Lisa Harding on Harvesting, one year on

The positive response to this book surprised me, especially as it was such a difficult novel to sell

Lisa Harding: “I started to think about my 12-year-old niece and it felt almost unbearable. But these girls have to bear it, and so I coached myself to stay with them, to inhabit them”

Lisa Harding: “I started to think about my 12-year-old niece and it felt almost unbearable. But these girls have to bear it, and so I coached myself to stay with them, to inhabit them”

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I never set out to write a novel about sex trafficking, in fact I never set out to write a novel at all. As an actor, used to the role of the interpretive artist, I had difficulty owning this part of me that wanted to express my own words, thoughts and ideas, not breathe life into someone else’s.

What I find interesting now when I look back at the process of writing Harvesting is that these stories presented themselves to me and demanded to be written about. The story of my involvement in the Children’s Rights Alliance campaign (Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People) that sparked the novel is not new, nor is the fact that I was deeply shocked reading about the minors that were trafficked to Ireland, nor that it was anger that motivated me to write about these stories in the first instance. What is new is the fact that other people wanted to know too and engage with this tough subject matter.

Now that the novel (a year on) has been picked up for film by a very talented team to be directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian Falconer, winner at the recent Galway film festival, I feel relieved (and somewhat vindicated) that my impulse to get these girls’ voices heard is shared. Faced with stories of such widescale trauma and abuse, I remember feeling a kind of impotent fury.

But how, why, what, who? – I asked myself in the aftermath to that campaign, the question behind the “how” being the biggest driving force. How can this happen in a so-called civilised society and how do the girls survive it? But also: who am I to tell this story? I struggled with my own notions of “legitimacy” around writing these stories, and yet, who am I not to tell them? Trafficking for sex is happening on our shores right now, an industry estimated to be worth €20 million in Ireland alone and I was confronted by the personal agony behind the statistics on that day when I read aloud survivors’ testimonies.

A journalist once asked me why I didn’t document these stories as real-life accounts, and my answer was that I am not a journalist. I only knew that I wanted to get as far away from any sensational reporting with “sex trafficking” shock/horror headlines that scream of othering and objectifying, and ultimately of distancing. What hit me on a visceral level as I read these girls’ stories aloud was how human they are, how connected to them I felt. Imagine if –?

I started to think about my 12-year-old niece and it felt almost unbearable. But these girls have to bear it, and so I coached myself to stay with them, to inhabit them, their inner lives, their histories, dreams, psyches and suffering, in a very real sense. I didn’t want to tell these stories from the outside, rather climb right inside them and live with them. I found myself utterly consumed by these two very different girls and they felt alive to me, as if I was channelling something that is much, much bigger than me.

In Michael Lennox, who is best known for directing the hit comedy TV series, Derry Girls, I found an unlikely (on the face of it) kindred spirit. He has spent time in Moldova working on various charitable projects and feels a real kinship with the country and has seen first-hand how extreme poverty can lead to such exploitation. The way he spoke about the characters of Nico and Sammy, with such respect and insight left me in no doubt that he was the right person to bring this story to screen. Although he is best known for directing comedy, he brings such pathos to his work in the Derry Girls, and Harvesting needs this lightness of touch, for even in the direst of circumstances there can be humanity and humour.

When I read Brian Keenan’s memoir An Evil Cradling, I was astounded and deeply moved by how much sustenance each of those men gave to each other in the form of laughter, and deep bonds of friendship. Likewise, Emma Donoghue created a beautiful portrait of maternal love in a situation of extreme trauma. I knew that Sammy and Nico needed to be treated with the same care by me and that they needed love in some shape to sustain them. They find that in each other in the way that teenage girls often too; theirs is an intense bond, that is, quite literally, life-saving.

I have been surprised on so many levels by the positive response to this book, especially as it was such a difficult novel to sell in the first instance. “Too dark”, “difficult to market”, “doesn’t have mass universal appeal” were some of the early responses, until Dan Bolger at New Island read it and took it on, with no such qualms. Early on I was encouraged by the support from Sarah Benson of Ruhama and Liliana Rotaru of CCF Moldova, both NGOs which work with victims of sex trafficking. It was Sarah’s words: “that a novel of this kind can touch readers’ minds and hearts in a way no amount of reporting of the facts can” that gave me the push I needed to send it out into the world.

These girls’ lives have beauty, value and meaning, and I am thrilled that a future screen version will touch more hearts and hopefully, galvanise more people to take action in a time of #MeToo, when women’s voices are being heard in an unprecedented way. The marginalised and silenced voices of those who are tricked, coerced or cajoled into the world of sex trafficking need to be shouted aloud by those of us who have the freedom to do so. I feel greatly honoured to now be part of a team who feel the same way and are dedicated to bringing this story to a wider audience, putting the sanctity of the individual above any desire to shock, titillate or entertain.
Harvesting is this month’s Irish Times Book Club choice. Over the next four weeks, we will explore the novel with articles by the author; Michael Lennox and Brian Falconer; fellow writers including Anthony Glavin, Alan McMonagle, Sophie Mackintosh and June Caldwell; academics in the field of creative writing and children’s rights law; the cover designer who created two very different covers for the title and more. Lisa Harding will be discussing her work with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times, on Thursday, November 15th, at 7pm, in the Irish Writers Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. It will be available to listen to on irishtimes.com on November 30th.

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