Warning: this article may cover themes that some people could find disturbing to read about including the trafficking of children.
The University of Hull is working to establish a justice hub that will support our activities in the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) to end modern day slavery. We shared an article with alumni to update you on this work, and Katherine Blessan (American Studies and English Literature, 1998) was one of several alumni who got in touch in response to that article.
Katherine lives in Sheffield and is married to Blessan, from Kerala, India. As well as writing stories that touch on social issues and explore the space where cultures cross, Katherine is an English and Creative Writing tutor.
Previously, she lived and worked in Cambodia, a rich experience she draws on in her writing. Her novel set here, Lydia’s Song, was a category finalist in the Indie Book Awards, 2016.
Katherine is currently writing her third novel, trying to find a home for her second, and developing her skills as a screenwriter. She has also done the occasional work as a ghostwriter.
In this article, Katherine shares with us her experiences in Cambodia, and how they informed the writing of her book, Lydia’s Song.
What made you choose the University of Hull and do you have a favourite memory?
Back in the days when I went to university (1995-8), the internet was in its infancy, so I relied on the glossy prospectuses from my universities of interest. I have to say that the prospectus from the University of Hull was very informative and beautifully designed (I still remember the black covers and the raised logo!).
Also, the University of Hull was one of the few universities doing joint English and American Studies at that time, and I particularly warmed to the focus on modern literature that Hull had, and the beautiful Humber Bridge.
I have fond memories of The Lawns Halls, disco fun at Pop Tarts and the incredible views from the Brynmor Jones Library.
Tell us about your book and the inspiration behind it?
Between 2006 and 2009 I lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I worked as an English teacher.
The first time I went to Cambodia in 2006 to work with a Christian NGO, I was staying with a family in Ratanakiri province and on one occasion, I was resting on a hammock on their porch. A servant was sweeping underneath me and I remember feeling embarrassed by this. Like a lightning flash, the essential plot for Lydia’s Song hit me.
At this point I knew little about the sex-industry, nor did I know much about what life was like in Cambodia as I’d only been there a couple of weeks. Therefore, I knew that the writing process would not happen quickly as I’d need time to live there and do my research. But the strength of the story idea kept me going, as well as wanting to expose something of the injustices of the industry.
My novel Lydia’s Song: The Story of a Child Lost and a Woman Found (Instant Apostle, 2014) is the story of a British expat teacher living in Phnom Penh and her young Vietnamese ward, who gets sold into prostitution by a trusted friend. It poses the question of whether you can ever forgive someone who has hurt a child that you love.
You got in touch with us at the office due to the article we published on our project to support the Modern Day Slavery Act. During your time living in Cambodia were you aware of cases of slavery?
Slavery is always largely invisible unless you are aware of what you are looking for. A friend of ours who worked for International Justice Mission (IJM) told us about a hotel frequented by expats that we should avoid as it was used as a base for sex-trafficking. I’m glad she informed me as it meant I would not visit again; I had seen nothing untoward when I had visited prior to her warning.
I remember visiting one American run restaurant in Phnom Penh with my husband, where the atmosphere felt more uncomfortable than most. As I went to the toilet, I passed a room on one side of the corridor where a young Khmer woman sat on a bed. It was an unusual context to see a Khmer woman so we had our suspicions that she could have been trafficked, but no real evidence.
Sex-trafficking is one of humanities greatest evils especially when children are involved. How do we eradicate it from society?
I don’t know if it can ever fully be eradicated without complete transformation of the human heart. But I would like to see the sticky web of lies and corruption that permeate the whole sick industry broken. You can see it even on our own doorsteps with the Rotherham child-sex abuse sex scandal taking years before the truths were uncovered. I would like to see the testimony of victims of abuse taken more seriously regardless of age, status or ethnicity, and the rich and powerful not being protected by a bubble of privilege for so long (as happened in the Jimmy Saville case).
You touch upon a charity in your novel, ‘Safe Hands’. Do you think that there is enough being done in Cambodia to support victims of slavery?
There are many anti-trafficking organizations in Cambodia some of whom work in advocacy (like IJM) and others who work in after care (such as Hope for Justice, whose work profits from my novel supports). I was particularly pleased to read an IJM article highlighting that the proportion of minors working in the sex prostitution has sharply declined from a high of 15-20% in the early 2000s to a mere 2.2% in 2015. Perpetrators are now brought to justice and jailed for their crimes. This has been affected thanks to years of hard work and collaboration between the government, police, courts, social services and non-profit organizations.
However, more work needs to be done to support victims of forced labour as that has overtaken child sex trafficking as the most virulent form of slavery in Cambodia.
If you would like to read Lydia’s Song by Katherine Blessan, you can find it here on Amazon.co.uk