chapter and every paragraph, at times down to detailed discussions over a word. I think she felt no pressure to consult me like this, it was more a matter of really wishing to convey the exact same sentiment in the English text that she felt in the original Norwegian one. It was a slow and at times painstaking exercise, but I couldn't have wished for a better translation of my text.” It isn’t often that one hears about a child translating her mother’s literary work, and judging by the excellent English version here (I’ve also looked at the original Norwegian text), Marie Ostby is a skilled translator, and we will hopefully be seeing more of her translation work (perhaps she’ll translate more of her mother’s books).
In an afterword by Ruchira Gupta, she notes that this book “is an important voice in the history of slave resistance…The women of Apne Aap want a world in which it is unacceptable to buy or sell another human being, and they want to imagine an economy in which one is not forced to sell oneself. This book is about such women, and also shows that any one of us could be a Rukmini or Darya.” (p. 278). And as Anne Ostby has pointed out, “we are talking not only about a gender issue, but also about a social issue, and a poverty issue. Human trafficking is complex in its cruelty, with so many players involved, and yet it is so alarmingly simple: it’s a violation of human dignity, an unacceptable trade with human beings as merchandise.”
This is indeed an unacceptable violation of human dignity. We must bear witness to it, by reading works such as Town of Love, and we must help organisations such as Apne Aap as they attempt to ameliorate the situation for these women.