I was recently interviewed by author Michael J.  Tucker about the newest release,  Dance For Me.   His questions were thought-provoking and interesting to answer!   Michael is the author of the 5-Star rated Capricorn’s Collapse and Aquarius Falling.   His blog offers in-depth reviews and interviews with several authors;  you can find his review of Dance For Me on here as well!   Thank you for reading and providing such thoughtful dialogue for the book,  Mike!

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MJT: Tiffini, what was your inspiration for the character Maelea?


TJ: I never know exactly how to answer these questions.  I don’t “come up” with a character;  characters just pop into my head.  One day, they won’t be there;  the next, I’ll see a figure.  Usually, she hangs around for awhile before she tells me her story.  Maelea was the same way.  I saw her caramel colored skin, dark hair and solemn expression for several weeks before she ever said anything at all.  The pervading emotion was sadness, but I didn’t know why.  Maelea stands out from my other female characters, though, in that she is particularly wise.  The book is written in her voice—but it doesn’t sound like an eleven-year-old—or even a thirteen-year-old, as she is at the end of the book.  It sounds like an adult talking.  And yet, there’s this naïvity that seems to envelop her, especially where her home and family is concerned.  She misses her mother in heartbreaking scenes, she chooses not to go back because she’d rather miss them than face their rejection.   Maelea impacted me on a personal level very much and I think that’s because I see a lot of the teenage Tiffini in her;  in the way she refuses to give up and in the way she thinks.  I’m not sure where Maelea’s character came from, but I am glad that she showed up at all. 


MJT: Much has been made about “sex tours” to Thailand but I was not aware of these issues in Cambodia. Why did you select Cambodia for your novel’s country?


TJ:  This goes back to my being extremely character driven.  I didn’t have a choice.  Maelea told me to write about her home;  that was the first sentence she ever “said” to me:  “write about my home.”    I did not know where her home was.  So I got online and searched for images of third-world countries.  I had a picture of her home in my head—I knew what it looked like.  She was walking down a dirt road barefoot, with a dog following her, and water nearby.  When I did the search, the exact same image I had in my head appeared on the screen.  Goosebumps traveled my arms.  I followed links until I discovered where the picture had been taken:  Cambodia.  Then I started researching Cambodia and sex trafficking and was horrified to learn that they did not have any laws specifically against child sex trafficking until 2010, which is why there are still some hotels that post signs saying,  ‘No child sex.’    I knew Maelea was from a poor village, so I looked up remote villages in Cambodia and discovered Anlong Veng. After researching the people there, and the culture, I knew that’s where Maelea was from.  Now, most of the trafficking takes place in the capital, but the most vulnerable are those facing desperation and that is usually those with little to no income or education. 


MJT: What research did you do to understand the life of Cambodian people and the nature of the treatment of the girls in the brothels?


TJ:  I read several books, including Half the Sky.   In addition, I tracked down experts in the field, like Nicholas Kristof, and read everything they wrote on the subject.  Then I watched videos of survivors speaking out.  I watched their body language.  I heard horror stories that gave me nightmares.  I had a friend who works with an organization in my hometown that rescues girls that are being trafficked, and I was able to talk with her.  The torture is what most upset me.  A survivor of childhood abuse myself, I could not wrap my mind around the unnecessary torture of the victims.  It isn’t necessary—a young girl who is raped multiple times a night, every night, will not be emotionally capable of running, especially if threats against her family or her life are added to the equation. Torture via electric shocks, isolation, whips or any other form simply isn’t necessary.  It’s just evil.  And my heart quite literally hurt after reading the stories and watching the  documentaries that showcased the survivors speaking.  After I had a good understanding of the brothels and how the perpetrators get their victims (trickery, lies, coercion, etc),  I started researching Cambodia.  While the city is mostly modernized, the outlying villages still retain old traditions, superstitions and beliefs that are fascinating.  I learned how they make a house. I learned why their houses are on stilts. I learned about the Nagas.  I researched things as simple as traditional fairy tales and as complex as dating rituals. I looked at hundreds of pictures and videos of the region and even made the one of Maelea’s home my screensaver on the desktop.   I even learned to speak certain phrases in their language, and listened to the audio recordings of them speaking repeatedly.  I also looked up and watched videos of games the schoolchildren would play.  Not because Maelea was going to play them, but because games tell about culture and values.  It was an interesting time, researching the people, history and land of Cambodia.  But it left me sad and hurting because of just how common this crime is there. 


MJT: What does Maelea’s dance represent?


