How This Narratively Contributor Turned His Investigative Reporting Into a Novel

From Manila’s cemetery slums to Taiwan's exploitative labor pool, Joe Henley’s thrilling new book puts a dramatic spotlight on the mistreatment of migrant workers.

How This Narratively Contributor Turned His Investigative Reporting Into a Novel

Over the past seven years, we have been fortunate to build up an international network of storytellers who bring deeply reported tales from around the globe to Narratively. One of these writers is Joe Henley, a three-time contributor originally from Canada, now based in Taiwan. Henley’s work covers a wide range of topics – just at Narratively this year he wrote both  The Expat English Teachers’ Murderous Love Triangle and The 11-Year-Old Girl Taking Skateboarding By Storm. But one issue that he has been drawn to time and again is the mistreatment of migrant workers in Taiwan.  We chatted with Henley about his upcoming book Migrante, the conditions that migrant workers in Taiwan face, and his advice on how to pursue fiction writing. 

Narratively: Tell us about your new book, Migrante!

Joe Henley: The story is about Rizal, a young man in his early twenties who comes from a cemetery slum in Manila. Because of his impoverished background, Rizal has trouble landing steady work and mostly fills his days doing chores for his mother and spending time idling with his friend Kidlat, dreaming of better days. One day Rizal gets wind of the chance to land what seems like highly-paid work overseas, in what he thinks is Thailand but later turns out to be Taiwan. He jumps at the chance. But once in Taiwan, where he joins the fishing fleet, he finds out that the dream of making decent money, sending some home to his mother every month so his family can finally get out of the slum, is about as far from reality as it could possibly be.

Narratively: How did your reporting on migrant workers in Taiwan lead you to write this fictional piece?

Henley: The entire novel is based on real accounts of Southeast Asian migrant workers whom I’ve spoken to in Taiwan, and also residents of the cemetery slums in Manila, where I’ve spent some time in years past. Starting in 2015, I began writing stories about the experiences of migrant workers in Taiwan for various media, and the many ways in which these people are exploited by a system that is designed to keep them as second-class citizens in Taiwan at best, and at worst as indentured servants. I’ve changed details here and there, and put all those stories into the form of a narrative surrounding a single protagonist, Rizal. But everything he experiences is in line with things that other real migrant workers have had to go through while working in Taiwan.

Narratively: In your book, Rizal is tricked into taking a loan he could never repay. How does this reflect the experiences of migrant workers you’ve interviewed?

Henley: It’s very much in line with the real experience of many migrant workers I’ve spoken to. They may not all be tricked outright, but many of them are at least pressured into signing loan agreements that they may not fully understand. Some aren’t even shown the agreement at all, and just given the final page to sign. If they don’t want to sign, there are plenty of others who will. There is pressure being applied now to abolish these loans given out by employment brokers, and even to abolish the labor brokerage system entirely, because of the exploitative nature of the loans they extend to migrant workers. It’s akin to the large loans that First World countries dole out in the Third World, knowing those nations can never repay them, so that later they can use the unpaid loan as leverage in securing lucrative infrastructure projects, etc… Migrant workers are pressured to take out a large loan, ostensibly to set them up overseas, and to pay fees for dubious brokerage services and permits, some of which are not even required, and then they are forced to work for years just to repay the loan. Forget about saving any money for themselves or their families. It’s a complete sham, really, and a shameful practice that needs to be stopped.

Narratively: What drew you to the issue of mistreatment of migrant workers in Taiwan?

Henley: I’ve always been drawn to the stories of outsiders and what, for lack of a better term, you might call underdogs. I guess it’s because I’ve always felt like an outsider myself, no matter where I go, so there’s a certain kinship there. My past book was about punks in Taiwan, another subject near and dear to my heart. I also can’t stand bullies, and in this case, I’m sorry to say, the Taiwanese government is exactly that, as are governments anywhere who allow migrant workers to be treated differently than regular citizens. This book is my way of trying to shine a spotlight on the issue and perhaps put some pressure on politicians to finally enact real change.

Narratively: How do you think fictional stories can bring attention to inhuman practices?

Henley: News stories are great, and invaluable, but the problem with news today is that the cycle isn’t even 24-hour anymore. It’s hour to hour, minute to minute. In the age of social media, when studies show the majority of people get their news from Facebook, there are so many competing headlines that our attention spans have just naturally become shorter and shorter. Thus, the impact of news stories has become lessened, unfortunately. We move on so quickly from one newsbite to the next. But if a deep-dive fictional story (based in reality) is powerful enough, and engaging enough, it forces the media consumer to sit down with it, live in it, over a matter of hours, or days, or weeks, and actually become immersed in that world for an extended period of time. That, I think, makes the message more enduring in their minds. In this way, fiction can be an incredibly powerful tool for drawing attention to humankind’s inhumanity toward itself.

Narratively: All proceeds from your cut of sales will be donated to Serve the People’s Association and Yilan Migrant Fishermen’s Union. Why did you choose these two organizations?

Henley: These are two organizations I’ve worked with in the course of my reporting in recent years. They are good people doing good work, and I would just like to help give them the means to do more of it, if I can.

Narratively: What advice do you have for journalists who want to dive into fiction writing?

Henley: Read widely. Give yourself time and space to write every day, and take your time with it. Do whatever is  necessary to give yourself the gift of that time. If that means earning less money, so be it. If it means fewer nights out with friends, that is simply what is needed. Respect the time and the work that the craft requires, and take no shortcuts. But don’t forget to live. You’ll have very little to write about if you forget to go outside and engage with the world and the varied people in it, no matter how vivid your imagination might be. Talk to people from all backgrounds. Know where they come from, their culture, their lifestyle, and treat it with the same reverence and respect you would have them give you. This is how we build understanding in the world. Then, if you feel called to do so, share those stories through your writing. If you care enough, and you’ve done all of the above in earnest, your audience will find you.

Narratively: What’s next for you?

Henley: A feature film I wrote the script for is slated to begin filming early next year. I’ll be able to say more about that later via my website. There’s a documentary on Taiwanese gangsters that I’ve been hired on as writer for; that is supposed to get off the ground next year as well. I’m also about to start work on my first travel guide. I’m in a Buddhist death metal band (yes, that’s a thing), our first album is due out next year, and we’re currently planning our first tour. Somewhere in between all that, I imagine the idea for the next novel will strike, too, and I’ll get wrapped up in that. So I guess the short version of this answer would be, “A lot. ”

Check out Joe Henley’s website and follow him on Twitter for updates on Migrante‘s  release in April.