The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Title: The Road of Lost Innocence
Author: Somaly Mam (Translated from French by Lisa Appignanesi)
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; First Edition first Printing edition (September 9, 2008)
Genre: Non-fiction(Autobiography)
Source: Library
Set in: Cambodia
Rating: 5/5

My thoughts:
This was one of the most difficult books I have ever read. We all know that prostitution and human trafficking is million dollar business that seems to continue to grow over the years. But most of us probably don’t know the extent of this problem and how it affects lives of young girls. All over the world and especially in underdeveloped/ developing countries, this is a problem that is quickly getting out of hands.

The Road of Lost Innocence is a story from Cambodia. Ms. Somaly had a very horrific life, 100 times more horrific than you can guess from the synopsis of the book. The worst phase was her life in the brothel. She describes the desperate and dirty living conditions in the low-end brothels where one girl had to sometimes service 10-15 men in one day. She says Cambodian men are very violent people, the years of Khmer regime has left a mark on them. She describes how the prostitutes are forced into the trade by their family members, by their own mothers and fathers. Poverty drives them to do this.

When she left the brothel for good, she married a Frenchman who was a social worker in Cambodia. After that she decided to use her status as a white man’s wife to help girls like her. She started a center that housed women rescued from brothels. Her center also provided health care and a way for these girls to build their life again by teaching them various skills. She also initiated an educational program which educated men into what prostitution was really like for those girls. Cambodian men seemed to treat women like commodities and she tried to speak against that by showing them that they were after all human beings.

The most shocking part was the ages of these girls in the brothels. There are as young as 5-6 year old girls. Some men seem to believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS. To ensure that the girls were virgins, they bought in girls as young as 5.

I have such immense respect for Ms. Somaly and the work her organization is doing instead of the constant threats they get. In Cambodia, big brothels are controlled or owned by powerful people. Even policeman have a share in the brothels earnings. When the system that is supporting you is going against you, people like Somaly Mam provide a beacon of hope.

I had watched a documentary on these very children of Cambodia but I guess the documentary masked some of the horrific details. This book tells you things as they are. And even when sometimes things become too difficult to read, I just had to keep going on. If we cannot help these girls, we at least owe it to them to be informed about their fate and know that there are people like them who suffer endlessly for no fault of theirs.

Note: The paperback edition contains some pictures, whereas the hardback doesn’t.

Some of the links:

Internet links:

Somaly Mam’s foundation
AFESIP: Acting for women in distressing situation

When a Hotel is a brothel and vice versa
Cambodia faces problems enforced new sex trafickking law

Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki

Title: Geisha, A Life
Author: Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown
Genre: Autobiography
Book set in: Kyoto, Japan
Source: Library
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Washington Square Press (October 1, 2003)
Rating: 5 out of 5

I loved Memoirs of a Geisha, both the movie and the book. So when I found out that the Geisha on whom the book was based on or rather inspired from has written an autobiography, I was thrilled. Apparently, Ms Mineko Iwasaki was very upset over the way Geisha’s were portrayed by Arthur Golden and that he breached an understanding that her name was not to be mentioned anywhere, but he did, in the book as well as in interviews. She also got death threats from people who thought she had defaced Japanese culture. So she decided to write a book of her own.

Iwasaki’s parents were distraught when she decided to become a Geisha when she was just 5 years old. How a girl so young could make such a decision and how could the parents agree to it is something beyond me, even though she has tried to explain it. She goes to stay in an Okiya (a geisha house) and she is initiated into the trainings and numerous classes when she turns six.

A woman who is training to become a Geisha has a very disciplined life. There is traditional dancing, singing, playing instruments and also studying. Would-be Geisha’s are allowed to study until Junior High, in fact it’s kind of a rule.

Iwasaki excels in dancing and she is introduced as a maiko when she is 15 years old. After a few years of working as a maiko she becomes a geiko at age 21, which are the same names for a Geisha, just different hierarchies. She soon becomes one of the top geisha’s in Gion. In fact, today she almost has a legendary status.

