Ben Randall is a filmmaker and the author of the ‘Sisters for Sale’ nonfiction series of books, which focus on the trafficking of young Hmong girls from Northern Vietnam to China. Randall released an award-winning documentary by the same name in 2018 before turning to writing to expand the story. Randall is also the founder of not-for-profit organisation The Human, Earth Project.
Randall was also shortlisted for Hachette’s Richell Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2021 for ‘Snakehead’, which spotlighted another human trafficking story that followed on from ‘Sisters for Sale’. The most recent instalment in the four-book series is Mountains Beyond Mountains. Randall talked to Independent Publishing about his experiences self-publishing the ‘Sisters for Sale’ books.
How did you branch out from filmmaking and photography into writing?
I’d actually wanted to be an author since I was young, and writing has always been a passion of mine, but life led me in a very different direction. In 2011, my local friends May and Pang were kidnapped from their homes in the mountains of northern Vietnam, where I’d been teaching English. I set up a non-profit organisation to raise awareness of human-trafficking, and did everything I could to find May and Pang. Both girls had been forced into ‘marriage’ and motherhood in distant parts of China, and each faced the heartbreaking choice between her child and her own freedom. We produced May and Pang’s story as a feature documentary, Sisters for Sale, which went on to win awards at film festivals around the world. It was such a complex and fascinating story that what was to be one book has ended up a series of four. The books have been extremely well-received and have been selling incredibly well (largely via word of mouth). In April the fourth book, Mountains Beyond Mountains launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival.In what ways has your work as a documentary filmmaker influenced your writing?
I’d taken a cameraperson with me during my search for May and Pang in Asia. I reasoned that if I couldn’t find the girls, we could still use their story to help protect others at risk. The result was a huge amount of video and audio which all helped inform my writing of the ‘Sisters for Sale’ book series. What May, Pang, and I went through was extraordinary, and it made for a complex and incredible story. My priority in writing the books was to make that story highly accessible, by making it easy and enjoyable to read, and incorporating the beautiful visual imagery from the documentary. What makes the story so engaging is the fact that May, Pang, and I were friends before they were trafficked, so the emotional stakes were high, and I was willing to do whatever I could to help them. The comment I hear most often from readers is that they literally can’t put the story down—many have read an entire book in a single sitting, and have then come straight back for the next one.How has the book series helped raise awareness for your not-for-profit organisation, The Human, Earth Project? ‘Sisters for Sale’ is a five-year story. There were so many fascinating parts to it that simply didn’t fit into a feature documentary, so writing the books felt necessary, and I’m really glad I had the chance. I’m really proud of everything we achieved with the film, but of course the books are always better! The books gave me the space to take a deeper dive into facets of the story that we only touched on briefly in the film, if at all. I was also able to share more of my own experiences and reflections, whereas with the film I’d kept a tight focus on May and Pang. Having the story in multiple media has been wonderful, too. There are many people who see the documentary and want to know more, and are amazed when they read the books and discover how much more there is to the story. There are others who get the full story from the books first, and then they’ll watch the film to actually see and hear that world and everyone in it, so it works both ways.
What are some of the avenues that have opened up as a result of the books and the film?shortlisted for Hachette’s 2021 Richell Prize from over 850 entries. How has this affected your writing career? The Richell Prize is the only major writing award I’ve entered, and it was highly validating receiving that level of recognition. Funnily enough, I’d originally planned to submit the opening chapters of Sisters for Sale. About two weeks before entries closed, though, I realised it was ineligible as it had already been self-published. I quickly cobbled together part of another human trafficking story which follows on from ‘Sisters for Sale’, and I was delighted that it was received so well. There seems to be a tendency in the publishing industry to look down on self-publishing as somehow illegitimate because any motivated author can do it. I feel that’s a mistake the industry is making at its own peril—real opportunities are being lost for publishers, and real gems are being overlooked. Traditional publishers will never again be the sole point of connection between writers and readers, and there are now excellent opportunities for the industry to grow in new directions. As for my writing career—I’ve spent most of my adult life living and travelling around the world, and have plenty more fascinating stories to share, so I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve recently begun branching out into fiction and will complete my first collection of short stories by the end of the year.I went into the pandemic presenting at film festivals, and am now coming out of it presenting at book festivals. It’s a whole new world that gives people a chance to engage with the story in a completely different way, and that’s been excellent. I know we have a unique, powerful story, I enjoy finding new ways to share it with people, and I love having those opportunities to meet its fans and supporters face-to-face. My hometown, Newcastle, has an iconic headland with a cluster of beautiful heritage buildings around a lighthouse. I was recently invited to hold the first ever solo exhibition there, which was an amazing opportunity. The ‘Sisters for Sale’ exhibition filled over fifty metres of wall space with photography, stories, and video from Asia, and was very well received. Together with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an organisation that has now rescued over a thousand people from human trafficking, I’ve also begun hosting documentary screenings and workshops for schools and universities. We’ve already worked with some of Australia’s biggest institutions, including UNSW and UTS, and it’s been a brilliant way of engaging young people with real-world issues. Plus—and this is the first time it’s been announced publicly—I’ve just begun working with a talented Sydney-based illustrator, Alaa Alfaraon, to produce the ‘Sisters for Sale’ story as a graphic novel for young adults. Visually, it’s a very beautiful story, and I’m really excited to see it come together. Alaa also produced illustrations for the ‘Sisters for Sale’ exhibition. What else have you learnt from self-publishing the ‘Sisters for Sale’ books? The ‘Sisters for Sale’ books have had a very unusual journey. I first began writing the story because one of the major publishers reached out to me, but I decided to step away from traditional publishing. The story is a unique one and self-publishing offered more flexibility to tell it how I felt it should be told, rather than trying to fit it into a pre-existing mould. After researching all available options, I decided to use IngramSpark’s print-on-demand service, which I’ve been really happy with. It’s easy, affordable, and the print quality is excellent. As a self-publisher, you have so much control over the process—and if you’re willing to put in the time and energy to do it properly, you can create something really special. While I do intend to return to the traditional publishers because they can reach a larger reading audience than I can, self-publishing has been a very rewarding process that has taught me so much about publishing and promotion, and about my own strengths and interests. I’m really glad that this is where my journey has begun, and I’d highly recommend it to new authors. You were among five authors
What are you working on next?The amount of interest we’ve had in the ‘Sisters for Sale’ series has been phenomenal. The fact that so many people beyond the social justice niche have so enthusiastically embraced a $100, 250,000-word nonfiction story shows just how much potential this story has. Imagine what it could do as a shorter, more affordable single volume in the hands of one of the major publishers—it will be global. I’m currently working to dramatically condense the story for that purpose, and will be speaking with publishers in the coming months.