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Balancing the Political with the Personal in Fiction: Harvesting by Lisa Harding

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Lisa Harding

Lisa Harding

Harvesting, my debut novel, was a tricky one to place in the world of publishing today. Told from the perspective of two teenage girls who get caught up in the world of sex trafficking in Dublin, it was deemed too difficult to market by publishers, who felt that because of the teenage voices it should fit into the young adult genre, but it didn’t because it was too harrowing. Then it got the ‘too dark for our imprint; send us something more commercial’ response or the ‘love your writing but it’s too uncomfortable or literary for our list’ or the ‘not literary enough’ response. It seemed that it just wasn’t fitting into any particular slot, and then along came New Island who don’t categorise books in quite the same way. They respond only to the work on its own terms and to the quality of the writing and I am very grateful to Dan Bolger, New Island’s editor, for taking a risk on what is no doubt a risky novel.

I first became aware of the existence of this flourishing underbelly of Irish society back in 2012. A representative from the Children’s Rights Alliance approached me to see whether I’d be interested in being involved in a campaign, run in conjunction with the Body Shop called ‘Stop Sex Trafficking of children and Young People.’ My role was to publicly read testimonies of girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. Before that day, I had no idea of the extent of the industry (some 1.2 million children trafficked globally for the sex trade, with figures rising because of the vulnerable missing migrant children). I also didn’t know that Ireland is regarded as a destination point for traffickers and sex tourists, and that some of the girls who fall prey to this world are as young as twelve, and some of them are Irish. All this information brought the stark reality of these lived lives so close to home.

The testimonies I read that day burrowed down inside me and reverberated long after, so that, in spite of me trying to push them away by writing a play about another subject altogether and a series of short stories, I found myself unable and unwilling to forget.

I struggled for a while with the legitimacy of me writing anything about these stories that were so painful and personal, but they just wouldn’t let me go and, ultimately, I felt that any exploration in the arts of this hidden world could only help shine a light. Initially the project took the form of a play, with a large cast and panoply of voices. Over time however, it became apparent that this young girl from Moldova, Nicoleta, and a highly dysfunctional teenager from Dublin, Sammy, were clamouring for more space and time. My research involved reading and studying the firsthand accounts and statistics which the Children’s Rights Alliance furnished me with that day. I was very conscious of not appropriating any specific individual’s pain so I decided to conduct my research with this in my mind. I read broadly and widely and then sought to fully humanise the girls who are used in this way. I wanted to embody the faceless statistics I had been reading about and to connect them to our lives; to our sisters and daughters. I sought to climb right inside them and bear witness to their complex interior lives as they try to assimilate all this abuse.

Once I had the bones of the novel written, I realised that I did not want to put it out into the world unless it was carefully checked for plausibility and authenticity. I also wanted to make sure that people who work in this field would support a novel of this kind. The children’s Rights Alliance put me in touch with two wonderful NGO’s: Ruhama in Dublin and CCF Moldova. I was lucky to encounter two very considered readers: Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama and Liliana Rotaru of CCF Moldova. Both spent time with each of the characters and gave me a couple of careful points to address. Most importantly for me, they both unequivocally supported an undertaking of this kind, echoing my belief that a novel could touch readers’ minds and hearts in a way that no amount of reporting of the facts can.

Although Harvesting was inspired by real life testimonies and reports, it is a work of fiction and positions itself firmly in this realm. As Roddy Doyle wrote to me on reading it: ‘Although Harvesting is a political novel, it remains a novel…’ and as such is concerned with what makes a novel work: dramatic momentum, language, texture, light and shade, character and voice. I knew that in order to engage the reader it needed to have a certain sensibility and I stayed away from anything overtly explicit, seeking instead to stay close inside the girls’ heads. My two driving questions were: How can this happen in this day and age in a supposedly ‘civilised’ society; and how can girls in this situation survive this repeated level of abuse? Or can they?

At the heart of the book is a strong bond of friendship which allows my two main characters to experience humanity, humour, fantasy and kindness in such a dehumanising world.

(c) Lisa Harding

About Harvesting:

Sammy is a spiky, quick-witted and sharp teenager living in Dublin; Nico is a warm and conscientious girl from Moldova. When they are thrown together in a Dublin brothel in a horrific twist of fate, a peculiar and important bond is formed . . . This is a novel about a flourishing but hidden world, thinly concealed beneath a veneer of normality. It s about the failings of polite society, the cruelty that can exist in apparently homely surroundings, the bluster of youth and the often appalling weakness of adults. Harvesting is heartbreaking and funny, gritty, raw and breathtakingly beautiful, where redemption is found in friendship and unexpected acts of kindness. Harvesting was inspired by Harding s involvement with a campaign against sex trafficking run by the Children s Rights Alliance. Although it is a fictionalised account, the text has been read and approved of by representatives for NGOs in both Moldova and Dublin.

Harvesting is shocking and shockingly good. It is thought-provoking, anger-provoking, guilt-provoking, and most importantly it is a brilliantly written novel. Roddy Doyle

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Lisa Harding is an actress, playwright and author. She played Connie in RTÉ s Fair City and has performed at the Abbey, the Gate, the Lyric, and the Manchester Library, among others. She received an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2014. Her short stories have been published in the Dublin Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology and Headstuff. Her plays include Starving, And All Because, and Playground. Harvesting is her first novel.

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