On Black Sisters Street is a dark but good book about the lives of women who have been trafficked to Belgium from Nigeria. It’s sad and a little heartbreaking, but it’s not disaster porn, if that makes any sense. One of my favorite scenes involves one character telling another what to say to the people at the embassy because some of us Western countries get a morbid satisfaction out of listening to the problems of people in non-Western, war torn countries. This is also mentioned to a lesser degree in Girl at War by Sara Novic. I know I’ve been guilty of it too, responding to people’s tragedies as if it’s just gossip, before I realized I was doing it.
That said, I wouldn’t call the book entertaining so much as interesting. It doesn’t completely give in to the worst parts of the sex trafficking story that we are accustomed to hearing about in the US, but that’s also a part of what I liked about it. It’s clear from the beginning that the women had an idea of what was going to happen to them in Belgium. It makes me wonder how many women willing enter into such agreements to escape their lives and how much they really know about what they’re getting themselves into. Some of the characters had a good grasp of it and significant motivation, others not so much. Still, it would stand to reason that while some would know exactly what was going to happen, or at least know to expect the worst possible thing, others might go in with a little more naivette.
Regardless of what they knew about it going in, the women of the story have different reasons with different levels of tragedy that propels them into the situations and changes the ways they react to having to do their job. They each have different dreams of what to do with the money. Together, they represent a different picture of what women in such a situation might even be there for. Those of us who aren’t put into the position to make such choices may think that we never would, but these are some pretty compelling reasons. Still, they don’t really give off the image of “choices” so much as making due in horrible circumstances.
That’s the part I fear people losing in the story. There are some aspects of choice and taking your destiny into your own hands when allowing yourself to be trafficked, as these girls all were, but it’s not really agency. It’s a route to agency that they all hope pans out. They aren’t so much empowered as they are making the most financially advantageous choice. The story makes it clear that making money this way isn’t empowering, even when you’ve decided on your own to do it. It’s a means to an end, for those who are even this lucky.
The story itself is good, though not exactly mind blowing on first pass. It began to shift when I sat down to write this review and met with all the contradictions between what we get taught and see about sex trafficking in the US and what the story represents. It may seem impossible for both things to be true at once, but when we look at old stories about slaves here, similar disparities arise. Not all masters were on the same level of evil, though I hesitate that any could have been wholly good either.
The way it tells the story of how each woman got there, it asks the reader to wonder whether or not there is a situation that would get them there too. But it also contemplates what happens when reasons are good enough when choices are made but they later aren’t. Can choices like this be unmade? Isn’t that the part that takes the agency you thought you made the decision with?
As far as the feminism of the story goes, it does serve well to humanize women who have been trafficked into the sex trade, willingly or not. It helps the rest of us take a look at how others can find themselves in a situation where such a choice must be made, where it’s the most advantageous of options. It widens the scope through which we must view this problem and how we could combat it while keeping it clear that there are many layers to both the problem and the solution. Simply shutting these places down wouldn’t put the women who work there in a better place, not all of them. So then what can we do?