Guest Blog by Helen Matthews
‘After Leaving the Village’ - Researching Modern Slavery: Real Life - More Terrifying than Fiction
What made you write a novel about human trafficking and modern slavery? It’s a fair question and one I’m frequently asked since my debut suspense thriller ‘After Leaving the Village’ was published recently.
Writers are often told to ‘write what you know’ but this may not always be good advice. I’ve completed three full-length novels about topics loosely drawn from my own life - sisters, neglectful working mothers, family secrets and driven business women. But writing about characters with lives similar to mine wasn’t interesting. That’s why those novels remain unpublished and sit in a drawer, gathering dust. I had to step outside my own experience to discover important stories that needed to be told.
Not all survivors of modern slavery want to tell their personal story. Some fear for their personal safety or want simply to disappear into the obscurity of an ordinary life. So, what of fiction? Can a contemporary novel bring awareness of modern slavery to a wider audience?
‘After Leaving the Village’ tells the story of 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. It’s fictional but realistic. Victims of human trafficking come from many different backgrounds though many have experienced deprivation. Odeta’s life is not especially grim but it’s colourless and lacks opportunity. Readers can relate to her, walk in her footsteps, sharing her hopes and dreams, as she travels to the UK and discovers what awaits her behind the doors of an ordinary London street.
It’s hard to believe now, but, when I began researching human trafficking back in 2013, awareness was low and research material sparse. I discovered occasional 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 led me to the inspirational charity, Unseen, that works towards a world without slavery.
I became a supporter, making a monthly donation to sponsor a hostel room for a trafficking 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 in raising awareness of the plight of women who have been duped and sold into modern slavery. I entered a partnership agreement with Unseen, committing to raise funds from pre-orders of my novel, and to continue my support longer term.
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.
Last year 3,805 victims of human trafficking, originating from 108 different countries, were identified in the UK but this grim statistic vastly underestimates the extent of the crime.
According to the 2016 figures, Albania was the number one country of origin of victims identified in the UK (18% of all cases). Depressingly, this was also the case when I started my research and, for that reason, I chose Albania as Odeta’s home. At that time, I hadn’t visited Albania so I drew on guide books, articles, YouTube and, especially, Google Earth to zoom over the countryside and swoop down on remote areas to invent the village where Odeta’s family lives.
After I’d written several drafts, it was time to make a visit. My son, who’s in his twenties and never one to pass up on a free holiday, travelled with me. This proved an inspired combination allowing us to chat with people of all ages and backgrounds. From the moment we boarded the plane, the Albanians we met were eager to tell us their stories. A highlight of our trip was visiting a rural family in a village near Berat, who told us about their lives and how Albania has changed since the days of the totalitarian, Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha. For fifty years of the second half of the twentieth century, Albania was kept isolated. Hoxha broke links with the USSR, copied the Chinese Cultural Revolution and forbade people from practicing religion so Albania became an atheist state. I’ve written extensively about this on my blog https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com/post/albania-beyond-the-bunkers.
Once the regime ended, Albanians endured more years of political and economic instability throughout much of the 1990s. It was during this chaos that people trafficking began, initially on a small scale, but later linking with international criminal activity. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), forced labour in the private economy generates US$150 billion a year in illegal profits and is second only to the illegal drug business. What’s more – it’s less risky for perpetrators. Drugs can only be sold once but people can be passed from hand to hand and sold into different forms of slavery many times over.
Albania is now a functioning parliamentary democracy. The economy has stabilised and signs of modernisation and progress are everywhere. Development will bring jobs and benefits to local people so they won’t need to go abroad to seek their fortunes or fall victim to smooth-talking traffickers. It’s a fascinating country and an under-discovered travel destination. Everyone should go there.
Recently Unseen has appointed me as an Ambassador for the charity and I’m thrilled and proud to have the opportunity to raise both funds and awareness through my novel. Other charities doing great work in rehabilitating survivors are Ella’s Home http://www.ellas-home.co.uk/ and The Gaia Centre www.refuge.org.uk.
To find out more:
To report suspicions call the Modern Slavery Helpline – 08000 121 700
After Leaving the Village by Helen Matthews published by Hashtag Press is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon http://amzn.to/2z84c89 and all good bookshops.