TJ:   This is a fascinating question, to which there are multiple possible answers, depending on who you are as a reader.  For me,  Maelea’s dance represents freedom.  When she dances at home, it isn’t because she’s obligated to, it is because she wants to.  She feels an unspoken permission to act spontaneously.  She feels the freedom to let her body move without conscious thought;  she is happy and so she moves.  But after she is taken to the brothel, her body is stolen from her, repeatedly stolen.  Never again will she look at her own body in the same way.  Now, instead of an expression of joy, dance has become sexualized;  instead of allowing her body to move based on emotion, she is taught how to manipulate her body for the pleasure of the Dancing Man.  She doesn’t see her arms the same way, or her legs, or any other part of her body because suddenly the arms that once were held above her head with abandon are now like foreign instruments whose purpose must be controlled.  Dance is also a representation, therefore, of the innocence she loses. When she danced at home, no one was looking at her body and breathing heavily;  instead, everyone was clapping and laughing and smiling.  Dance wasn’t symbolic of anything then—it was free.  But the Dancing Man steals that from her.  He takes something clean and pollutes it.  Suddenly, Maelea feels like a stranger within her own skin;  she can feel herself being watched and now to raise her arms above her head is to “want” someone.   It represents the mind games that make rape so traumatizing.  Dance can also represent the loss of innocence.  Her life isn’t carefree before being sold;  her family is poor and food is scarce.  But within the confines of simplicity lay innocence.  She didn’t know what a “lollipop” was—neither the candy form or the other.  When she danced at home, she was innocent, there was no manipulation involved at all of her body.  But after the brothel,  she is forced to think about what her feet are doing, what her arms are doing, what her head is doing.  She isn’t innocent anymore because, like Eve upon eating the fruit, she was suddenly ashamed of her previously innocent actions. What had she done differently? Nothing. But that’s the lie of rape… that, even though you haven’t changed at all,  you are, overnight, guilty of something terrible.  No one knows what that something terrible is, really, only that whatever it is “deserves” terrible treatment.  When the perpetrators tell you,  “You look like a slut,”  suddenly, you remember how you held your arms above your head and danced and what they say sounds logical.  So you believe it. 


MJT: In Dance for Me Maelea expresses a very dim view of men, and the perspective is justified based on her experience. Is it possible for women like Maelea to see that not all men are like the ones she encountered? Does trust ever return?


TJ:  One of the survivors I watched tell her story was asked if she thought she would ever get married and her response was immediate and fierce:  “Oh no.  No.  I could never.”  Her reaction to the question stayed with me for a long time.  Will she never marry because she cannot trust a man or will she never marry because she doesn’t want to have sex anymore?  Or is that really the same question?  

Personally, I think yes, survivors can trust again, but it takes a lot of concentrated effort—not only on the part of the survivor, but also on the part of whomever it is seeking her trust.  Abuse clearly demonstrates that words are meaningless.  Abusers almost always promise things—school, flowers, forever—but when things don’t go as they planned, they turn on the ones they have sworn to love and those actions contradict flowery praise.  So then, once the survivor is out of the abusive situation and meets a man, any man,  she can’t just believe everything he says, no matter how wonderful – or how true – it may sound.  She is too afraid of finding herself ensnared again.  So she has to be shown.  Actions speak louder than words. How does this new man respond to stress?  Does he strike her?  Does he leave?  Does he yell?  Does he turn cold?  How does he take his anger out on her, or does he?   How does he react when she disagrees with him over anything? Does he criticize her?  Does he laugh at her, or make sarcastic remarks?  Or does he give her ideas merit by seriously engaging them.  That doesn’t mean he has to agree with her, but does he at least acknowledge her thoughts are just as valid as his?  If she is shown, over time, that he can be trusted, then it is possible for her to give it.   I was hurt as a child, for 11 years.  Today,  17 years later,  I truly trust only 3 men;  my pastor,  a male teacher who cared about me when I was in the middle of the abuse and one friend.  But, despite my caution and all the walls I have constructed, I can learn to trust you. 



MJT: One of the brilliant pieces of your story is the moral dilemma given to Maelea’s father. He has two daughters that he loves very much. He is confronted with a decision either let one daughter die or sell the other daughter in exchange for medical treatment. Why did he make the choice that he did? What does it say about his love for Maelea?


TJ:  The real question here is, did he know?  And  the story simply doesn’t say.  Maelea’s mother cries, she is clearly worried.  But that doesn’t mean she knew for sure where Maelea was going.  Perhaps they really believed Madam.  If they did really believe her, well, then, they weren’t sacrificing their daughter… they were securing a better future.  Was it wrong?  That’s a question only the parents can answer but I know that, even if my intentions were pure,  I would not be able to live with myself if I sent a daughter away for the sake of the other.  However,  if they really believed Madam and trusted that Maelea would be provided for, sent to school… then I wouldn’t have trouble questioning their love for her.   But… What if they did know?  What if they knew what was going to happen?  In this case, I have serious doubts that they understand what love is at all.  As Maelea fears in one part of the book,  what would happen if Mae got sick?  Would Eu sell Srey then?  See, once one does something previously thought impossible ,it becomes easier to do it again. 


