She is dressed head to toe in black. Dark jeans, army boots with the laces jagged and torn. The hood of her sweatshirt is pulled up over long hair, and when she lifts her hands to sweep bangs off her forehead, even her fingernails are painted jet. It doesn’t make sense for her errand, but this child is standing a corner in Anchorage, Alaska and the temperature has dipped into single digits.
None of it matters. Her dark clothes and army boots, the slouch of her narrow shoulders and the way that she tucks her chin to her chest as if she’s trying to escape inside of herself. They know what she is. And when a car pulls up she turns back her hood and smiles as if she’s been anticipating this moment for days.
Josh sits curled up on our living room floor, a Crown and Coke half gone, the ice cubes dancing in his glass as they reflect the lights of our Christmas tree. It’s hard to reconcile his story with the warmth of our home, antique children’s books lining the shelf above his head and my grandfather’s 1920 Woodstock typewriter in pride of place on the mantle. It’s obvious that Josh is wounded by the telling. Aching for this girl he tried for months to rescue, coordinating with the FBI and the nonprofit organization where he works as a program director serving homeless, at-risk, and trafficked youth throughout Alaska. The girl’s story doesn’t end well, this child who is a teenage sex worker forced into the industry by a pimp nearly old enough to be her father. A man who told her he loved her.
The team got her out. Stole her away one night and put her on an airplane to the little village in the heart of Alaska where her family was waiting. But only weeks later she was back. Same corner. Same black hoodie.
Josh’s stories never fail to move me, but I didn’t sleep that night over two years ago. She haunted me, this nameless girl. And though my heart hurt for her situation and for the pain in Josh’s eyes as he recounted those long, cold nights, I couldn’t get her out of my head because I didn’t understand. But I wanted to.
My books often begin like this. With a question, something evocative, insistent. Something that won’t let me go. But this time, I didn’t intend to write about her. It just happened.
I was already mid-stream, halfway through writing a book about two women who loved the same man and both felt responsible for his death. Harper Penny was more than a character to me–bright and vivacious, so very much fun to be with that I loved writing every scene she was in. But she surprised me when I turned to a blank page and found her pushed down on a bed by a man she loathed and feared in equal measure. Where did she come from? And what did I know about this? Abuse, manipulation, control… This isn’t my story.
But it is her story. And the story of an estimated 29.8 million people across the globe. 22% of those victims are enslaved for sex. And though it boggles the mind, I could ignore those numbers, let them evaporate into the air, until Josh sat on my living room floor and told me about her.
I don’t set out to write books that grapple with significant current events or address what I might consider to be faulty political, socio-economic, or moral ideologies. I want to tell a good story, not to persuade people to my way of thinking. And yet, deep in my fiction-loving heart I know that every “pretend” story I tell is rooted in truth. The kind of truth that is often so significant, so profound, that we have to come at it sideways in order to assimilate it. And whether we like it or not, confronting that sort of truth is often transformational.
If I wanted to tell you the story of the girl in black, I could travel to Alaska and track her down. It wouldn’t be hard. I could meet with her and parse her words into a moving biography. Or collect information for an article or feature about sex-trafficking and how women might find themselves in such a dire, hopeless situation. We could watch documentaries, Nefarious or In Plain Sight or Flesh, and we would together be sickened and horrified. Heartbroken. But I don’t want to just conduct an interview, and I don’t need to know every intimate detail myself. What I want is to understand.
Joyce Carol Oates said: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
And isn’t that heart of the matter? The girl in black is not just another statistic. She’s a soul. And I want to slip into it.
Fiction makes her story mine. It allows me to slough off myself, connect soul-deep. Become, if only for a couple of hours or days, another person. I can taste the beauty and longing and depravity and mundanity of her life. And these moments, these interludes of understanding, are the very building blocks of my humanity. They are lessons in compassion and tolerance, in forgiveness and understanding. In love. We cannot experience another person’s reality and remain unchanged, for even my four-year-old son must be a monkey after reading Curious George. Paintings on rock and so much mischief, this good little monkey who is always very curious. My son’s soul has been tattooed by experience, and though the story is not his own, he owns it.
We’re connected, all of us, and the story of a young Hazara servant in Kabul is as much a part of my narrative as my own story. For the hours I read The Kite Runner I was Amir, but I am also Scout Finch and Elizabeth Bennet and Jean Valjean and Hermione. I am exceptional because of it. And so are you. We are more than the sum of our parts, more than the ordinary experiences of our everyday. We are extraordinary because we hold the world in our hearts.
As for the girl in black, the child on the corner in Anchorage who consumed my thoughts for so many sleepless nights and inspired a character in The Beautiful Daughters, I have never had the privilege of shaking her hand. I would buy her a coffee if I could, warm my fingers on the mug as we sat across from each other and shared little things. I would tell her that I admire her. That I think she is beautiful and brave and that her brokenness is mirrored in me. We are a part of a tapestry, she and I, and you, too. And that’s why fiction matters: every character I love–and even the ones who I hate–change me. We are ever transformed and transforming. Continually being made new.
Nicole Baart is the mother of four children from four different countries. The cofounder of a non-profit organization, One Body One Hope, she lives in a small town in Iowa. She is the author of seven novels, including, most recently, The Beautiful Daughters. Find out more at NicoleBaart.com.