Forgiveness, Meaning, and Story: An Interview with Corban Addison

Corban Addison is an attorney, activist, world traveler, and the author of three powerful, lyrical, internationally bestselling novels: A Walk Across the SunThe Garden of Burning Sand, and the just-released The Tears of Dark Water. As novelist John Grisham, a fan of Corban’s, put it, Corban writes beautifully about some very ugly issues: violence, injustice, exploitation, evil.

In settings as varied as Washington D.C., France, India, Zambia, and Somalia, Addison’s characters wrestle with those dark forces as well as their own personal tragedies. The Tears of Dark Water, for example, centers principally on a father trying to bond with his son on a sailing trip that turns into a hostage crisis in Somalia. In A Walk Across the Sun, an American lawyer on sabbatical in India, dealing with the death of his baby daughter and the collapse of his marriage, takes on an international sex trafficking ring to save the lives of two Indian sisters after a tsunami destroys their home and family.

Bestselling author John Hart declared that “If you like stories of good people struggling to do right in the world’s forgotten places, there is no one better suited than Corban Addison to take you on the ride of your life.”

I recently asked Corban about why such human rights issues are important to him, and about the values that are central to his work: forgiveness, purpose, meaning, and more.

Mark Tapson: You are an activist for some very pressing humanitarian causes, including ending modern slavery, sex trafficking, and gender-based violence. But you are also a storyteller, and not many people can successfully meld the two. Why did you choose to dramatize these issues in novels rather than address them in nonfiction?

Corban Addison: I write stories instead of non-fiction because I’m a storyteller by nature and because I believe in the power of story to shape and inform the moral imagination of readers.

There is a reason we use stories to teach the most impressionable people in our society—our children—the most important lessons in life—about good and evil, right and wrong. Story opens the heart. It gets past the architecture of bias and prejudice that so often chains our minds and limits our views. Story offers us a chance to walk a mile in the shoes of another. It teaches us about ourselves and the world in ways that we can’t ignore. It inspires empathy. It creates understanding. And it inspires action. In its best form, story can actually change the world.

MT: Acculturated’s parent organization, the Templeton Foundation, promotes the virtues. More than any other contemporary novelist, you write stories whose characters exhibit many of those virtues, including joy, forgiveness, kindness, humility, wisdom, gratitude, purpose, love, self-reliance, altruism, perseverance. Can you talk about how the virtues inform your work?

CA: My goal in writing novels is to shine a light into some of the darkest places on earth, to humanize people (especially the poor and victims of violence) whom we might never have reason to think about otherwise, and to inspire my readers to care about injustice around the world.

This is not an easy task. Our culture, unfortunately, encourages us not to think too hard about the challenges facing us in society. Yet it is in the extreme places of human experience that the truth of a person’s character is revealed. I’m very interested in that truth—the truth that exists at the core of all of us, including myself. That is the truth I seek in the hearts of my characters.

I’m fascinated by moments when the best instincts in human beings triumph over the worst instincts, when people choose to sacrifice themselves to help someone else, when joy breaks through the storm clouds of sorrow, when people from very different worlds take the time to understand each other, and when people who have been wronged choose to forgive.

I’ve seen in my life and in my research how awful people can be to each other, but I’ve also seen how good we can be. When goodness rises above the fray (which it always does in various ways in my stories), it is truly beautiful to behold.

MT: Forgiveness is a powerful theme in your books, particularly in The Tears of Dark Water. Can you talk a bit about how you see forgiveness as a way—perhaps the only way—for those victimized by some of the horrors we wrestle with in the world today to come to terms with it?

CA: When other people hurt us, we have only two options. We can hold on to the pain and allow it to become bitterness, or we can chose to release the pain and find a way to forgive.

As you point out, the question of forgiveness is at the heart of The Tears of Dark Water. I thought a lot about it as I wrote the story. I asked myself if I could forgive in the way I was asking my characters to forgive. I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m convinced that finding a way to forgive is the only way to move past a life-altering injury into a place of peace and renewed productivity.

Bitterness paralyzes the heart. It binds a person to the past. Forgiveness releases the heart to live again. It’s not something that happens easily, or necessarily at one moment in time. Sometimes it takes years and multiple decisions to have its effect. But its power is unquestionable.

MT: Your characters are sometimes victims who must reach down farther than most of us ever have to in order to overcome extreme situations: sex trafficking, Islamic fundamentalism, slavery. Then there are characters from the developed world, like the attorney in A Walk Across the Sun, who also must find the moral courage to come to the rescue of others, and who discover real purpose in their own lives as a consequence. Can you talk about purpose and serving others and finding meaning, and how they intersect for those characters and for you as well?

CA: One of the reasons story is such a profound medium of communication is that all of us are living a story, whether or not we think about it in those terms. Our stories aren’t simple or linear. They wouldn’t fit easily into a novel. But they matter greatly to us, not just because we have an interest in their outcome, but also because we want to believe that our lives matter to the world. We want our lives to have meaning.

Unfortunately, the kind of meaning that our world encourages us to seek is so often self-serving. How can I get what I want? How can I advance my own objectives? How can I move up in my career? These goals can be powerful motivators, but they don’t actually leave a person satisfied. Satisfaction comes by using one’s gifts and talents to serve others. That’s a theme I explore in my stories.

Often the people who are most successful (in the traditional metrics, at least) are the most unhappy. Conversely, I’ve met people in the developing world who are incredibly poor and have achieved nothing of the kind of success that inspires Western culture but who are incredibly happy. They find their meaning in the faces of those they love. That’s the kind of life I’d like to live. And that’s the kind of life I think most of us would like to live. But we have to make it a priority. And we have to be willing to sacrifice.

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