Describe the birth of the concept for this book.
For months, I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to write about. Maelea hung around. I got to know her, but I didn’t know where she was from, or what her story was. I had some vague concept that the book was going to be about human trafficking. I had been exposed to that term in the most abstract way before. Groups had spoken at my church; I had listened but not done anything more to educate myself or get involved. And then, one night, Maelea finally said something. She said, “Write about my home.” I had no idea where her home was. Frankly, I wanted it to be in the United States. I wanted the readers to understand that this issue isn’t something that only happens to countries far away. I wanted them to see what human trafficking looks like in the United States. So I got online and Googled pictures of random inner cities among several different states. Eventually, Maelea became impatient and said, “No. I’m not in the United States.” That really confused me. I had no idea where to look. I have ventured outside America. I have visited Europe. So that was my first guess but I didn’t even bother to look up pictures because I knew she wasn’t in Europe. My next guess was Ethiopia. I looked up pictures and saw the children, but it wasn’t Maelea. Then I typed in “villages of third world countries.” An image popped up in the second row of the search engine. I knew before I even enlarged the picture that was Maelea’s home. I had this image of her walking down a dusty dirt road and water nearby. The image on the screen matched the image in my head exactly. It actually gave me chills. I followed links to find out where the image originated from and ultimately discovered it was taken in Cambodia. My next step was to research Cambodia. I found an outlying village, Anlong Veng, and read everything I could about it. I looked at dozens of pictures. I studied the culture. And then I wrote the first chapter. And after that first chapter, Maelea kept talking, so I kept writing.
Why do you use graphic depictions of abuse?
Because abuse is graphic. I believe that our culture soft-paints abuse, particularly rape. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to read emotional and intense accounts of it. The statistics don’t change because we aren’t shown how devastating the trauma is to those who endure it. Abuse is graphic and human beings, live and real, do suffer it every, single day of every, single year. Children suffer rape and torture every, single day. My hope is that if we are shocked enough, if we are horrified and sickened enough, then the absence of action will one day become impossible. This isn’t make-believe and I am not sensationalizing the issue. I’m not exploiting anything. I am trying to bring awareness so that change will be possible. This is what happens to our children, worldwide, and we are the only heroes they have to rely on.
What was the hardest part of this book for you to write?
It was all difficult. A lot of my books are emotional and deeply disturbing. A lot of my books are extremely personal. All of my work captures pieces of me. But Maelea captured my whole heart. I spent months unable to stop thinking about the horrific acts of torture I had read about, and listened to via videos. The torture bothered me the most for a long time. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know first-hand exactly how traumatizing sexual assault is. I know first-hand the devastating effects of the mind games, of feeling trapped and controlled. I know that there isn’t a need for torture. If you take an eleven-year-old child and force her to be raped sixty times a night every, single night, that child is not mentally capable of escape. You can gain cooperation and obedience without the use of such violence. It seemed unnecessarily evil to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about what kinds of anguish unnecessary torture was causing children; it broke my heart. The hardest chapter to write, though, was undoubtedly the night of the abortion. I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish that chapter.
Why does Maelea never see her mother again? Does Srey live?
Maelea does not see her family again because, realistically, she would have been rejected. She was no longer a virgin and she was physically deformed. Local superstitions and culture would have made it difficult for her to be welcomed back with open arms. She could have been, but she might not have been. In addition, Maelea was emotionally not the same person. Her family wouldn’t have known her. Even had they accepted her back in, she would have felt alienated. Things wouldn’t have been the same because Maelea wasn’t the same. Having to obey her father would have terrified her and resentment could have easily grown. I didn’t want that ending for Maelea. I wanted her to have the opportunity to develop into her own person, without being held back by expectations. I tried to have her see her mother, and Srey, while she was spying on the house but it just didn’t turn out that way. Some authors are story-driven. I am character driven. If Maelea didn’t show me something in a scene, I don’t write it. It was heartbreaking, her not being able to see her mother, but I think that, if she had, she would have been unable to resist the urge to run to her. And that would have run the risk of rejection and alienation. Eu purchased a doctor when he sold Maelea. While dengue fever can be fatal, it can also be treated, if it is caught in time. For this reason, I like to believe Srey healed and lived fine. Ultimately, though, this is left up to the reader to determine.
Tell us about the title. How do you feel it fits the book?
I struggled with the title for a long time. For the first time in recent memory, I didn’t want something stark. I wanted something pretty. See, Maelea lost a lot. She lost her innocence, she lost her family, she lost her virginity, she lost the chance at justice, she even lost the only true friends she’d ever known. After the first chapter, Maelea never smiles again. Not once in the entire rest of the book. This, the loss of joy, really hurt me the most during the writing of the novel. I wanted her to be a happy, carefree eleven-year-old. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t even dance anymore because every time she tried, she thought of the dancing man. The dancing man is probably the character I loathe the most because he represents the most important thing that is stolen from a child who is raped: self-confidence and joy. At one point, Maelea states that the “dirty, noisy, restless city” suits her more than the peaceful beauty of a rescue house. I found this terribly sad. She doesn’t believe herself worthy of anything good anymore, not even help. The dancing man helps illustrate that rape is about so much more than an act. It is so much more than sex. It cuts into the survivor’s mind and makes that child believe she isn’t worthy. Dance was Maelea’s one outlet, the one thing that she did at home for herself. Not for her mother or her father or her sister but because she just liked dancing. And now, after the brothel, she doesn’t have dance anymore. Even though she is out of physical danger, the effects of the abuse linger on, as evidenced by her inability to smile or dance. When I was trying to think of an appropriate title, I wanted it to be something that showed that Maelea wasn’t just a victim of child sex trafficking. She was also a dancer, once upon a time. The exact wording, Dance For Me, is important too. She has to obey. She has to do as she is told. She has to dance because a man tells her to. No longer can she just spontaneously start twirling around the floor. Everything she does is decided for her. Her entire life has become a shadow of what it used to be. Now, none of this is to say that she can’t regain her life, or her love of her dance, or her smile. Survivors overcome every day. Although I wasn’t trafficked, I was sexually abused for about eleven years, and I have overcome. I laugh. I smile. My hope for Maelea is that she goes on to overcome, that she regains her sense of self and worth. The title seeks to draw the reader deeper into Maelea’s life.
Why does the reader never find out if Maelea has HIV?
Frankly, because I couldn’t write it. The character that shadowed me for months was infected. The plan was to tell the reader this in the very last sentence of the book. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it for a couple of reasons. One, I really love Maelea and, at the time of the writing, was deeply connected to her. I could not bear the thought that this little girl who had endured hell already was going to be given what amounts to, for someone in her place, a death sentence. Logically, I know that people with HIV/AIDS can now live a normal life expectancy with proper medical treatment. I suppose I could have introduced Maelea to a wealthy benefactor who would have paid for such a life-saving regimen. But I didn’t want to do that, either, not even to save her life. Why? I did not want Maelea to feel obligated or indebted to a single human being ever, ever again. I wanted her to be free. I also couldn’t tell the reader her diagnosis because of the timing. She had just started to feel comfortable in the city. Just started getting to a point where she didn’t hear Madam’s voice around every corner, where she didn’t feel the need to watch her step as closely, maybe even begin to trust her new boss. The diagnosis of HIV/AIDS to a thirteen-year-old with no access to medical treatment in Cambodia was simply too cruel. I just couldn’t do it. However, I also couldn’t free her from that diagnosis. She was forced to have sex with up to sixty men per night for two years, men who we must assume frequented these establishments often. Even if Maelea was diligent in wearing a condom, the chances that she would have contracted the virus are extraordinarily high. Those chances raise even more if you consider how unclean and unkempt the place seemed to be, or that she was often left bloodied. Ultimately, I suppose it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not she ever went back to see what the test results were and then what the diagnosis ultimately turned out to be.
Are you currently working on a new novel?
Not at the moment. Emotionally, this book wiped me out. I was in need of a serious, psychological break long before I wrote the last word. Generally, I will have three to four months between the last word of a book and a new character showing up. I don’t force it because, when I do, it’s always wrong. But writing is a part of who I am. In order to be fully happy or whole, I have to write. So another story will be forthcoming… as soon as an interesting and worthwhile character reveals herself to me.