What surprised me most was how systematic and well organized the world of a Geisha is. There is a list of all the girls that are going to come out as maiko’s. There is a Kimono Dealers association. There is a very strict hierarchy which if broken can result in serious consequences. The earnings of all the geisha’s are reported to the Geisha Committee (I think that’s whats it is), so everyone knows who the highest earning geisha for a particular year is.

The Geisha world itself is so complicated or may be I felt that way because I had not heard a lot about it. There is a rule of what kind of and what design a Kimono can have depending on seasons. Same goes for hairstyles and ornaments. It was exhausting just reading about it.

It is very clear that Ms Iwasaki loved and respected what she did and she has tried to dispel all the myth’s regarding geisha’s. She often sounds a bit egoistic and someone that could do no wrong. But we also need to understand the world she lived in, a world when no one, including one’s sister cannot be trusted. She lived by the motto: The Samurai betrays no weakness, even when starving. Pride above all. I can understand how easily pride can be mistaken for ego in the geisha world.

There are lots of minute details on a lot of things like the music school, the dance school, the different kinds of geisha’s, the customs and traditions. There are also descriptions on Kimono designs, hair ornaments and the kind. For e.g take this:
My Kimono was made out of figured satin in variegated turquoise. The heavy hem of the train was dyed in shades of burnt orange, against which floated a drift of pine needles, maple leaves, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemum petals. My obi was made of black damask decorated with swallowtail butterflies. I wore a matching obi clasp of a swallowtail butterfly fashioned out of silver.

There are many passages like these which some people may find dry and boring. But I loved them, it helped me immerse myself in the book more. In fact 2 days after finishing this book I struggled with picking up another that was as engrossing as this one.

If I have to compare this book with Memoirs of a Geisha, I would say both are very different from each other. In Memoirs of a Geisha, we get a young, naive and endearing Sayuri, where as here we get a strong willed, dedicated Mineko. Arthur Golden seems to have picked the main storyline from one of the minor characters and mixed it with Iwasaki’s story to make it more dramatic. If you are looking for a “Memoirs of a Geisha” kind of book, you will be disappointed. But both are brilliant in their own way, one as page turning fiction and one as a real look into the Japanese culture. The simple fact that Geisha, A Life is a true story gives it a different feel altogether.

Women Unbound Challenge: Reading list and recommendations

I’m joining one more challenge but this one runs through next year so that’s good.


I have read a lot of books with the “Women Unbound” theme but mostly they have been memoirs. So I thought I’ll do a list for people who are interested. I have divided the list into 2 sections “read” and “to-read”. “to-read” will be my list for this challenge.

My “to-read” list
This list is tentative; I read whatever I feel like at that moment. But so far I have these in mind.

  • The Story of my Life by Helen Keller
  • Samira and Samir by Siba Shakib
  • My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani
  • Their Eyes were watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Complete Persepolis by Satrapi Marjani
  • Educating Esme by Codell, Esme Raji
  • Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
  • Madras on Rainy Days by Samina Ali

All these books are from my TBR pile. But I will obviously buy or borrow books if Singapore has a good library or a bookstore, so this list could change. Do let me know if you feel any of these books do not fit with the challenge. Also, I’m not sure how many books I’ll get to read but I’m keeping my options open and my reading list long 馃檪

Recommendations for the challenge:
A Thousand Splendid Suns: It’s not exactly feminist fiction but it is about 2 women trying to survive in the most difficult of times. It also shows the relationship between Laila and Mariam beautifully. A great story of getting through the daily horrors that life offers and coming out of it with hope.

Do They Hear You When You Cry by Fauziya Kassindja: I picked this book up because it was about an African girl and honestly I did not expect much from it, mostly because I had never heard of this book before. I ended up loving this book. It’s about a young girl who runs from her home and ends up in America as an illegal immigrant. The story follows her struggle to stay in a foreign country and make them understand the difficulties and the dangers she would face if she is sent home. She also spends some time in the refuge prison. Turns out this was a landmark case in American Refugee history. Other than the fact that her story had to be told in whatever form possible, I also liked the way the book was written. It describes her life before she runs away from her home and also her life as a refugee in the U.S. This is a very heartfelt and a sad memoir but with lots of hope. I remember not liking something about the book but I really cannot recall what.

Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody: One of my favorite books of all time. (From Amazon) Betty Lover met the perfect “dark stranger” in a Michigan hospital. Her Iranian therapist, Dr. Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, became her husband and the father of their daughter, Mahtob. Despite the vicissitudes of the Iran-U.S. hostage crisis, Betty and he flourished until their summer “vacation” in Iran in 1984. The next year and a half were a nightmare. Betty and Mahtob, held hostage by Mahmoody and his family, were subjected to Islamic fundamentalism, Persian nationalistic fanaticism, and a life of squalor.

Mayada, Daughter of Iraq: One Woman’s Survival Under Saddam Hussein by Jean Sasson: Again an awesome book. I cried a lot while reading it. (From Amazon) in 1999, Mayada was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s secret police for allegedly printing anti-regime pamphlets in her Baghdad print shop and imprisoned for nearly a month in Iraq’s brutal Baladiyat Prison. Sasson’s candid, straightforward account of Mayada’s time among the 17 “shadow women” crammed into Cell 52 gives readers a glimpse of the cruelty and hardship endured by generations of Iraqis. Mayada stares down this ugliness as soon as she’s yanked from her meticulously run shop into the prison’s interrogation room: “She saw chairs with bindings, tables stacked high with various instruments of torture…. But the most frightening pieces of… equipment were the various hooks that dangled from the ceiling. When Mayada glanced to the floor beneath those hooks, she saw splashes of fresh blood, which she supposed were left over from the torture sessions she had heard during the night.” Almost all Jean Sasson books fall under this category.

Wild Swansby Jung Chung: This is another great book that documents the life of 3 generations of Chinese Women-mother, daughter and grandmother, during the regime of Mao. It does get a little tedious and overbearing at times but over all it’s a very good book. If you were like me and didn’t know anything about the times of Mao, this book will provide lots of information. Review Link.

Empress Orchidand The Last Empressby Anchee Min: These are 2 books in a series but you can read the first book without reading the second. These books chronicle the life of the last Empress of China as fictionalized by Anchee min. They are both great books imho. Here are my review links: Empress Orchid and The Last Empress of China.

Abandonedby Anya Peters: This book is about sexual abuse. And seriously, the abuse scenes are so descriptive and detailed that I felt myself cringe a number of times. Her story is very heartbreaking. Anya Peters is a really good writer though. Read it only you can stomach such issues.

The Color Purpleby Alice Walker: I read this book long back and I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that I loved it. It did take some time to get into but it’s a great book if you like the writing style.

Prisoner of Tehranby Marina Nemat: This is what I wrote about this book a few months back. “Marina shows amazing courage in the midst of all this chaos. It is difficult to believe that a person who has seen so much hatred and destruction in the name of Islam, to still have faith in God. But it is this faith that pulls her out of it all and keeps her sane. This book is a very sad reminder of what is or was happening around a certain part of the world when we were comfortably sleeping in our beds or going about our normal duties. Read this to know about a time and place so different from what most of us have lived and also marvel at the courage of a woman called Marina Nemat.” Read my review here.

Cutting Looseby Nadine Dajani: Okay, this ones fiction and a little chicklit-ish but it does fall under this category. As I said about this book “As the story progresses, all three of them find the courage required to cut loose their ties from the past, enter into a whole new and challenging territory, leaving something that is painful but familiar behind”. It’s a classic tale of 3 women from different backgrounds who face problems similar to our own. That鈥檚 in fact what made me resonate with the novel more. It’s could be a tale of any 3 women.

Some more recommendations from Janaki@twistntales
1) Diddi by Ira Pande
2) The Book of Rachel by Esther David
3) Changing by Liv Ullman
4) Refuge
5) Janani-ed. by Rinki Bhattacharya
6) My Story by Kamala Das
7) A year by the sea by Joan Anderson
8 ) Pitching my tent by Anita Diamant

That鈥檚 about it I guess. How about you? Are you joining this challenge?