Matt Hill was born in 1984 and grew up in Tameside, Greater Manchester. After completing a journalism degree at Cardiff University, he trained as a copywriter. He now lives and works in London.
His first novel, The Folded Man, was runner-up in the 2012 Dundee International Book Prize.
by Matt Hill
As I wrote my new novel, Graft, I occasionally went back to a fascinating David Peace interview in which he suggests that crime fiction writers have no need to invent anything when real life already offers so much to dig at:
‘I believe the crime writer, by their choice of genre, is obligated to document these times and their crimes, and the writer who chooses to ignore this responsibility is then simply exploiting, for his or her own financial or personal gratification, a genre that is itself nothing more than an entertainment industry constructed upon the sudden, violent deaths of other, innocent people and the unending suffering of their families.’
I’ve found this argument to be a useful reminder, a sort of manifesto, when tackling crime in my own work. I think I find it so compelling because it’s an approach in which fiction isn’t meant to be a way to escape from reality, but instead a means to confront it.
Graft is a near-future crime novel that on one level confronts the industrialized exploitation of people. It takes place in a disintegrating Britain nine or ten years from now, where a bridge to another dimension is used by an organization involved in the taking, modification and sale of people for work back in ‘our’ world. One of these people, Y – the novel’s central character – is a woman augmented with a third arm and trafficked into bonded labor in Manchester.
This concept – and the story itself – looks at one of humanity’s most dehumanizing crimes through a fantastical lens, tackling some of our fears about the uses of technology along the way. But if the book’s ‘world building’ and ideas are science-fictional, it felt vital that Y’s story should be firmly rooted in the crimes of our own past and present. Not least because being able to research and apprehend these crimes is an opportunity given to us by the people who go to great lengths – and endure terrible hardships – to document them.
The raw statistics of trafficking are overwhelming, and its scale is often beyond comprehension. Even a quick glance at the 2014 United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons is enough to understand that today’s slavery industry (and it is an industry) has a grim breadth to it. Sweat shops, bonded labour, forced prostitution, child soldiers, trophies of war – these are just some of the many ways that people are being used and exploited in all corners of the planet.
Through this research, we know that traffickers target vulnerable people and steal them away from who and what they love, often with the promise of a better life. We know that traffickers push their victims into bonded debt – often withholding passports until the victim has ‘earned out’ the cost of their transport in squalid boats, lorries and trains. Later, a trafficking ring may ‘rehouse’ a victim if they make it home again. We know traffickers aim to brainwash their victims in an attempt to deny them their agency; chip at their self-worth until they believe they are destined for this, or somehow deserve it.
And through the work of journalists like Lydia Cacho, we also know that traffickers are operating with near impunity. In the majority of cases, the trading of people has been enabled by baggy legislation, poor government, systemic corruption and weak deterrents. Its perpetrators wield an insidious power that even extends to campaigns of intimidation and violence against those investigating these crimes. Cacho, for one, is a journalist whose unflinching, ferocious work on sex trafficking has not only seen her threatened with death, but physically and sexually assaulted herself. She’s one of many people who have made a commitment to exposing the horrors of modern slavery, and to suggesting practical ways it can be tackled. And she has suffered for making her stand.
So in writing fiction that deals with these issues, it’s not enough to be angry. It’s not enough to be well intentioned. Ignoring existing studies, stories and research as I wrote Graft’s trafficking scenes would have been shortsighted and reckless of me. And it would have been arrogant, too. I’m a non-expert fortunate enough to be writing from a position of relative power and creative freedom. Having made the choice to include depictions of trafficking in my fiction, it was on me to read and watch and listen to those who better understand trafficking’s complexity. Then write in a way that humanizes people where traffickers want to dehumanize them, drawing on the facts as I understood them.
This is why, in a weird sort of way, I hope the violence, corruption and exploitation in Graft carry at least some of the weight they do in reality. Yes, the novel presents a grim fictional future, but it’s one that’s been extrapolated from our own past and present.
No, Graft isn’t intended to be a worthy novel. But if using fact to inform fiction about the things humans do to each other makes Graft a sort of ‘message fiction’ to some readers, then I’m completely fine with that. Ultimately, I believe fiction (and perhaps especially science fiction) is a medium that allows its readers and writers to explore the good and the bad, the sum of us, of what we are; not to mention the paths we could take, or the problems we don’t even know we have yet. Seeking to understand where we’ve been and where we might go is what fiction does inimitably. Helping people to form a connection with people they might never usually meet is what fiction, to me, is for.
Of course, it’s not a writer’s job to hector. It’s far better that we can poke holes in ideas and let them sink or float. And yet writing Graft, and reading around it, was a reminder that whenever we try to write fiction that discusses or explores the darker side of us, these very human phenomena, we also have a responsibility to try and understand the complexity of an issue, and to demonstrate that awareness, however limited, as best as we can. Doing anything less isn’t just blinkered – it undermines the bravery and the rigor of the people who fight for truth on our behalf.