Eu was desperate.   Desperate people do desperate things.  All he could see was the immediate danger of Srey dying.  His need for a resolution to that illness prevented him from seeing the long-term danger of Maelea dying an emotional death if not a literal one.  I like to believe that had he been capable of seeing how severe the danger was to Maelea, he would not have sold her. I like to believe his love for Maelea was genuine and deep; that he was just blinded temporarily by desperation. But doubts about his genuine love for his daughter is evident elsewhere in the novel.  For instance, if a parent truly loved their child, would the fact that she had been raped and deformed prevent him from welcoming her home with open arms?


MJT: Some of the scenes in the book were very difficult to read. How did you manage to write those scenes where extreme pain is inflicted on Maelea?


TJ:  Writing this book was the most emotionally draining and difficult thing I have done… possibly ever!  I literally could not sleep for crying.  I would lay awake, thinking about how the things I wrote just hours before, were really happening to someone right  now.  Not only that, but Maelea struck very raw nerves because she reminded me a lot of myself  as a teenager. This made it doubly hard. I honestly did not think I could finish the chapter in which she is deformed;  it took me days to finish that chapter because I simply couldn’t do it.  But the truth is, as difficult as it was for me to write it or for you to read it,  it is a thousand times more difficult for the victims to experience it.  It was very hard to write this book.  But it was just as necessary. 



MJT: The consistent theme in your novels involves the trauma of child abuse and the battle to heal the scars. Why is this the focal point of your work?


TJ:  I remember.  The mind-numbing terror.  The feel of ants in my skin.   The heaviness of someone hurting me.  The numbness.  I took brushes and quite deliberately made bruises on my skin because the reflection in  mirror did not match the horror I felt I really looked like.  The idea that children are hurting like that right this minute rips my heart out.  The idea that those same children truly believe they are totally alone in the world, and that no one else understands, lights a fire in me that nothing can match. Quite simply,  I cannot sit by and do nothing.  Initially,  writing was my way of healing personally.  I would write what I could not say.  I still do that.  But even after healing a great deal,  I still write about it, because I want children who are going through  now or adults who went through it at some point to know that someone else really does understand.  I want them to know it does not have to be, as Maelea described , “a death sentence.”  Hope.  I write about it because I am trying to offer hope—to those whose need it and to myself. 


MJT: If someone suspects a child is being sexually abused what should they do?


TJ:  Don’t talk yourself out of helping a child.  It’s easy to do.  It is easy to tell yourself you’re imagining things or that you shouldn’t interfere.  But 1 in 3 little girls and 1 in 5 little boys are sexually abused. If you don’t say anything, there is a distinct possibility you are allowing horror to remain a reality. If you speak up, but are wrong, nothing bad will happen.  No one even has to know it was you who spoke up.  But a child’s safety will be ascertained.  Even more than that, if you speak up and your suspicions are right,  you will have told a child:  “You matter.”   And that simple, unspoken statement is often enough to offer her enough hope to heal.  Call the authorities.


MJT: Are you available to speak to community or church about child abuse?


TJ:  Absolutely, and I’m not interested in speaking about child abuse for profit.  Anyone interested in hearing my story, or having speak about child abuse in general, is welcomed to e-mail me at tiffini@tiffinijohnson.com.  


MJT: If readers want to become involved in the fight against child abuse, either financially or by volunteering their services, what do you recommend them to do?


TJ:   CASA —  “Court Appointed Special Advocate” – is an organization that uses volunteers to act as advocates for children who have been removed from their parents’ care. Many of them have been abused.  As a CASA volunteer,  your job isn’t to determine where the child should be placed but rather to act as a friend/mentor/advocate for that child.   It is a fantastic organization,  one to which I have personally volunteered.   The website, casaadvocates.org can give more information.


As far as financial gifts go,  RAINN. RAINN stands for Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network.  They provide a 24/7 hotline and care for survivors through resources, their Speaker’s Bureau and a wide range of other, community-based outreaches.  You can locate their website at rain.org.


MJT: Where can we find your novels?


TJ:   Local bookstores in the Tennessee area like Parnassus and Landmark Booksellers shelf them, as do select retailers like Barnes and Noble.  All of the books are available world-wide on Amazon and my website, tiffinijohnson.com.  My blog, which I update regularly, contains multiple excerpts from each of the books and can be found at storiesthatmatterblog.com.  


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Please remember that during the month of December 2013, 30% of proceeds from sales will be divided between two charities that work to fight against abuse,  RAINN and the Abba House.   In addition,  anyone who purchases a book during the month of December will be entered into a drawing to win a free copy of their choice of the books!  You can purchase Dance For Me on here or at my website, tiffinijohnson.com