Advocacy through Fiction: A Book Might Change Your Life (or Someone Else's)

If you love reading, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that a novel can change you. Books open our eyes to the world around us and allow us to empathise and share the experiences of others. Fiction can shine a spotlight on issues of the day and might prompt some readers to lend their voice to a campaign for change.

Since my novel After Leaving the Village was published, I’ve often been asked what made me write about human trafficking and modern slavery. It’s a fair question and I’ve answered it many times but I’ve never addressed the underlying sub-text, which is – how can someone like me, with my privilege and  the advantages of a good education, universal health care, a successful corporate career, marriage and family contribute  to the debate on an issue beyond my own experience? But not all survivors of modern slavery want to tell their story. Some fear for their personal safety, others may want simply to disappear into the obscurity of an ordinary life. So, does contemporary fiction have a role to play in bringing awareness of this terrible crime to a wider audience?

After Leaving the Village tells the fictional story of seventeen-year-old Odeta, who leaves her remote village in Albania, with a man she believes is her boyfriend, to begin a new life and career in London. Odeta’s life in Albania is not especially grim, but it’s colourless and lacks opportunity. I wanted readers to walk in her footsteps and share her hopes and dreams, as she travels to the UK and  discovers what awaits her behind the doors of an ordinary London street. Above all, I wanted to be sensitive to my character and honour her humanity by making Odeta a fully-rounded, ordinary woman – just like you, or me, or one of our daughters.

It’s hard to believe now, as our knowledge of the scourge of modern slavery has been heightened over recent years but, when I began researching human trafficking back in 2013, awareness was low and research material sparse. I read feature articles in the archives of mainstream media, but my main source was case studies and survivors’ testimonies, published by charities. The harrowing accounts of these young women, men and children led me to discover the inspirational charity, Unseen, that works towards a world without slavery.

I became a supporter of the charity, making a monthly donation to sponsor a hostel room for a survivor. While writing my novel, experts at Unseen answered my questions and, after it was finished, their Founder and Director, Kate Garbers read and checked my full manuscript. Fortunately, Kate loved my novel and saw its value as a channel for raising awareness of the plight of women who have been duped by smooth-talking criminals. I committed to raise funds for Unseen by donating a percentage from sales of my novel. More recently, I’ve been appointed an ambassador for the charity and when I give talks to groups about my book, I’m able to raise awareness of modern slavery.

In her Foreword to After Leaving the Village, Kate Garbers writes:  Do not be fooled into thinking that the novel you are about to read is based on an isolated occurrence, that Odeta is simply an unfortunate woman. Her story is a very real one for many women today.

I’ve learnt how someone’s life can change in an instant. One poor decision, trusting the wrong person, or being desperate to escape from poverty, can spark a chain of events and lead to the loss of freedom. But what then? How can we help? By keeping our eyes and ears open and spotting signs that may mean someone is being abused or exploited, such as:

• Physical appearance – do they look unkempt, malnourished, exhausted or with incorrect clothing or equipment for the work they’re doing?

• Psychological – do they seem anxious, stressed, withdrawn or traumatised?

• Isolation – are they unable to communicate or does someone else step in to speak on their behalf?

• Living conditions – are they living in a dilapidated caravan or temporary building or a place with blacked out windows?

• Restricted freedom – are they unable to travel freely or have they ‘lost’ their passport or documents? And do they get dropped off and picked up at a place of work very early in the morning or late at night?

If you see something that raises your suspicions, call the Modern Slavery helpline (run by Unseen) on 08000 121 700 to make a report. This is a free and confidential service that operates 365 days a year and is available to victims, frontline professionals and members of the public. All reports will be investigated.

As a society, we’re not helpless and we can stand up against injustice. Writers of fiction can help tackle these difficult issues by raising awareness and bringing them to the front of our readers’ minds - along with fulfilling the story's promise, as a suspense thriller reader would expect. I know from my reviews, and from giving talks to groups, that readers have found my book a gripping page turner, but they also say that After Leaving the Village has made them think about the issue of modern slavery in our countryside and cities. I’m proud to have played a small part in giving a voice to those who are denied it.

To find out more about the charity, Unseen go to https://www.unseenuk.org/

After Leaving the Village is available from my website https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com/shop or from Amazon https://amzn.to/2JCZL8O

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