Today, we’re going to be exploring a book with a much darker theme than most we share. But often, the books with the harshest look at reality are the ones most important to read. After all, is there anything more frightening in the world than the things that we, as humans, do to one another?
I was recently approached by author D. Odell Benson concerning her novel Queen’s Innocence, a realistic look at the practice and aftermath of human trafficking in the life of one girl. While this book holds subject matter that may be difficult to read, perhaps after learning a bit about its author and how she created Aaliyah in Queen’s Innocence, you’ll add it to your reading list.
Aaliyah was born into a loving family with two parents, a full toy box, and the carefree innocence that children inherently have. But when her father crosses the line and assaults her, Aaliyah’s life if turned upside down and the once promising trajectory veers sharply off course.
She rapidly slips through the cracks, the police and foster care failing her at every turn. She passes through the hands of doctors and case workers, warehoused and ignored. When it does come time for freedom, she leaves the system only to be forced into a new type of system, one where women are a commodity to be bought, sold, and abused.
But as Aaliyah grows and is faced with the ability to retake her power, there are those who don’t wish to lose out on the money she can earn them. Can she break free of years of bondage, or will Aaliyah become yet another statistic?
I’m sorry to leave the description on such a cliffhanger, but Aaliyah’s journey is the book. Unless you can walk beside her and really take in all the trials of her teens and adult life, you can hardly appreciate the work Benson has created. Still, Aaliyah’s story isn’t just words on a page, it’s the end result of months of research and true stories that are reflected on the pages.
Human trafficking isn’t just something that exists on the fringes of society in seedy motels and back alleyways. It happens in the penthouses in New York City, the farmlands of Iowa, the split level home next door, and the streets of your own town. This includes my own area, no matter how quiet my middle class, suburban streets now are.
I was born in Atlantic City, which hasn’t had the best reputation. If you’re out on Pacific Avenue at night, you might see “the girls” strolling the sidewalk, trying to make eye contact with the bachelor parties as they walk to yet another strip club. You might see a man parked down one darkened street, watching “his girls” and ensuring they don’t leave the fold, collecting his cut after ever job. For people born in my area, that’s just part of casino life, but many of those women don’t choose to be there. Drug addiction, mental illness, abusive relationships, and even poverty brings the human traffickers. And once you’ve been taken into that life, it’s often difficult, if not dangerous, to leave.
Now that we’ve discussed the book and why I found this novel particularly engaging, let’s get to know D. Odell Benson and find out what brought her to write Queen’s Innocence.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your journey toward becoming a published author.
I am an introvert that is generally the life of the party/event. I believe that being nice to people will cost me nothing, so I make sure I offer a smile when I can. Considering life has not expiration date, I live with my heart on my sleeve, even towards strangers, loving unconditionally. That’s the most important thing about me, well that’s what I would like to believe.
My journey truly started in 2013. I was working full-time on my Master’s Degree coupled with full-time employment; but still felt that I could do more, which doesn’t happen often. See, I have ADD (attention deficit disorder) so focusing on one thing has always been a challenge for me; but, for some reason I was able to write in pure tunnel vision. The joy and adrenaline that came from the first five chapters gave me a lease on life that I have never felt before and one I refuse to live without. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve written thousands of short stories and poems throughout the years, but writing a novel is a total different beast and I love it.
2. What inspired you to write Queen’s Innocence?
The inspiration to write Queen’s Innocence came from my own daughter. A toddler doesn’t see or understand the dangers around them. Everything is fun, bright, and peaceful. These are innocent souls that we as adults are supposed to care for and keep safe; but how do you keep your child or the children around you safe when no one speaks of the dangers. I want people to speak on these dangers. I feel that Society as a whole has gotten into this “mind your business” phase and it’s more damaging to the younger children that didn’t ask to be here.
3. What was the inspiration behind the character of Aaliyah?
Aaliyah is you or me or even the girl next door. The things she did during the day, playing with dolls and sitting in front of the television waiting for her favorite show. This is typical child behavior. I thought about myself as a child, and incorporated my two oldest nieces and was able to see the innocence even at that age. I want people to see that Aaliyah can be any child, male or female. In a single parent home or a home with two parents. A happy thriving child can be a victim too. It’s not just “bad” or low poverty areas, Aaliyah is in every household, good, bad, or indifferent.
4. Your biography states that you were born in Philadelphia (this makes us almost neighbors!) did the city of your birth lend any inspiration to your work?
Yes, a lot of my work either starts here, ends up here, or crosses path with the City of Brotherly Love in some way. The inspiration for Queen’s Innocence and Philadelphia conjoins by the hopefulness of neighbors. Abuelo is anyone’s father or grandfather. I grew up on Bellevue Street in North Philadelphia where there was always a man somewhere telling you not to do something or will provide us with something we needed in order to keep our game going. Older men generally are essential to urban communities.
