I-5, GOLDEN STATE GULAG
by Matthew Hirsch
In 1962, a literary magazine in the Soviet Union printed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s debut novel about an ordinary man who’d been swept to the margins of society. Little to that point had been published about Soviet prison camps and the routine injustices suffered there by innocent people like Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Halfway around the world and almost a half-century later comes a new novel that explores similar themes, aiming to expose an ongoing form of concealed oppression. The new book tells the story of a young woman who’s held captive not in a labor camp but a sex trafficking operation. The book is called I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.
The title I-5 comes from the interstate highway that cuts 800 miles through California, from the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro to the start of the Cascade mountain range near southern Oregon. The terrain might be familiar, but the scenes in the book are virtually unrecognizable, even for those who’ve made the journey along I-5 many times. Like the highway itself, these are places we’ve all visited, like roadside apartment buildings and Denny’s restaurants, but know little or nothing about.
The main character in I-5 is a Russian immigrant named Anya, whose family has been ravaged by state violence and war. A military plane crash destroyed her grandparents’ farm and ultimately claimed her grandmother’s life. An arrest by the secret police took away Anya’s brother Dimitri; then Anya resolved to flee from home. It was this impulse to escape that drove Anya into the hands of her captor, a Russian-American businessman named Kupkin, and into the dark underworld of sex trafficking.
Summer Brenner, the Berkeley, California, author who wrote I-5, says Anya came into being in her imagination almost seven years ago when the U.S. military launched its war in Iraq. The context of Anya’s captivity was influenced by personal frustrations in Brenner’s own life, such as her failure as part of a mass movement to stop the Iraq War. Another source of frustration: the familiar sense of confinement that comes with reporting to a job you don’t want to do.
In I-5, Anya’s captors might call to mind an aggressor who’s presenting a justification for war or one who’s extracting labor from an unwilling workforce. “They like to say persuasive things. They like to make themselves sound philosophical. They also fancy the phrase, in principle. … They say, ‘You should get on your fucking knees and crawl across the room.’ And when they add in principle to their propositions, it lends them an air of dignity: as if in principle all mankind has been waiting to do their bidding.”
Brenner did not set out to update Ivan Denisovich, but the similarities are unmistakable. In both novels, the main characters are snatched from their families and delivered to remote places that function by a harsh new set of rules. Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukhov must learn to survive the Siberian winter. Anya’s existence depends on lap-dance performances and her high threshold for pain during sex with clients. In Ivan Denisovich and I-5, both characters also exhibit a sense of agency that helps them retain their humanity in brutish surroundings.
Most of all, it is Anya’s sobering perspective on suffering that makes her a literary heir to Shukhov, who issued the memorable line: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” Anya’s captor Kupkin believes his fate is to rescue young, beautiful women. Though he traps them with deception, Kupkin concludes that these women are better off at his mercy in the U.S. than back home in an impoverished war zone. Anya agrees. As she tries to initiate another of Kupkin’s prisoners to her way of thinking, Anya offers this rationale: “Would she rather be fucking a dog in Atlanta? Or living like a dog in Romania? For Anya, this was not a theoretical question but a real choice. The relative improvement … could not be more clear.”
This is the voice of a survivor. Understanding this perspective is necessary. Accepting it, however, would mean admitting something awful about oneself. And herein lies Anya’s true power. She forces us to confront a taboo in the U.S. marketplace, that section where people trade on human flesh. It happens all around us, whether or not we can see into the shadows. Now that I-5 has made sex trafficking a little more visible, the question is: what are we going to do about it?
(For somewhat recent information about human trafficking, which includes trafficking for commercial sex, see “The Countertraffickers,” an article by William Finnegan published in the New Yorker in May 2008. The U.S. government has estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year, according to Finnegan’s report. Worldwide estimates are much less precise, with half a million people at the low end of the range. Citing the International Labor Organization, Finnegan said almost half of all trafficked labor is sex trafficking.)
Amidst all the difficult questions, the lively depiction of villains and antiheros in I-5 make Brenner’s novel a thrill to read. A brief detour to a California state prison introduces us to Gervasio, perhaps the most compelling character after Anya. The prison scene also suggests a whole other story about captivity in the land of the free. In fact, Brenner says she hopes to extend I-5 into a trilogy about women in confinement. The second installment would focus on domestic servitude. The third would take aim at (you guessed it!) prisons.
I-5 marks an auspicious start for the new noir fiction imprint at PM Press, called Switchblade. PM Press bills the lineup as “a different slice of hardboiled fiction, where the dreamers and the schemers, the dispossessed and the damned, and the hobos and the rebels tango at the edge of society.” Catch PM on March 13 and 14 at the Anarchist Book Fair in San Francisco or online at www.pmpress.org.
This essay was first published in ZNet on 2/21/10.