'These girls are hidden in every town in Ireland' - Lisa Harding's shocking and emotive debut novel about sex trafficking
Actress Lisa Harding's emotive and shocking debut novel hopes to start a wider discussion about young girls trafficked into Ireland's sex trade
Like most actresses, Lisa Harding began to realise that as she hit her thirties, the challenging and meaty roles she craved were starting to dry up.
"I was too young to be the ingénue anymore, and was never cast as a mum as I didn't have the right quality," she laughs. "It's very frustrating, and you feel powerless as an actor, sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring."
Mindful of the logic that if work isn't forthcoming, it's always prudent to get busy creating one's own, Harding began working on a play while touring with the UK stage adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Harding began to get used to other characters crowding her head, waiting to be committed to the page.
While playing Connie in Fair City, she was approached by non-profit organisation The Body Shop to read some monologues written by girls who had been trafficked into Ireland. It was part of an initiative run in tandem with the Children's Rights Alliance Immigrant Council of Ireland.
"I had no idea of the extent of the industry; how so many of these girls were so young and were being visited by men from all sectors of society, some of whom had daughters at home.
"I found the experience of reading the statements traumatic and wondered how their young bodies and minds could survive and assimilate this abuse," she recalls.
Above all, Harding was shocked to find that Ireland was a destination point for sex tourism.
"Irish men are involved in trafficking and some girls who fall into (the sex trade) are Irish, and I had no idea, nor had I any idea how young they were," she says.
"They're all over the country, hidden in every town in Ireland. You think that trafficking happens in Thailand or Cambodia, but it's very close to home. It's impossible to know how many girls are there against their will as there's such secrecy, shame and fear in those places."
It wasn't long before two new characters came to life in Harding's mind. One, Sammy, was a middle-class suburban teenage girl from Dublin. Affected more deeply by parental abuse than she could ever know, Sammy uses her youthful sexuality as a currency.
"Sammy sees sex as a power, but soon tumbles in right over her head," explains Harding.
The other character, Nico, was a thoughtful Moldovan 12-year-old who yearns for life's simple pleasures.
Instead, she is sold to a middle-aged man she will ostensibly 'marry'. With both young women taking shape inside Harding's mind and speaking ever more loudly to her, the debut novel Harvesting was born.
All told, Sammy and Nico's respective interiorities make for a chilling, often shocking, read. So as to avoid salaciousness and sensationalism, Harding has held fire with the graphic sex scenes. And in some ways, this makes it even more of a deeply unsettling, all too vivid, read.
Much like Louise O'Neill's Asking for It was a clarion call to rape culture, Harvesting is also likely to spark a conversation most of us would rather not have.
"I think most people don't want to know about this, they can't look at it," explains Harding. "But this is modern-day slavery and it's happening today. I mentioned the topic of this book to a friend and they said, 'oh, that's too harrowing, I couldn't look at that'. But when I started to research it I thought, 'can you only imagine this life?' There was no way I could not write about it."
Sammy finds herself in the cross hairs of charming Brian, a man grooming young girls for sex work in Ireland.
"It was interesting to see how traffickers spot their victims," observes Harding. "They can scan Facebook and if they see a young girl posting about how much they hate their life, or school, or their mother, they target these girls, befriend them and groom them.
"The (Irish) girls that tend to fall into that world come from highly dysfunctional homes and don't have a sense of security about themselves and have very few boundaries.
"I was told that a trafficker goes up to a young girl and tells her she is beautiful. If she blushes and looks down, they will go for her more readily than a girl who can look them in the eye and say 'thank you'. They look for damage and low self-esteem... it's so predatory," says Harding.
Nico, meanwhile, takes a trek through Italy and the UK before landing in a Dublin brothel. Hers is the more 'classic' tale of trafficking.
"It's not normal for a girl as young as Nico to marry that young; it's illegal and unusual, but plausible," adds Harding. "With the migrant crisis as it is, 10,000 children go missing every year, and it's thought that around 80pc of them are trafficked into the sex trade."
Harding undertook plenty of painstaking research for the book, but is at pains to note that Sammy and Nico are very much "works of imagination".
"I spoke to NGOs in Moldova and Ruhama here," says Harding. "I wasn't letting this book out into the world unless those who worked on the frontline with the girls thought it was going to be in any way helpful."
Initially, many publishers were enthusiastic about Harding's writing, but told her that the subject wasn't "marketable". Eventually, she signed with New Island, who Harding describes as "amazing at taking on risky books and writers".
Harding then found a fan in writer Roddy Doyle, who has called the book "shocking and shockingly good".
"That was an incredible moment, knowing my hero had responded to the work," admits Harding. "I had a good old cry that day."
Writer Anthony Glavin has also been forthcoming with effusive praise.
"I love that these feminist men are getting behind it,' enthuses Harding. "I have no doubt that women will pick up this book, but I'd love a male readership, too. A friend of mine teaches teenage boys and is excited about getting this message across to them.
"It's about humanising these girls, to make the connection that they are daughters, sisters and friends with an emotional reality."
Harding is tuning in to some new characters in her head, and is currently writing a novel about addiction.
"I always write about characters on the verge of society, the disassociated voice, the lonely voice," she surmises. "Writing about people that don't seem to have much agency in the world is one thing that definitely drives me."
Harvesting by Lisa Harding is out now and published by New Island books