5. Aaliyah seems to “bounce back” from things fairly quickly for having been through so much, including the assault and drug addiction, so much so that her wit is sharper than one might expect for a young, abused teen. Why did you decide to make her such a resilient character?
Growing up in the City you see at a young age that things can go horribly wrong. You can either allow it to consume you or you can consume it and move forward. Not all “victims” remain victims, more times than not they become victorious; because in them, is something stronger, deeper, something that they were given at birth. The ability to recognize the World’s truths but the understanding that you and only you can show someone else that it’s okay to hurt, to cry, to lash out, but time waits for no one; not even the victim. Aaliyah saw first hand what giving up looks like. Most women forced into human trafficking can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes the drugs forced on them is the one thing keeping them. Being resilient comes with seeing the “what if”. Aaliyah’s thought is that of a person that sees the bigger picture, help someone else to move on. See, she has her rock, she has the person that showed her even through her own doubt that he would be there, he would protect her. Not all victims will get that, Aaliyah knew this much because if it weren’t for Elijah, King (aka Lee) would have sold her back into what he rescued her from.
6. Much of the content of the book was fairly graphic. Did you find that difficult to write and research?
It was hard, it made me cry at points, completely breakdown in others, and wanted to throw the entire storyline out. That’s when it hit me, if I can have these feelings, if I can go through the thoughts and visuals of being sold off, raped, and drugged; why not show others that this is real. That this really happens to people and it’s not all flowers and unicorns. Life is hard, it’s breathtaking, unbearable, scary, the thought itself is scary and deep down I hurt. I hurt in a place that I want others to feel. I want others to feel as hopeless as I did when I was writing, rewriting, and reading. I want others to get into this fight and help because the hurt deep down is too much to bear for one person.
7. How much research did you do into the topics of human trafficking, foster care, mental health, childbirth, and drug addiction before beginning your project?
I started research on prostitution, that’s when my eyes were wide open for the first time. It took me a few months to do the research needed for human trafficking and about a month to speak to some people that are in the field of prostitution, and how they got to where they are today.
8. In your opinion, how can the public work to end human trafficking?
Speak up, stop minding your business, be observant of people and vehicles that are not normally there. Our biggest issue in society is that we moved away from the term, “it takes a village to raise a child.” If you’re not willing to be that voice, I understand. There’s a website www.wearethorn.org it’s ran by a group of individuals that are passionate about helping those abused. If fighting against human trafficking is too much, donate to the organization above. I am not affiliated with this organization in any way, but a portion of my earnings from Queen’s Innocence will be donated to help them in their quest to make the World a tad bit better.
9. How long did it take you to write Queen’s Innocence?
With research and mental breakdowns, it took about ten months. I actually started this book and a few others on Facebook. I thought it was something different and wanted to pull people together by offering parts of my books for free.
10. What do you want readers to take away from this book?
That human trafficking is real. It can take place in the hood, the suburbs, and even those places where millions are spent just on lawn care. There’s no monetary gauge on where and who can be taken. I don’t want to put fear into people and make them not want to do things, I just want people to be more mindful of their surroundings, mindful of the children that may yell out for help. Don’t mind your business, let your voice be heard, and possibly save a life.
11. Do you have any plans to continue Aaliyah’s story?
As of right now, I don’t plan to continue Aaliyah’s story. I want to leave her off as being an inspiration to others, a victorious survivor.
12. Readers might think that Aaliyah has allowed the negative parts of her life to take over the rest, for example when she recounted the rape and subsequent abuses at her wedding speech. What are your thoughts?
We grow by our mistakes, by our journey no matter how bumpy it is or terrifying the truth is, we grow. When there’s something to this magnitude, talking it out is the best way. Others wouldn’t be able to know they aren’t alone if Aaliyah doesn’t speak on it. Her pain can be someone else’s salvation.
13. What books, if any, do you have planned to tackle next?
I am looking to release Married Assassin on June 2nd during Bookcon. I will be at the event for a workshop and a few panels but I will not be on display this year.
Overall, I found this book to be engaging and raw. It was difficult to read at times, due to the harsh subject matter, but I find that that’s what makes it an important work. While parts were dramatized in a “Lifetime Movie” way that made them almost unbelievable, the themes were universally understandable across the board. I recommend this book to any reader over the age of 18 who wants to learn more about clawing your way back to the light.
To keep up to date with all D. Odell Benson’s work, order one of her books and learn more about her, please visit her at any of her platforms: